September 16, 2006
Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo between 1917 and 1922. The Imperial Hotel withstood a devastating earthquake in 1923, but could not withstand economic pressures and was replaced with a larger hotel in 1968. During his time in Japan, Wright undertook several smaller projects including several houses.
Today, Mary and I set out to find the only remaining Wright-designed home in Japan, the Yamamura house. In the “shining brow” tradition, we find the house tucked high into the side of the hill overlooking the city of Ashiya with a view of the sea beyond.
The house pre-dates Wright’s concrete houses of California, but is visually similar being built of a rustic stone, quarried in Japan. Although the multiple chimneys are visible from a great distance, the body of the house remains hidden from view until entering the drive. Then you see the house and the panoramic view simultaneously, a wow moment for me.
The rustic stone was worked into building blocks formalized by a repeated geometric motif while the naturally occurring voids and varying shades of creams and browns add depth to otherwise flat surfaces.
In contrast to the crowds we’ve grown accustomed to at Wright homes in the US, here we see only a handful of visitors in the three hours we spend exploring the house. Since the staff doesn’t speak English and most of the signs are in Japanese, we are free to interpret Wright’s work on our own, without docent suggestions.
Although unique in detail, many of Wright’s signature design choices are found here: a hidden entry, a feeling of compression and release through varying ceiling heights, repeating motifs, horizontal banding, and repeated rectangular geometric forms in built-ins and fixtures.
I find the most unique features on the third floor where Wright incorporated traditional Japanese interior design with sliding screens to separate rooms void of furniture. While it seems very much out of character for Wright to deviate from his design program to accommodate local design choices, this may be the work of local designers who completed the project after Wright returned to the US.
While walking through the house, we meet a Japanese man who lives in Ashiya and has visited Indianapolis for the Formula One race. He compliments Indiana and the States and we enjoy a discussion of Wright prior to boarding the train back to Kobe.
To wrap up our stay in Japan, we lunch on Kobe beef. From the French/Japanese menu we are only sure the meal includes “pain” which we hope will be bread. The beef is tender, the service high-brow, and the meal included bread.
Yours in appreciating the bilingual,