The Beauty of the Imperial Hotel

The preserved but relocated lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel (1923)


Having grown up in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, with parents attentive to the arts, I remember visiting the Imperial Hotel on several occasions. It was a favorite place for my parents in the 1960’s, to go for dinner and dancing given the fine hotel orchestra. In connection with family visits there, I first became aware of some legendary aspects of Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation as an architect, and his penchant for self-promotion. As one wag has said, ‘he was by his own admission the world’s greatest architect!’ And yet, with some artists and architects, pride sometimes reflects aspects of correct perception.

The Imperial Hotel project for Wright came at a particularly fortunate time, following a series of misadventures and personal tragedies. Offered the opportunity to design what would become the second Tokyo Imperial Hotel, replacing the largely wooden original in 1917, Wright embraced the project and designed a building that might provide a hybrid between Eastern and Western aesthetics. Having first visited Japan in 1905, he was becoming known as an emerging connoisseur of Japanese woodblock prints.

Among the features of Wright’s remarkable Imperial Hotel, which continue to evoke interest to this day, were the textured bricks Wright designed to provide pattern and a distinctive character to the exterior and interior surfaces of the building. Through my parents’ friendship with some former hotel staff, I have one of these bricks.

Here is an example:

The most notable feature of the hotel was Wright’s ingenious response to the challenge of designing a large project in an area quite vulnerable to earthquakes. With more than 60′ of spongy material between the ground surface, and any subterranean rock upon which to anchor a foundation, in a city adjacent to a large bay and the sea, Wright settled upon a unique solution. Just as an experienced restaurant waiter might carry a selection of plates and dishes upon a large tray, Wright proposed to ‘float’ his hotel upon a huge concrete slab. Astonishingly, on the very day of its opening, September 1, 1923, the great Kanto earthquake struck Tokyo, destroying much of the city, accompanied by extensive fires. Wright’s hotel survived largely intact, establishing the genius of his design, and his providential provision of large water features around the property helped not only to save the hotel, but other buildings in the area.

Here is an early, color-retouched, view of the site:

Sadly, Wright’s Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1968. This amazing structure had withstood the Kanto earthquake as well as the later fire-bombing of Tokyo in World War II. Despite its incredible beauty and innovative engineering, it could not compete with hotels built to more modern standards of efficient design and construction, with its by-then antiquated plumbing and electrical infrastructure, as well as its dated room sizes and land-use configuration. Here is a view of the interior of the original lobby area. Walking through this space as a child was nothing short of inspiring:

And here is a view of the original lounge bar, preserved within the later Imperial Hotel as I remembering seeing it about 20 years ago:

Very happily, the entrance court and lobby of the hotel, as depicted in the upper photo, was preserved and rebuilt at the Meiji Mura Architectural Museum, in Nagoya, Japan. I hope some day once again to visit what remains of this beloved building.


Note: in my view, one of Lego’s finest architectural reproduction kits is that of FL Wright’s Tokyo Imperial Hotel entrance and lobby. I enjoyed assembling it helped by my Lego-savvy grandson, James, using a set involving about 1,000 plastic bricks remarkably similar to those Frank Lloyd Wright designed about 100 years ago.  {PS – bought the kit, used status, on ebay / no commercial connection implied here}

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