By ROLAND KELTS
The old main wing of Hotel Okura in Tokyo, now demolished. The new main wing is scheduled to open in 2019.
TOKYO — The outcry over the demolition last year of the 53-year-old Hotel Okura in Tokyo surprised no one more than Japanese historians and architectural specialists.
Monocle, the global lifestyle magazine, had circulated a petition, savetheokura.com, to register the “outrage from admirers of its unique design.” Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, an Italian luxury brand, filmed a video memorial and started a social media campaign, #MyMomentAtOkura.
The hotel’s modernist postwar lobby artfully balanced elements of traditional Japan, like lacquered plum-blossom-shaped tables and chairs, with visions of what was then futuristic: a lighted world map displaying global time zones. It was frequented by United States presidents including President Obama, and other heads of state, celebrities, artists and designers. It played a central role in the 1960s James Bond novel “You Only Live Twice.”
Hotel Okura Co. Ltd., whose largest investors include the Taisei Corporation, a construction company, and Mitsubishi Estate, Japan’s second-largest real estate developer, plans to build a 38-story high-rise with 510 rooms, 102 more than the Okura, and add 18 stories of office space. The renovation is estimated to cost $1 billion. The company promised to “faithfully reproduce” several beloved artifacts in the lobby, including wall tapestries, paper lanterns and sliding doors, the lacquered furnishings and map of time zones.
The hotel’s main building and its signature lobby were demolished in September. The South Wing, erected in 1973, will remain operational, and the owners plan to replicate the lobby’s mezzanine, based on a Japanese painting known as “Bridge of the Dream,” and its hexagonal ceiling lights. A newly designed bar will try to recapture the stylish retro-chic of the former Orchid Bar, the Okura’s elegant, dimly lit cocktail haven loved by diplomats, expatriates and journalists. The new complex will also incorporate upgrades to meet the latest standards in earthquake-resistant construction technologies.
But those plans have done little to assuage the concerns of preservationists, many of whom contend that Tokyo is destroying its greatest postwar architectural assets to accommodate the 2020 Olympics and a recent surge in tourism. In a twist worthy of Bond, the most outspoken critics are not from Japan.
“When the reconstruction was announced, many foreigners, especially well-known designers, voiced their regret,” said Yoshio Uchida, professor of architecture at Toyo University. “The magnitude of their protest was beyond our imagination.”
The original Okura opened in 1962, two years before the first Tokyo Olympics, an event that signaled to the world that Japan had recovered from the devastation of World War II. It was erected across the street from the American Embassy, and became so popular with diplomats it was referred to as “the annex."
(Yoshio Taniguchi, architect. Credit Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
Unlike many postwar Tokyo buildings, whose primary models of modernism were strictly Western, the Okura was built to evoke Japanese-ness, at least as perceived by foreigners. Among other frills, this meant hanging lamps shaped like ancient gems and partitions edged with kimono fabrics.
But some Japanese question whether the Okura’s décor and ambience was, or could ever be, truly Japanese.
“In 1962, the very concept of a hotel was not Japanese,” Mr. Uchida said. “People wear shoes inside, they wear shirts and neckties. The traditional Japanese concept of lodging is the ryokan, or inn, where no one dresses or behaves that way.”
Recreating the Okura is the original architect’s world-famous son, Yoshio Taniguchi, a graduate of Harvard who 11 years ago redesigned the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mr. Taniguchi is best known for his lean lines and conservative minimalism — a far cry, some say, from his father’s evocative focus on physical craftsmanship and genius for striking a harmonic balance between East and West.
Mr. Taniguchi is keenly aware of the affection bestowed upon his father’s Okura. He says he can incorporate the spirit and feel of the original in the new building, whatever its specifications.
“There were many examples of excellent modern architecture designed in postwar Japan,” he said. “But there are also many that have become rundown over the years. For the structures that were especially beautiful and original, we are trying to restore them with sensitivity to their original forms. We’re constantly making that effort.”
The pressure to revive and reinvent Tokyo is not limited to the Okura’s next incarnation. Real estate prices in the city plummeted in the 1990s. Modest upturns in the last decade were clouded by competition from shinier neighbors like Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai.
But while Japan’s population of about 126 million continues to decline with falling birthrates and an aging population, Tokyo’s population is growing annually. Last year, an estimated 100,000 joined the capital’s hordes of 38 million.
New York enclaves like SoHo and TriBeCa are losing local venues to high-rise condos, and many fear the same is happening in Tokyo. Mr. Uchida contends that the fate of the Hotel Okura is emblematic of a trend afflicting Japan’s capital.
“It’s a symbol of our struggle to balance our need for renewal with the treasures of our city,” he said. “That means it’s very important what happens.”
Hiroshi Matsukuma, a professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and a champion of postwar modernism, sees the virtues of Tokyo architecture in its layers of history. Tokyo’s major edifices of the 20th century, like the 11-story Okura, were modest by comparison with other global cities. But they embodied the organic, rapid growth of the city’s reconstruction, like rings in a tree trunk.
Projects undertaken since 2000, like the reconstructed Marunouchi Buildings, tend to be massive, multipurpose skyscrapers. “The multi-layeredness of Tokyo is something we may be losing now in our city’s major centers,” Mr. Matsukuma wrote. “You can only find it in the back streets, the old neighborhoods, and they are disappearing, too.”
Another challenge for Tokyo is more prosaic: The city has a shortage of hotel rooms. The Japan National Tourism Organization announced late last year that the number of foreign visitors to Japan was expected to near a record-breaking 20 million by the end of 2015, an increase of over 40 percent.
Occupancy rates for hotels in Tokyo are regularly at 90 percent or higher, and domestic businesses have begun complaining that their traveling salarymen can no longer find affordable rooms. The number of Asian tourists to Japan has exploded in the last year. China alone accounted for 4.7 million visitors, a 109 percent spike in one year.
The small number of additional rooms planned for the reconstructed Okura will do little to mitigate a trend that is forcing Tokyo to embrace another 21st-century development. Airbnb announced in November that Japan was by far its fastest-growing market.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.