Olympian effort needed to save Tokyo’s, Asia’s heritage

Tokyo’s preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics have not come without controversy. In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scrapped star architect Zaha Hadid’s design for the new National Stadium due in part to spiraling construction costs. Prominent Japanese voices also had been raised, including by architects Fumihiko Maki, Toyo Ito and Sou Fujimoto, against a design they saw as too big for its surroundings, overshadowing Kenzo Tange’s iconic National Stadium built for the 1964 Olympics.

Hadid’s architectural firm has since launched a campaign to get Tokyo to reinstate its scrapped design, describing it as “the only way to achieve value for money in the market.”

That emphasis on maximizing value for money in today’s Japan, as well as across much of Asia, is sadly changing urban landscapes. Out with the old, and in with the newest shopping mall or shiny glass tower.

A great transformation is already in process that is changing the very landscape of Tokyo. This is the demolition of the city’s historic buildings that link its past and present to its future, and help give the metropolis its distinctive quality of life and, dare we say, unique urban vibe. Already gone is the Sanshin Building, a prime example of 1930s art deco prewar architecture near Hibiya Park. It survived the Allied bombings of Tokyo during World War II before succumbing to a developer’s wrecking ball in 2007.

Also gone is the Hanezawa Garden, which dated back to 1915 and featured Taisho-Era architecture. The main house in the compound in Hiroo resembled a samurai’s residence. What made it more unique was its blend of Japanese and Western interior design styles, or wayo-secchu. This “compromise between Japan and the West” can be found in early Japanese modern architecture. The garden complex met its demise in 2012.

This is just a very small sample of the many structures lost to Tokyo’s relentless metamorphosis.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s dramatic Mayan Revival-style Imperial Hotel survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake — in fact it officially opened the very same day — but fell to the wrecking ball in 1968 after it was decided it would be more cost effective to replace it with a more space-efficient modern hotel building. Now comes the impending destruction of the main building of the Hotel Okura Tokyo, built in 1962 to accommodate visitors, ironically, to the 1964 Olympics. The hotel closed its main doors this Monday.

Hope remains that parts of the landmark building’s iconic lobby and public spaces will be, if not preserved, at least re-created in what is to come. The hotel’s annex, built in 1973, will be spared. As for the 11-story main hotel building, it will be replaced in part by a 41-story glass tower, no doubt over time adding hundreds of millions more yen to the hotel owners’ bank accounts. The Okura’s largest shareholders are Japan’s biggest contractor, Taisei Corp., and biggest developer, Mitsubishi Estate Co.

Urban preservationists point to the Hotel Okura as a jewel of Japanese Modernism architecture, which blossomed in the 1960s. Stepping into the hotel’s lobby was like entering a time machine, instantly transporting one back to a by-gone, more glamorous and jet-set era.

Built by a collective of architects and artists that included Yoshiro Taniguchi, Hideo Kosaka, Shiko Munakata and Kenkichi Tomimoto, the now closed main building is a synthesis of modern design and traditional hues and shapes found in Japanese culture. The hotel had welcomed royalty, dignitaries and celebrities, real and fictional, through its lobby doors — from every U.S. president since the 1960s to Ian Fleming’s British spy James Bond. “The Dalai Lama slept here,” a sign might have read, if it were not for the discreet and hushed service of this disappearing property.

The impending demolition of the Hotel Okura’s main building generated international petition drives and caused many Tokyo residents to take note of their disappearing urban heritage. It also has raised the question of whether the city’s development process can be better managed.

An unlikely inspiration to how different things can be lies across the street from the Hotel Okura at the U.S. Embassy. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the mother of the current U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, was no stranger to urban preservation. She helped save Washington’s Lafayette Square from the chopping block in the 1960s.

In 1975, alarmed that the beaux arts-inspired Grand Central Terminal’s preservation status was voided, giving developers the green light to tear it down and build a 55-story office tower in its place, the former first lady partnered with members of the city’s Municipal Art Society to prevent the New York structure’s demolition.

In her letter to then New York Mayor Abraham Beame, she wrote:

“Dear Mayor Beame … is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”

A simple message that still resonates today, and thanks to her efforts we still have Grand Central Terminal, with its unique murals and masonry work, to inspire us. The Hotel Okura, with its distinctive design features, has for many provided similar inspiration.

Today, cities spend millions of dollars on campaigns to win the right to host the Olympics. If successful, billions more are spent to build the structures needed to host athletes and visitors to the games.

But, too often, what unfortunately happens is that each city, rather than preserve its unique structures and put them on display, opts to tear them down and replace them with similar looking glass and steel structures. How sad that Tokyo too has gone the way of Beijing. Economic rivals, Japan and China are now competitors in destroying remnants of their storied pasts.

How can a host city lay claim to provide visitors an authentic experience if each city becomes indistinguishable from one another? The term “generica” has been coined to describe this phenomenon.

Five years out from its Olympics, Tokyo has a real opportunity to show that urbanization can be managed differently. This paradigm shift is urgently needed, especially in Asia, where the frenzied pace of urbanization has led to the destruction of historic structures from Yangon to Jakarta. Across the region, cities struggle to balance growth and urban preservation.

Tokyo could be a better example for an Asia-Pacific region striving to forge cities that showcase a balance between the modern and traditional. All seek to blend the best of past and present while building for the future. How sad that in so many tests, Tokyo has failed to show the way.

But perhaps too, like cherry blossoms too soon gone, the Hotel Okura, and before it the Sanshin Building, the Hanezawa Garden and the Imperial Hotel, in their destruction can inspire us by underscoring how fleeting is a city’s beauty as it vanishes.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, was a frequent guest at the Hotel Okura Tokyo. Jose B. Collazo, a Southeast Asia analyst at RiverPeak Group LLC also stayed regularly at the Okura.

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