Workers Are Tearing Down Tokyo's Hotel Okura, And History's Going With It

Workers Are Tearing Down Tokyo's Hotel Okura, And History's Going With It

12:21pm Oct 12, 2015
The entrance to the main building of Japan's iconic Hotel Okura in Tokyo. An outcry from architectural preservationists couldn't stop the demolition to make way for a high-rise tower.
AFP/Getty Images

In Tokyo, workers have started tearing down a Japanese landmark — the Hotel Okura. The Okura is a treasure of 1960s modernist design and has hosted every American president since Richard Nixon, Hollywood royalty and actual royalty.

"The service there is something very special. The lobby attendants, the women in their kimonos, the men in their tuxes," says former U.S. ambassador John Roos, who served in Japan during President Obama's first term. "It's a place that people from all over the world have come to stay and to admire."

But it's the Japanese modernist design — evocative of a timeless cool — that led historical preservationists and architecture lovers around the world to try to keep the main building from undergoing demolition, which is now under way.

Built just in time for Tokyo to host the 1964 Summer Olympics, the Hotel Okura helped make the city shine. The main building's unique modernist design is an architectural snapshot in time — paper screens, pendant lights, warm wood.

"I'm a little bit afraid, for the Japanese modernist architecture with the [2020 Summer] Olympic Games coming up," said Tomas Maier, the chief designer at Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta. He made a video as part of a campaign to try to keep the Okura's main building from being torn down. Maier wasn't alone. Guests from around the world shared memories of moments at the Okura and signed online petitions to try to keep the structure intact. Maier made his case in The Wall Street Journal:

"In Japan, the instinct to preserve modern architecture is not part of the society. We don't have the same problem with mid-century buildings as much in the United States. In the States, it would be like tearing down really important landmarks, such as the Marcel Breuer building that formerly housed the Whitney [Museum of American Art], or Philip Johnson's Glass House or Frank Lloyd Wright's [Solomon R.] Guggenheim [Museum]."

But these days only construction are workers allowed in Okura's main building, which is fenced off by barricades. With more rooms needed for the 2020 Games, simple economics fueled the decision to demolish and replace the building with two glass towers — one of them 41 floors.

"We hope guests will look forward to the new buildings with lots of expectation. I'm very sure it will be a luxury hotel that's distinct from other hotels in Japan," said Okura's general manager, Akira Nishimura.

The new, 550-room hotel will reopen in 2019, just in time for the Summer Olympics. The new incarnation will also be carefully designed, by the original architect's son.

"We'll be keeping our Japanese atmosphere and beauty," Nishimura says.

The hotel also promises to maintain the quality of service. That — Ambassador Roos says — can't be easily demolished. And he remembers it well. When the ambassador left Japan, the Okura gave him a streetside sendoff.

"As we were driving out of the driveway, the entire staff of the Okura was out on the street, waving American flags, to say goodbye to the American ambassador," Roos recalls.

Now it's time for the hotel to go. And with it, a distinctive piece of Tokyo's design history goes with it.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Tokyo, workers have begun tearing down a Japanese landmark, the Hotel Okura. The Okura is a treasure of 1960s modernist design. And it's hosted every American president since Richard Nixon. But as NPR's Elise Hu reports, it's being replaced for the 2020 Olympics.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: A hotel is never a home. But for so many guests who stayed at the Hotel Okura, it sure felt close.

JOHN ROOS: The service there is something very special and, you know, the lobby attendants, the women in their kimonos, the men in their tuxes.

HU: John Roos was American ambassador to Japan for President Obama's first term.

ROOS: It's a place that people from all over the world have come to stay. For those people who watch shows like "Mad Men," a very similar type atmosphere.

HU: Only 11 stories tall, it's an architectural snapshot in time, paper screens, pendant lights, warm wood. But a lot of that midcentury, modern atmosphere will soon disappear. The plan is to replace the main building with two gleaming glass towers, one of them 41 floors.

AKIRA NISHIMURA: Yes, please look around.

HU: We're in Okura's Imperial Suite with general manager Akira Nishimura. The suite, found in the hotel's south wing, is serving as a temporary bar during this major renovation.

Paul McCartney slept here.

NISHIMURA: Yes, yes.

HU: So did Hollywood royalty and actually royalty. Built just in time for Tokyo to host 1964 Olympics, the Okura helped make the city shine. In 2020, the city will play host once again.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

TOMAS MAIER: I'm a little bit afraid, actually, for the Japanese modernist architecture with the Olympic Games coming up.

HU: That's Tomas Maier, the chief designer at Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta. He made the video you're hearing as part of a campaign to try and keep the Okura from being torn down. He wasn't alone. Guests from around the world signed online petitions in an effort to preserve the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MAIER: Well, I think it's very important to maintain this. I think this is what makes up for the face of a city. You know, this is what makes the difference.

HU: But these days, it's only construction workers allowed in the main building, which is fenced off by barricades. With more rooms needed for the Olympics, simple economics fueled the decision to demolish and replace it. GM Nishimura.

NISHIMURA: (Through interpreter) We hope guests will look forward to the new buildings with a lot of expectation. I'm very sure it will be a luxury hotel that's distinct from other hotels in Japan.

HU: The new, 550-room hotel towers will reopen in 2019. The towers will also be carefully designed by the original architect's son. Again, Nishimura.

NISHIMURA: We'll be keeping our Japanese atmosphere and beauty.

HU: They also promise to maintain the quality of service. That, Ambassador Roos says, can't be easily demolished.

ROOS: The courteousness of the staff, from top to bottom, I know they'll keep that.

HU: He remembers it well. When the ambassador left Japan, the Okura gave him a street-side sendoff.

ROOS: As we were driving out of the driveway, the entire staff of the Okura was out on the street, waving American flags to say goodbye to the American ambassador.

HU: Now it's time for the old hotel to go, and a distinctive piece of Tokyo's design history goes with it. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station