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The Imperial Hotel, A Monument to Frank Lloyd Wright's Genius

Posted by George Pudlo on December 25, 2011 at 1:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Reinstallation of the Imperial Hotel entrance at the Meiji Mura Museum in Inuyana, Japan


In 1916, only two years after the Taliesin Tragedy, Frank Lloyd Wright traveled by ship to Tokyo, Japan, where he was requested by the Imperial Government to build the new Imperial Hotel. It was one of Wright's lengthiest commissions, and provided a therapeutic growth in light of the Taliesin Tragedy, while guiding him into the next phase of his career, the domestic use of concrete.


Wright was nothing but flattered when he received the commission for he so admired the Japanese way of living. He felt it was his mission to fuse the traditional Eastern way of living, with modern materials and technology from the West. One of the primary concerns Wright had when designing the Imperial Hotel, was to develop a  method of making the building resistant to earthquakes. Japan had suffered five major earthquakes in the previous two hundred years, and Tokyo was becoming a much more architecturally vulnerable city. Wright developed a method involving thousands of concrete slabs piled eight feet into the swamp-like earth of Tokyo, not unlike that of Chicago. 


The Imperial Hotel became more and more complex as the years began to pass. Concrete was used in construction in addition to a plethora of local materials, including terra cotta and oya- a soft, lava stone for carving detail. The 230 guest rooms were designed so that each room was different. The furniture of the hotel was designed with great care by Wright. He had to figure out how to organically persuade the Japanese away from their traditional ways of sitting on floors, to using chairs and tables in public spaces. Money was always an issue, but Wright always charmed his way into getting it from the Imperial Government. When it was finished, it immediately became a great monument of the city. The Imperial Hotel was fully realized by 1922; it became known locally as IMPEHO.


Wright was finally able to return to the United States, where his genius was requested in California. Several commissions came into Wright's office in the early 1920's for houses that became known as the concrete textile block homes, and his American profile began to diversify dramatically. These buildings were entirely different than the work Wright had done in the midwest with the Prairie Movement. They were according to their land in a new way, nestled temple-like in the Hollywood Hills, arranged in piles of hollow concrete blocks, lined against and stacked atop of one another with steel rods penetrating the hollow interiors. It was like a new kind of architectural textile. Wright had just completed Hollyhock and La Miniatura when he received news on September 1, 1923 of a devastating earthquake.


Nearly 100,000 people perished in the earthquake. It was the strongest earthquake on record until the recent 2011 earthquake in Japan, and remains the deadliest. Rumors in the United States surfaced almost immediately, and Frank Lloyd Wright was incorrectly notified by The Examiner at two in the morning that the Imperial Hotel had fallen. Wright said it was impossible, but the papers ran the story anyway, despite Wright's warnings that they would need to be retracted. Ten days later, Wright received a telegram from Tokyo:


TODAY HOTEL STANDS UNDAMAGED AS MONUMENT OF YOUR GENIUS HUNDREDS OF HOMELESS PROVIDED BY PERFECTLY MAINTAINED SERVICE CONGRATULATIONS SIGNED OKURA: IMPEHO


Wright's experimental methods of earthquake resistance with concrete and steel proved successful. The tensile strength of steel offered the rigid concrete a degree of flexibility. The Imperial Hotel was not built in the traditional post and beam construction method, but rather employed ideas from Frank Lloyd Wright's concept of Organic Architecture. There were seismic separation joints located along the building. The copper roof of the Imperial Hotel prevented traditional tiles from falling from above. The entrance pool, initially a big hurdle for Frank Lloyd Wright to overcome, became a tragic irony. The Baron Okura had initially refused to pay forty thousand yen for the pool which had no use. Frank Lloyd Wright refused to continue plans with the hotel and threatened to leave the project without approval for the pool. His objection for the pools removal was fueled by his earthquake resistance ideas. The pool, he argued, would offer a water source in case of a fire. In 1923, the pool was indeed used to put out fires related to the earthquake.


The Imperial Hotel was a highlight of Tokyo for decades, patronized by Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, among other celebrities. Frank Lloyd Wright adored his contribution to the Tokyo cityscape. But by the early 1960's, just a few years after Wright's passing, the hotel had fallen into utter disrepair. The building had settled more than three and a half inches over the previous four decades. In a Time Magazine article from 1967 entitled Architecture: Down Comes The Landmark, a visitor of the hotel was quoted saying the hotel is now "hideous, inconvenient, inadequate and a depressing eyesore." The then approaching 1970 World's Fair in Tokyo affirmed the decision to demolish the hotel for a larger replacement. The proposed demolition met with protest from fans of the building, including Olgivanna Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright's widow, then in her seventies. 


The protests were of no avail, and the Imperial Hotel was demolished. By 1968, construction began on the site of the former Frank Lloyd Wright designed Imperial Hotel for its 1,000 room replacement. The only portion of the hotel that was preserved was the central lobby and reflective entrance pool. They were reinstalled in the Meiji Mura Museum in Inyuama, Japan.





Preserved lantern from Imperial Hotel. Terra cotta and Oya (lava stone). 





   

"Peacock Chair" designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Imperial Hotel, 1921-22.

Oak and synthetic leather upholstery. 


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