Architecture

A Patio Project by My Brother, with a Good Neighbor’s Help

Building the frames for the concrete edging

 

The project continues, as does the seemingly ceaseless rain! Living near the Gulf of Mexico in the summer brings the possibility of lingering low pressure cells, sometimes dropping inch-an-hour rain. We have entered that middle stage of a project where we have done enough so far to prevent turning back, and yet not far enough along to have confidence about the intended result.

80 pound bags of Quikrete are not easy to lift and move around, and are far more challenging to handle than individual stone pavers. And three cubic yards of ‘gravels and fines’ (perhaps about 5 tons!), brought here to south Louisiana by barge, must be moved from the driveway out front to the new patio out back. In the midst of these considerations, a 9″diameter trunk magnolia had to come down because its roots had already compromised the prior patio. We accomplished that mostly by using a handsaw, but the providential appearance of a neighbor with a chainsaw helped us take care of the hardest and last part of that task.

The magnolia on its way down! (the debris in the roof valley is coming down, as well)

Another confidence-building point has been the kind help provided by our thoughtful next door neighbor, who volunteered to drive his Bobcat small tractor to assist us. In the process of helping clear the area for the new patio, as well as to move the gravel around to the back, we made a discovery. A very large, 80-100′ ancient pine tree had also intruded roots under the whole area of the old patio, and needed to be removed. Below is a photo of the guy who climbed that tall old tree to achieve its removal.

Having cleared the trees and roots, we have continued to deal with the challenge of almost daily heavy rains. Though my brother very carefully provided a packed gravel base for the new patio, heavy rain flooded the area. His good work enabled him to put in a wooden framework for the concrete edge of our intended project, and has allowed us to begin pouring new cement into it.

My brother’s self-taught knowledge of landscaping has helped him know how to prepare a proper foundation for pouring cement in this way, including how to handle rebar. The photo below shows how he has carefully anticipated a pour that we intended to make this afternoon.

As we began to pour fresh cement, the rain (of course) began again:

More to follow!

The Beauty of a Brother’s Skills

Before: a patio needing to be replaced!

 

Having planned to be away to be with her sister for a week, my wife suggested that I might invite one of my brothers to visit during this time. Greg lives in the far Northwest on Puget Sound, and is an adept self-taught home landscaper as well as builder. The opportunity for a visit coincided with an opportunity to address a need. We have a patio that has become compromised by tree roots as well as a lack of a durable foundation.

Attracted by the beauty of a new patio, but daunted by the prospect of achieving it, I wondered. But Greg not only came for a good visit, he brought his cement finishing tools with him. Ok – game on! If you have been fortunate to have one or more siblings like I have, you may appreciate how wonderful it is to have someone with whom you have grown up be a continuing part of your journey toward wholeness.

This week I would like to share with you the beauty of my own experience of having a sibling who is more skilled at doing some things that I only imagine, and wish I could do myself. Yes, sibling relationships may sometimes be complicated. But there are certain treasures to be found in those relationships that friendships with others can fall short of discerning or attaining.

The former patio flagstones and pea gravel removed

What I marvel at is my brother’s ability to conceive of the broad parameters of a project, from the initial stage outward to the desired result. A couple of outings to nearby large-box hardware and supply stores provided me/us with needed tools, materials, and a slight boost in confidence (for me). We all want dream results, while most of us don’t really want to pay for them!

But the real boost in confidence came with the next step. A good friend of one of my sons recommended a vendor for varieties of landscape stone. This was somewhat unexpected in our part of south Louisiana, where all the soil that exists is essentially alluvial, and where no natural or native stone is generally found. Here, we live upon the deposit of thousands if not millions of years of transposed and deposited soils from Montana (via the Missouri), Minnesota (via the Mississippi), the states between them, along to the rivers’ combined outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of us. And so, we found these attractive paving stones (below) in the discount area of a local vendor, where large pallets of multi-sized pavers had been picked through, and where – perhaps- enough leftover pieces for our smaller project might be found. They were!

Some of the new ‘pavers’ adjacent to the removed flagstone

Having priced the general market for such stones, we had found a deal. But beyond that welcome result, I find myself most grateful for my brother’s discernment about which blocks on the ‘discount’ pallets were worth obtaining, and those which might not meet our expectations for final appearance quality.

The project continues despite frequent and heavy Louisiana summer rains!

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

 

The Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, NYC (1959)

 

What a wonder it is, sitting there so apparently out of sync with its neighboring buildings. Instead, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum seems to reach out toward the great park across the avenue. Critics sometimes lament the museum’s apparent disconnect with its context. Yet, others – I among them – rejoice at that discontinuity, given its so many linear, box-like surrounding buildings. When commissioned to add a companion tower adjacent to Wright’s spiral masterpiece, rather than compete with it, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates produced an astute counterpoint in a large rectangular structure with a neutral limestone facade. The tower beautifully keeps our focus on the lyrical curving form of the original museum, as well as expresses continuity with nearby buildings.

Like many, I find when visiting this building a remarkable refreshment of spirit, and experience within it an enhanced sense of life. For the museum provides a context fitting our inclination toward what is spiritual, not merely to what is material. As with the earlier precedents of Wright’s Unity Temple, Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax headquarters, Racine, it surely has to do with Wright’s attention to natural illumination from skylights. Whether or not one walks from the top level down at the Guggenheim, as Wright envisioned, or from the ground level up, the visitor’s eyes are drawn up within the swirling interior space to the light above, gracing the whole through the great oculus of the circular skylight.

An evident facet of this highly sculptural building stems from its late 1950’s time of construction – how the exterior walls of the concrete spiral ramps reveal a degree of unevenness in their outward surfaces (top photo). This was and is a humanly made building, reflecting our highest aspirations in terms of design while also some of the limits of our historic craftwork with materials.

Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is appropriately ranked among examples of world-class architecture. Both lauded and criticized at the time of its opening, it has taken decades to be matched by the work of another master of the medium, Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. Like Wright, he could envision and then design structures exploring the plasticity of modern materials and building methods. It is well to recall that Wright was in his 70’s when he began to create the plan for the Guggenheim (in 1943), and near his 92nd birthday when it was completed in 1959, delayed by the postwar recession.

Guggenheim Museum, Interior View (note the red Calder mobile)

Paul Horgan, while reflecting on the buildings of John Gaw Meem, offered words I find so fitting to Wright’s achievement on Fifth Avenue. “As one of the only great arts to offer physical shelter not only to [our] works but also to [our] spirit, architecture can convey directly the sense of an enclosing confirmation of [our human] desire to believe in a sustaining power beyond [ourselves].” With the Guggenheim, Wright not only achieved a magnificent context for the display of art, but also created what has become “a temple for the human spirit” (a phrase used in the terms of his commission).

This building does not stand alone. An amazing aspect of Wright’s architectural career is not only that he had the visionary imagination to conceive of so many remarkable structures, the audacity to commend them to potential clients, and the providential support for his proposals from so many well-funded benefactors.

With the Guggenheim, beauty ‘incarnate’ is embodied in construction materials and in a form that transcends what we typically expect now in architecture. Here we encounter a building that nurtures aspiration for what may be next in life. It may even prompt an unexpected experience of hope and joy for what it means to be human.

 

Meem and Territorial Revival Style

La Quinta, Interior Courtyard and Pool, 1938

La Quinta, Exterior

John Gaw Meem’s appreciation for and promotion of the Spanish Pueblo Revival approach to architectural design is closely associated with what many call the Santa Fe Style. Yet, as early as the late 1920’s, Meem is also credited with initiating another style, Territorial Revival, which also became prevalent in the city and region. While continuing to use wall surfaces and color tones suggestive of adobe, Meem and his associates began to introduce into their building designs some Greek Revival features that date back to the late 18th and 19th centuries. As we see in the photos of La Quinta, above, among these features are a return to an evident employment of symmetry, the specification for lintels above windows and doorways, and often with triangular pediments. Also, instead of untreated wood or dark stained columns we find Meem choosing whitewashed uprights matching a similar choice for window trim as well as for the doors.

A good example of Meem’s transition to this Territorial Revival style can be seen in the details of the porch area of  the 1928 Conkey Residence (below). Though painted a teal color, the windows have received their triangular pediments, and we see ornamental detailing on the shutters as well is in the scrollwork forming a porch rail. These features, as well as those noted above, characterize a move away from his more imitative Pueblo style and indicate a preference, likely influenced by some clients, to incorporate architectural elements suggesting an increased formality and an evident dialogue with earlier and classically inspired design.

Meem’s first public building employing this style was the Federal Emergency Recovery Act building (below, 1934), funded by the Depression era Works Project Administration. Similar to the slightly later La Quinta, we notice the brick cornice aligning the top edges of the exterior walls, similar to interior crown molding, which also echoes an aspect of classically inspired design.

Federal Emergency Recovery Act Building, 1934

Meem’s approach to architecture, with both his Spanish Pueblo Revival and his Territorial Revival styles, might suggest an anti-modernist rejection of contemporary European inspired design principles in favor of an adherence to an evident regionalism. Yet, Meem contended that his architectural work effectively blended aspects of modern architecture with a sensitivity to both local history and contextually appropriate materials. Even when working with concrete for the Colorado Springs Art Center, perhaps his most International School-looking building (which evokes European modernism / featured in a prior post), Meem sought out a formula for the poured mix that would render the color of the walls a warm cream tone instead of a cool gray.

Santa Fe County Courthouse (1939)

Meem’s Santa Fe County Courthouse (depicted above) reflects an interesting hybrid between the Spanish Pueblo Revival and the emerging Territorial Revival styles. There are marked outward similarities between this structure and his earlier pueblo style buildings and yet also some rather divergent details. This view of the building’s courtyard entrance (recently restored) reflects a creative blend of influences, including historic pueblo buildings, a Spanish design sensibility, and yet also a nod to modernism, most evident in the massing of structural forms as well as in the turquoise clad windows punctuating the walls of the side wings.

John Gaw Meem’s Churches


Cristo Rey Church, Santa Fe (exterior / front entrance)

 

John Gaw Meem, some of whose public works I featured last week, was the son of an Episcopal priest and professor who also served as a missionary in Brazil. When discerning his vocation as an architect, Meem was drawn to projects involving the design and construction of new churches as well as the preservation and renovation of historical examples. With his churches, he most clearly demonstrated his early commitment to Spanish Pueblo Revival architectural design. Numerous examples exist, but here I would like to focus on a few key projects that well represent his approach.

A memorable instance is his Cristo Rey (Roman Catholic) church (1940). The solid massive forms of the asymmetrical towers abutting the entrance portal contrast nicely with the detailed attention to pattern and ornament in the woodwork between them. This is evident both on the door as well as in the porch and the corbeled beam above it, which in turn supports the vigas (or exposed beam ends).

Cristo Rey Church, Santa Fe (interior)

The interior of the church is just as evocative, which provided a new context for an historic altar reredos of carved stone. Not only does this 20th century building complement the centuries older altarpiece, Meem’s attention to lighting is particularly effective. A skylight or window above helps illuminate the textured form of the stone carving, while also drawing attention to the area upon which the liturgy is focussed.

Below are two churches Meem designed for the wider region around Santa Fe and to the west of Albuquerque, at roughly the same time.

Saint Anne and Santo Tomas churches, thanks to Stanford Lehmberg’s, Churches for the Southwest

With these two examples, we see very similar features to what we find in Cristo Rey, albeit in more rural circumstances. Cristo Rey, and Santo Tomas in particular, display an homage to the exterior form of the historic church at Ranchos de Taos, NM (depicted immediately below), memorable from a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe and the photography of Ansel Adams.

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church, Taos, NM (late 18th century)

An especially notable and earliest example of Meem’s exploration of the the recovery of a Spanish Pueblo approach to church architecture is his Taylor Memorial Chapel, at La Floret, Colorado Springs (below).

First designed in 1929, the building incorporates a beautiful painted and sculptural reredos, as well as decorative tile surrounding the doorways, by Eugenie Shonnard. Despite some early-recognized construction issues related to the stucco used on the exterior, the chapel remains a well-used venue today as part of a conference and retreat center.

At about the same time as Meem’s project for Cristo Rey in Santa Fe, he was commissioned to design a new church for the First Presbyterian congregation of that same city. Once again showing his appreciation for the outward form of the Ranchos de Taos church, Meem produced a plan for a building that also remains in active use, with some renovations.

First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe (exterior and interior views / 1939)

This congregation’s commission of Meem for their new building was as much a testament to Meem’s reputation as an architect as it was a marked preference for a prevailing local style increasingly adopted in the wider community. It is remarkable to see a Presbyterian Church within the Reformed tradition of Christianity adopt and be comfortable with worship in a church whose architecture is so obviously indebted to the aesthetics of 17th century and later Spanish Roman Catholic design, and so heavily influenced by regional pueblo architecture.

The Architectural Vision of John Gaw Meem

Renovation and Extension of the La Fonda Hotel, Santa Fe (1927)

 

John Gaw Meem is generally credited with having led the recovery and promotion of an historically Spanish-Pueblo Revival approach to building design in the central district of Santa Fe, NM, as well as in its environs. Warm tones in beiges and browns adorning the surfaces; soft rounded edges and corners characteristic of adobe buildings; a general preference for asymmetry; slightly upward sloping walls with accompanying exterior buttresses; and protruding beam-ends of the flat roof supporting logs evident also in the interior ceilings; all these and more are features of this recognizable ‘style.’

Yet, speaking of ‘style’ may create a misapphrension. Whereas more recent contractors and builders may imitate some of the above mentioned features in homes now quickly built for mass consumption, John Gaw Meem pursued an informed appreciation for the structural character and integrity of his region’s most important historical buildings. He as diligently applied himself to the practice of historical preservation as he did to his own genuinely creative work, where he typically disciplined his architectural vocabulary so as to remain faithful to the traditional features he so intentionally studied.

Depicted above is the result of his design for a renovation and extension of the historic La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, a project that seems to owe as much to the historic Taos Pueblo as it does to modern needs and sensibilities. Set side by side with the above, we can consider Meem’s great achievement with the main library for the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, a sizable institution for which Meem designed and / or oversaw the planning of some 25 buildings after being named campus architect in 1933.

Zimmerman library, exterior main entrance (1936)

Zimmerman Library, interior courtyard

Zimmerman Library, interior view

Here we find two distinguished buildings, the La Fonda Hotel extension and the UNM Zimmerman Library, separated by less than a decade in terms of their design and construction, which both exhibit Meem’s sensitive appreciation for the legacy of Spanish-Pueblo architecture, as well as its adoption by the diverse immigrant culture of the Southwest.

Like the writer, Walker Percy, John Gaw Meem came to discern his vocation in the context of receiving care for tuberculosis in a sanitarium. For Percy, it happened in upstate New York, whereas Meem found himself and his guiding vision in Santa Fe. From small beginnings involving private commissions for houses, Meem expanded the range of his work to also include commercial buildings, historically-informed designs for new churches as well as the restoration of historic examples, and structures providing for the functional needs of public eduction that were equally attentive to humane and aesthetic considerations relevant to a learning community.

One of Meem’s highly regarded projects for a public building was his Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1934), a building reflecting the European modernist influence of his era as well as echoes of design ideas implicit in his obviously pueblo-adobe inspired buildings. This project clearly demonstrates how Meem’s high regard for historic precedents did not inhibit his ability to work more freely in a contemporary way, adapting chosen materials and design principles to emerging requirements.

Here (below) is a photo of Meem standing on a balcony of the original theatre of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

In the future, I look forward to offering a post related to some of  Meem’s designs for homes, as well as one featuring his evocative contributions for Santa Fe area church architecture.

Evidence of his influence: the Meem Library at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, by David Perrigo, inspired by and in honor of JG Meem

The Beauty of Matsumoto and its Castle

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

 

Many will remember the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympic Games, which were located in a region commonly referred to as the Japanese Alps. I was blessed to have the opportunity to camp there as a Boy Scout when growing up in Japan. Like the region in Europe for which this mountainous area is often named, Nagano has abundant snow in the winter, as well as hot and humid summers.

Matsumoto attracts many to the city and area for reasons apart from its attractive geography and its winter and summer recreational offerings. The region also has a strong history related to the revival of the Japanese folk art movement. Yet, the main association many will have with Matsumoto and Nagano Prefecture is the beautiful Matsumoto Castle (1594). It is typically ranked as being among the top three preserved historic and traditional Japanese castles, along with Himeji and Kumamoto Castles, and it remains my favorite among them.

Recently, I raised a question regarding how and why beauty might emerge from, and / or be expressed within the context of evil (https://towardbeauty.org/2022/02/26/the-beauty-of-picassos-guernica/). Matsumoto Castle was planned and built within the circumstances of clan warfare, to be a place from which warriors might spring to attack while also providing a place of safe refuge.

Yet, look at this remarkable ornamental structure, with its far beyond functional sweeping (and finally upturned) pagoda-like roof overhangs. Noticing this alerts us to the similarity between these architectural elements and those of strictly religious structures from a much earlier heritage, whether Buddhist or Shinto, like Matsumoto’s Zenkoji Temple (photo below).

Zenkoji Temple

So why, then, would feudal warlords build a castle, principally ordered toward physical safety through providing refuge from or preparation for lethal battle, by erecting a building resembling a temple or a shrine? This question is worth considering.

Possible answers to this question might involve speculation about the following: powerful and wealthy heads of clans desiring their dwelling places to resemble structures representing the highest artistic achievement of their culture; shrines and temples, as well as the abodes of princes and feudal lords, providing peaceful havens for rest and restoration for themselves and their families; and, people willing to live and die for what they worship with their deepest beliefs and commitments, as well as for what they most fear losing, whether spiritual or material.

I suspect the explanation lies in a complex mix of these several considerations.

We might also reflect on how, by contrast, medieval European castles generally evidence a primary concern for physical safety in the face of armed hostility, with aesthetic considerations not absent but distinctly secondary. How remarkable it is, then, to regard the principal surviving ancient Japanese castles, now visited by vast numbers of people who marvel at their peaceful beauty, and who can only vaguely imagine the warrior circumstances of their earliest inhabitants.

The Beauty of The Sagrada Familia

Interior view of Antonio Gaudi’s The Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain

 

Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) designed the now famous basilica of The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, to which he gave himself fully for the last 43 yeas of his life. The basilica remains unfinished. Although we most often associate structures like gothic cathedrals with the 12th through the 14th centuries, Gaudi’s visionary work has assured us that there will be a 21st century future for them.

The genius of Antonio Gaudi’s vision for The Sagrada Familia lies in his wedding of a modern understanding of mathematics with a timeless appreciation for the power of light, color, and the shapes and rhythms of the natural world around us. As much an engineer as a visionary architect, Gaudi shared with Frank Lloyd Wright an intuitive appreciation for how the mathematical and geometrically describable structure of trees, seashells, beehive combs, and other aspects of the natural world could inform the architectural integrity of a building. And, like his medieval predecessors, Gaudi recognized the continuity between what we learn from the Book of Nature and what we learn from the Book of Scripture. How paradoxical it is that one of the most modern cathedral-sized churches in Europe may also be strongly traditional, and historically rooted.

Being aware of the etymology of words often associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright helped me to understand his work and that of Gaudi. Wright used the word ‘organic’ in the title of one  of his influential books. Another word, ‘radical,’ is also often used to describe his apparent departure from traditional architectural design. Yet, here is the curious thing. When we hear the word ‘radical,’ we think a departure from tradition is being signaled. But dictionary definitions of that word alert us to what it really means. Radical means, in one way or another, of the root. Radical therefore means less a departure from tradition than it does a rediscovery or re-appropriation of it.

To speak of Gaudi’s radical vision for The Sagrada Familia can be a way to discover the organic character of its nature-inspired design. For the ‘roots’ of this building lie in Creation, both in terms of the multiplicity of form, and yet also in consistency and uniformity of structure, and in the extensive and subtly evocative use of color – not simply in the windows, but on the columns and walls.

Moved by the visions of St. John, as recorded in Revelation, Gaudi perceived the Church – both as the community of the Body of Christ and also as a physical structure enabling our assembly for liturgy – as having come down from heaven, so that the divine presence would now be tangibly among us. The words of Revelation 21:1-6 appear to have been at the heart of Gaudi’s vision for his new church, which seems to express the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and be an embodiment of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

As at least one observer notes, while diligently preparing the design for The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi shaped a building. In the process, God shaped Gaudi. Te Deum laudamus! May our encounter with the result of Gaudi’s work have the same effect upon us.

Sagrada Familia basilica still under construction in Barcelona.

 

For deeper insight concerning the design and structure of Sagrada Familia, see the video, The Gaudi Code, with this link: { https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3e8sckgWqQ } For a further and deeper exploration of Gaudi and his approach to Sagrada Familia, read The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece, by Gijs van Hensbergen. Also very helpful is the visual guide book, The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: A Temple Converted into a Universal Work of Art.

 

 

The Beauty of Lutyens’ Approach

Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi (1912-29)

 

Edwin Lutyens was a British architect who approached the challenge of producing new homes and buildings in several historically sensitive and imaginative ways. He was born about the same time as Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work also adapted historical architectural themes and patterns in a modern manner. Lutyens’ approach, while equally inspired, tended to be less daring and perhaps more compelling to a wider swath of his contemporaries, especially with regard to his public buildings and monuments. And like Wright, Lutyens showed a sympathy with and appreciation for architectural features and elements from other regions and cultures (if not always their people) than his own.

Lutyens lead a group of architects to lay out and design a new capitol for India at what would be called New Delhi. Combining aspects of buildings from the western classical tradition with those of the Indian sub-continent, Lutyens with his team produced some notable structures. Among the most beautiful is Rashtrapati Bhavan, originally known as Viceroy’s House and Government House (shown above).

While he excelled at producing public architecture on a large scale, Lutyens was also adept at designing homes, with an early example being one for the noted horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll. Equally fascinating to me is his adaptation of the 16th century Lindisfarne Castle into a home on Holy Island (1901-14 / shown below). This residence provided the setting for the 1960’s film, Cul-de-Sac, through which I first became familiar with Lutyens’ work.

Lutyens was commissioned to design an astonishing number of war memorials, perhaps the most impressive being the Thiepval Memorial in France (1928-32, photo below), to honor the some 72,000 British and South African men who died in the WWI Battle of the Somme. His unrealized project for the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1930/ not shown) demonstrates another facet of his remarkable ability as an architect, once again blending an historical design awareness with attention to contemporary needs.

One of my favorite Lutyens buildings is his design for the British Ambassador’s residence complex in Washington, D.C., his only completed project in North America (shown below). I had the opportunity to visit the residence in the 1980’s in connection with a charitable fundraising event. Though the building, completed in 1928, is in an unmistakably Queen Anne style, as were some early Frank Lloyd Wight Chicago homes, its scale and proportion also have a forward-looking appearance.

A significant aspect of what I consider the beauty of Edwin Lutyens architectural vision was his ability to inhabit the design sensibility of an earlier age, or that of a culture very different from his own. At the same time, he was able to produce structures that do not simply mimic the influence of their sources but which also achieve a somewhat timeless synthesis that is rather contemporary. Lutyens died in 1944 just after the birth of the kind of modern European architecture we associate with the Bauhaus, Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. Examples of what is now referred to as ‘post-modernism’ in architecture show a return to a design approach that sometimes seems to evoke the work of Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens’ 1939 Runnymede Bridge, UK (completed 1961), another example of his extensive architectural portfolio.

 

 

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}