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Friday, March 30, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright Gets Stoned

People are proud of the strangest things.

For example, I am proud of the fact that I can touch my tongue to the bottom of my nose. While this may not actually be a true testament to the length of my tongue, it may indeed be a truer testament to the size of my nose.

Oh well... you know that they say about a guy with a big nose? "Hey, Big Nose!" Yeah, that's pretty much it. Despite growing up thinking my nose was big, I've since discovered that, relatively speaking, it's not.

Anyhow... I suppose that's why I am proud of the tongue to nose thing.

I am also proud of the town of Ōya... just on the outskirts of Utsunomiya, the capital city of Tochigi-ken.

While I have never actually visited Ōya (I don't believe so, anyway), I did live in Ohtawara-shi (City of Ohtawara) in the Prefecture of Tochigi in Japan. Yes... I'm proud of Ōya which happens to be in the same prefecture/province/state as where I once lived for three years.

Like I said, people are proud about strange things.
So... what's so special about Ōya? Well, if you've been paying attention the past week or so, you will have seen Ōya mentioned in two separate blogs: one involving LEGO and the other involving U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The common denominator - building materials!

As a building material, Ōya-ishi was famously used by Wright for his special building material in nearly all of his Japanese-built projects - perhaps most famously used in the old Imperial Hotel in Tokyo’s Hibiya district.

During the celebrations honoring the completion of the hotel, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck. While much of Tokyo was decimated (including another Wright creation, the Arinobu Fukuhara House in Hakone, that was completed in 1918), the Imperial Hotel survived for another 40 years. Read the article I wrote on Frank Lloyd Wright for a better understanding of what he did for architecture in Japan and conversely, how Japan revived his then-flagging career as an architect. The link (again) is HERE.

What is Ōya-ishi?

Ōya-ishi (大谷石 or Ōya stone) a igneous rock, created from lava and ash and is known as tuff:

Ōya-ishi was produced when the Japanese landmass rifted from the continent to form the archipelago, beginning around 20 million years ago. The quarry at Ōya-machi (Town of Ōya) near Utsunomiya-shi (Utsunomiya City), Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture), is one of the best known sources of tuff building stone in Japan. The underground mine is now disused and has been transformed into a museum.

Back to Frank Lloyd Wright... the use of Ōya-ishi is what characterizes Wright architecture in Japan.

However... originally, Wright was going to use a rock called hachi-no-su ishi from Shimane-ken (Shimane Prefecture), but there simply wasn't enough of it in Wright's mind, so he used his second choice of Ōya-ishi.

While Wright utilized Ōya-ishi for building exteriors, interior pillars, stairs and more, but it wasn't merely used as a simple stone... nope... he used it to carve in - in places - sophisticated designs of local plants, as a motif.

A lantern from Wright's Imperial Hotel with Oya stone covering terra cotta.
It was the softness and ease of carving that Wright enjoyed for decoration. The rock's texture featuring an uneven surface, and its warm brown colors always matched well with a Wright-designed building's exterior. As an added bonus, since the tuff rock was formed by volcanic activity over 200,000 years ago, the rock often contains bits of wood and seashells, adding to the charm of the buildings.

It enabled Wright to show off nature with his architecture quite easily.

Of course, Wright was not the first nor only person to use Ōya-ishi. For centuries, locals had been using the tuff to construct storehouses, walls, and gateposts because, despite its ease of carving, it is a durable rock.

The stones of Ōya Stone Mining was already popular in year 741.

The stone tower of Kokubunji Temple was built with Ōya-ishi. In year 810, Ōya Kannon was created on the cliffs of the Ōya-ishi.

Because tuff is an easily worked stone, it was cut to form blocks for walls, foundations and pavements, or carved into stone lanterns for gardens and animal guardians for shrines. Not until the Meiji period (1868 - 1912) did whole buildings begin to be made of tuff.

Wright, however, was the first architect to use it as a true building material. In fact during Wright's time in Japan between 1917 - 1922 (during the Taisho-jidai or Taisho era), granite was the most popular stone for building, so Wright's decision to utilize Ōya-ishi showed true originality.

What can one say about Wright except that he made the town of Ōya famous and helped drive up the price of the tuff rock, ensuring the miners there would get a bit more money but that locals might no longer be able to afford the stone to create a gatepost. 
Oya Heiwa-Kannon

Anyhow... Ōya-ishi is only found in an area four kilometers east-west by six kilometers north-south around Ōya, but there are reserves of some 600 million tons.

At the main Ōya-ishi mine, the cavern was used during WWII as a military storehouse. It was also used as a secret underground factory for the Nakajima Aircraft Co. and Zero fighters were built there.

After WWII, it was used to build stone walls and housing complexes throughout Japan.

But it's not just one cave the gives the Ōya tuff - there are over 100 locations around Ōya.

In the 1970s, about 120 companies mined nearly 900,000 tons a year, but demand plummeted when concrete became an affordable and popular substitute. Nowadays only 12 companies mine about 24,000 tons a year.

"In the old days, night and day without ceasing, trucks went by loaded with Ōya stone," says Tomura Kazusuke (surname first), 68, director of a local stone industry association, speaking wistfully of the past.

The cavern is also now used for concerts and for making films, as it has excellent acoustics. But... if you are seeing a concert there - bring a sweater! It's cavernous and cold, averaging about 8C.

Should you wish to visit the Ōya Museum (大谷資料館), the mine's cave of the of the Ōya Stone Mining (大谷採石場) you can get there from Utsunomiya-eki (Utsunomiya train station).  
Access: From Utsunomiya Station, take the Kanto Bus to Shiryokaniriguchi (about a 30 minute ride), and then you have a three-minute walk to the site.

Rock(et) on fellow Rifers! Enjoy the Wright stuff!

Files by Andrew Joseph 

1 comment:

  1. Did you ever get to Meiji Mura in Aichi-ken to see what was saved of Wright's Imperial Hotel?

    I first visited in 1979 when I was a sophomore in college. At that time I knew nothing of Japan and maybe less about Wright. Living in Tokyo a couple decades later, I used to have the occasional afternoon drink in the lobby bar at the current version of the Imperial. I do like the "new" hotel, and they made an attempt to honor the original, particularly in the bar, but none of it, and few Western-style buildings anywhere in Japan, hold a candle to the original Imperial Hotel.