Search This Blog & Get A Rife

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright And Japan

Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) is one of the most famous architects of the 20th century, recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as the greatest American architect of all time.

Even I—with little to zero knowledge of architecture except that I know what I like—has heard of this guy. I had assumed, of course, that since he was such a great architect, that he was probably some old boring guy who spent his life with his nose stuck pressed down on a drafting table.

I was wrong, proving once again that one can not simply judge a house by its exterior. Let's examine just why
I have decided to write about a famous American architect in a blog dedicated to Japan.

Wright actually lived in Japan between 1917-1922, and Japan was where and when his commissions for projects in the country helped revive his career, as before this, his star had been fading.  

Born with the middle name Lincoln (not Lloyd) on June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959, he designed over 1,000 structures and saw over 500 completed works. His design style was to create a structure that was "in harmony with humanity and its environment" - a style he called organic architecture.  A perfect example of this is the highly impressive Fallingwater, built in 1935.

I have to admit I knew nothing visually of Frank Lloyd Wright's actual works until I saw a LEGO version of Fallingwater and wondered if I should buy a kit of the most beautiful building I had ever seen. Too rich for my blood, but - yowza. This building has been called "the best all-time work of American architecture".

Fallingwater Lego - free-made, not a kit.

Anyhow... Wright was a bit of a character. He screwed around on his wife - fairly openly, in fact. A fact that seems to scream - Hey! Are you Japanese?! Thus, it might not come as any surprise to learn that Wright held a deep fascination for Japan, its architecture and artwork via ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock art prints).

Wright was first introduced to and became interested in Japanese culture, art and architecture when he visited the 1893 Chicago World Fair (also known as the World's Columbian Exposition, as it celebrated Christopher Columbus' 400th anniversary of 'discovering' North America - which of course he didn't. Not only did he not hit the continent, he missed out by nearly 500 years and Leif Ericson's viking trip).

The fair had an impressive Japanese Pavilion, which Wright later said was profoundly influential on him. The pavilion contained a wood version of the Byodo-in temple near Kyoto. This copy was built by Okura Co., who would one day work with Wright on projects with him in Japan.

After this exposure to Japanese culture, Wright became an enthusiastic collector of ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) and textiles - which this blog can only assume meant kimono. It was only a matter of time before he would have to travel to Japan to see the country with his own eyes, visiting in February of 1905.

Already a well-known and respected architect back in the U.S., Wright was highly interested in Japanese architecture, specifically its use of space - not to mention the artistic style of composition found in the better ukiyo-e.

On his travels, Wright became fascinated with the Higashi-Hongan-ji temple in Nagoya. He also  loved to examine smaller and less well-known homes and temples in Japan, because he felt each possessed a style that did not look like it was trying to be commercial. No posers.

Frank Lloyd Wright (left) in Kamakura, Japan.
He loved the horizontal layout of Japanese buildings, offering simplicity, monumentality, and, of course,  horizontality. Even after his return home from Japan, these main principles continued to guide and inspire him.

Apparently Wright thought that the conceptual framework within which Japanese buildings were designed and constructed was terrific. He felt that for the native Japanese, their buildings were not seen as frozen in a specific time or place, which smacked in the face of Western architecture which always looked at conservation and reconstruction.

Wright believed that there was no physical attachment for the Japanese towards a building, as they would always see it in a state of transformation. It was his belief - probably one shared to him by Japanese architects, that a building could be reconstructed hundreds and thousands of times over but would still be considered the same building, albeit in a different phase.

Along with the architecture, Wright closely examined Japanese nature, such as the low trees and forests, and, of course, the highly organized Japanese gardens.

Combining all of these elements was something that drove his own work... creating what some call a community between the inside and outside... or the relationship between home and garden. The idea was that nature — like architecture itself — could be reduced to its basic geometric elements of line and shape.

Wright favored natural, local materials, warm earth tones, human scale and integration of interior and exterior, all of which fit with Japanese tradition. He "borrowed landscape", using windows or doorways like picture frames—a concept the Japanese call shakkei. Even his fascination with geometric shapes is in keeping with the rectangular straw tatami mat, the base of Japan's traditional architecture.

But his open plans, where space flows from room to room, are completely outside Japanese tradition, as he fused eastern and western styles.

For the Japanese market, Wright designed a total of 14 structures, and had six constructed.

Completed projects: 
  • Imperial Hotel, Tokyo - built between 1912-1922. Okura Co., who had built that copy of the temple where Wright had first become entwined in Japanese culture, financed the Imperial Hotel project. Company head Okura Kihachiro (surname first), believed in this project despite criticisms as mounting construction costs hit a then-extraordinary $3-million. The Imperial Hotel survived the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 that decimated Tokyo, but was demolished in 1968 due to urban developmental pressures. The main lobby exterior and interior was transported to Meiji Mura, an architecture theme park near Nagoya. The Old Imperial Bar in the current Imperial Hotel retains some of Wright's original design. 

    • Aisaku Hiyashi House, Tokyo, 1917. This was Wright's  first residential project outside North America. It was designed for the hotel manager of Imperial Hotel Hayashi Aisaku (surname first). No longer open to the public because it is privately-owned, it has been repeatedly remodeled over the years with only the living room still bearing Wright's vision.  

      • Arinobu Fukuhara House, Hakone, 1918. This is a late-Prairie-style home built for the Fukuhara Arinobu (surname first) family, who was the founder of cosmetic giant Shiseido. Built in 1920, the home was a two story building made of oya stone (more on that component in another blog shortly) and stucco that was the first time Wright combined eastern and western styles. The front hall led to an inner atrium that had a hot spring pool in the center that was surrounded by a flower garden. Because the home was near the epicenter of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the ground beneath the living room collapsed and took the whole villa down with it.

          • Tazaemon Yamamura House, Ashiya, 1918. This place was a summer home for sake brewer Yamamura Tazaemon (surname first) and was not finished until six years after Wright designed it, finishedin 1924 two years after he had left Japan. The house is in a hilltop and looks out at Kobe port. It has four levels, but none is taller than two stories. It too is built utilizing blocks of oya stone.This villa is open to the public on certain days.  

            • Imperial Hotel Annex, Tokyo, 1920. This drawing is pretty much all that exists of Wright's vision for this building. Apparently there was an electrical fire at the old imperial Hotel Annex in 1919 which burned the building to the ground. Wright and his crew stopped construction on the Imperial Hotel (another reason why that one took so long to build), in order to construct a new Imperial Hotel Annex. Wanting to do it quickly so they could get back to work on the Imperial Hotel, the Annex is relatively simple and does NOT contain Wright's usual flair or style as you can see from the diagram above. This new Annex took a mere five months to build and was a simple two-story square wooden building with an interior garden. It burned down from fire caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

            • Jiyu Gakuen School Myonichikan, Tokyo, 1921. This was a Christian school run by Hani Motoko and Hani Yoshikazu (surnames first) and was known as the "House of Tomorrow". I have previously written about it HERE in a recent blog I did about a LEGO voting contest, so I'll borrow from it again. The Myonichikan consists of four buildings; the main, the east, and the west buildings and the auditorium. The main building stands with the two classroom buildings to the west and the east forming a U-shape. Constructed of 2 x 4 wood and plaster, Jiyu Gakuen featured a central section with double-height volume and soaring windows facing south onto an open courtyard, with symmetrical wings on the east and west. It was built to child scale, with an architectural richness belying its budget. Myonichikan is also given a Japanese touch by Wright's extensive use of gray-green oya stone from the town of Oya near the capital city of Utsunomiya in Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture) for pavements, columns and the lanterns standing in the corridors. 
            Of the six buildings built, only two remain: Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan; and Tazaemon Yamamura House.

            Designed, but not built:
            1)  U.S. Embassy (Project), Tokyo, 1914
            2) Odawara Hotel (Project), Odawara, 1917
            3) Ginza Motion Picture Theater (Project), Tokyo, 1918
            4) Mihara House (Project), Tokyo, 1918
            5) Tadashiro Inoue House (Project), Tokyo, 1918
            6) Shimpei Goto House (Project), Tokyo, 1921
            7) Prime Minister's Residence (Project), Tokyo, 1922
            8) Hibiya Triangle Building (Project), Tokyo, 1922

            Wright And Pictures Of The The Floating World
            Ukiyo-e are known as glimpses into the floating world...  and Wright absolutely loved them and admitted it affected his artistic style of design.
            "I remember when I first met Japanese prints, I'll never forget it," said Wright. "Japanese art had a great influence on my feeling and thinking... I began to see nature in a totally different way."

            “The pursuit of the Japanese print became my constant recreation while in Tokio…The adventures and excursions would take place at night or sometimes call for a journey by day to distant places in search of them. Endless the fascination of the quest.” 

            Along with influencing his artistic skills, ukiyo-e also helped finance his goal of living in excess. Wright always tried to live large, and successfully did so - often living beyond his means. To help, whenever the debts became too large, he would dip into his substantial collection of ukiyo-e and sell them. In fact, Wright became well known as a dealer in ukiyo-e - especially when he lived in Japan between 1917-1922.

            Back in the U.S., Wright's collection of ukiyo-e was destroyed in a fire on April 20, 1925 at his Tailesin II home - a loss that he estimated for the prints alone at $250,000 to $500,000. And that was in 1925 dollars!

            Oh yeah... I've heard that he also wrote a book on Japanese ukiyo-e, but I can not confirm that! The two images above the covers of a pair of  Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly's published in the 1990s.

            Then, continuing his second business as an ukiyo-e art art dealer, he was accused of selling re-touched art... a rumor (true or not) that killed this career. Combined with his way of living beyond his means (join the club, eh), he lost his home Tailesin III,  he was forced by the courts to pay off his debt by selling the remainder of his ukiyo-e collection to collector Edward Burr Van Vleck for $1 each - a ridiculously low price considering this was still four years before the stock market crash!

            When Wright died at the age of 92 in 1959 after a lot of money problems (much of it also brought upon himself by his obsessive desire to purchase ukiyo-e), he still had over 6,000 ukiyo-e prints in his collection. These prints were sold off by his widow during the 1960s.

            While I did mention it, this blog has chosen NOT to focus on his womanizing or his failure to hold on to money. It really does have nothing to do with his relationship with Japan (despite what I might write over the next few paragraphs), and should do nothing to take away from his skill at creating exceptional structural designs. 

            Anyhow... that's pretty much it for Frank Lloyd Wright's association with Japan. Pretty minor, eh? Not! All Japan did was inspire his architectural designs; give him a second career as an authority and dealer in ukiyo-e; revive his flagging architect career; help him pay off his debt through the sale of his ukiyo-e collection after living excessively. 

            In return, Wright ate a lot of sushi, drank a lot of sake, and one can assume since he was a hound, screwed a lot of Japanese women.

            He also influenced a generation of Japanese architects, and had a plethora of apprentices and followers who designed many more structures in Japan based on his style. I know, I know... it's not the same as having your own building designed by a brilliant whoring architect, but it is probably an affordable alternative.

            In central Tokyo alone are 26 buildings directly related to Wright, though most are not open to the public.

            However, presented for your visitation, along with the two actually Wright building's still standing (Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan in Tokyo and Tazaemon Yamamura House near Kobe) you can see his follower's work at: Sapporo Beer Co.'s Lion Beer Hall, Ginza district of Tokyo; Christian Literature Society and the American Bible Society, two connected buildings designed in 1926; Miharabashi Center Building was designed in 1952; and Yamamura House (now the Yodoko Guest House) at the foot of the Rokko mountain range in Ashiya near Kobe.

            Files compiled by Andrew Joseph


            1. Nice post...Too bad the Imperial hotel was wiped out and the original designs and works not incorporated into the new. Now when you go to the hotel you can see fragments saved and on display but such a loss!

            2. Yeah.... it is too bad. Not Japan's fault, though... back in the 50s and 60s every country not in Europe was doing the same - out with the old, in with the new. Having said that, it still surprises me to find 500-yr-old temples in Japan, and looking as nice as the day it was first opened. Hell... in Toronto people used to ooooh and ahhhh because my old house was over 100 years old. In Japan, despite earthquakes, tsunami, and fire, 100 years is fairly common - at least outside of Tokyo... and Kobe...

              1. Here is a link to the surviving entrance / lobby - Did not know this museum (Museum Meiji Mura - existed. Thanks again for the post - now I have a new place to go and check out in Japan (besides just the Mos Burgers and bars where pretty women are!!! :-)

              2. I'm there with you at the bars - but Mosburger - do pretty women hang out there, too? Just the ones with taste... but do I want a woman with good taste or one who tastes good?

            3. Hadn't visited for a while, so I'm just now catching up with the FLW post.

              Another spot that flies under the radar is Sapporo's Lion Beer Hall on the Ginza (I only discovered the place by accident). Not designed by Wright but a student of his.

              There isn't a single decent photo that I've ever seen on the web and Sapporo is too stupid, apparently, to promote what should be it's flagship, crown jewel location.


              1. Hi Jefferey, Thanks for writing. Yeah, I knew about the Sapporo Hall... but when writing this I was afraid to be called a poser I mentioned it and posted a pic (never looked) of the Hall just in case it wasn't representative of the Wright style. I think there are some 20 buildings in Japan with architecture designed by Wright's students. Maybe I'll do a spot on the Wright students - but only if I can find drawings or adequate photos to back the detailed information.