The New York Times
TOKYO — The outcry over the demolition of the 53-year-old Hotel Okura in Tokyo surprised no one more than some 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, like 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.”