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Urban struggle: Tokyo’s tussle with preservation of architecture

Tokyo Central Post Office in Marunouchi
Tokyo Central Post Office in Marunouchi (The Tokyo Reporter)

TOKYO (TR) – The nightlife quarter of Kabukicho, just east of JR Shinjuku Station, bristles with non-stop activity. Amid the garish flashes of neon are touts cruising for clients, drifting drunks, hostesses hustling off to bars and the occasional gangster tiff. In the late 1960s — a time when young architect Minoru Takeyama was commissioned to design a pair of buildings a block apart for accommodating adult entertainment businesses — it wasn’t quite as active.

“Back then there were not a lot of people around. It was a residential area with low buildings,” says the now retired 75-year-old, who also designed the iconic Shibuya 109 building near Shibuya Station. “I wanted to make designs that really stood out, something that caught people’s attention.”

The result was a pair of eight-floor structures that housed bars, clubs and saunas and opposed one another to create a sense of balance. The monochrome Ichibankan (1969) is dark and sleek, its front is similar to a Transformer character whose sides take the shape of arms ready to embrace entering guests. The colorful Nibankan (1970) features a “supergraphic” of red, yellow and white lines and concentric circles emblazoned across its sloping sides of concrete and metallic sheets.

In the first half of the last century, buildings like the Tokyo Central Post Office (1931) in Marunouchi were increasingly influenced by such Western architects as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and concepts like Bauhaus to become examples of modern architecture. Then, with industrialization subsequently suffocating the creativity of the nation in the decades following World War II, post-modernism came to the forefront. Experts considered Takeyama’s structures to be the first examples of this new avant-garde spirit.

Charles Jencks’ influential 1977 book “The Language of Post-Modern Architecture” splashed Nibankan on its cover. In “The Japan Guide” (1995), Botond Bognar writes: “Takeyama responded to the highly festive, if often garish, character of the urban milieu almost to the point of celebrating it rather than concentrating on structural systems, industrial technology, and rational design. As a result, the buildings became early representatives of an openly populist mode of design, yet they did so without falling victim to a trivial commercialism.”

Minoru Takeyama at work (The Tokyo Reporter)

Today, Ichibankan is completely closed, and Nibankan, whose exterior is riddled with chipped paint and cracked concrete, maintains only a first-floor restaurant in operation. Ownership changed two years ago. During a meeting with their present owner, Sankei Hotel, a lodging operator that specializes in business and love hotels, representatives of the company indicated that the future use of the buildings has not been decided.

Such a potential reprieve has been rare as the elimination of Japan’s landmark properties becomes routine with calls for preservation often being crushed by developers’ wrecking balls.

The challenges facing preservationists are numerous.

Last October, entertainment company Shochiku announced that the Kabuki-za theater in Ginza, Japan’s home for kabuki since it was founded in 1889, will close next year and be reinstalled inside a large office complex by 2013. Reconstructed twice, its 1924 incarnation incorporated a new style of non-burnable building materials. The current five-decade-old building achieved tangible cultural property status in 2002.

Shochiku said in an email statement that the Kabuki-za is an aging structure that is susceptible to earthquakes. It added: “Taking into consideration that its facilities are not barrier-free, we decided that it would be in the best interest of our customers for us to rebuild the theater.”

In addition to the financial hurdles inherent within upgrading aging mechanical and electrical systems, architects believe that revisions to seismic requirements within the Building Standards Law in recent decades are also burdensome. “You have to spend a lot of money to make a building seismically sound, and there is no aid from the government to do that,” explains Jun Mitsui, principal architect of JMA Architects in Meguro Ward. “The owner has to basically take the financial burden himself.”

Also posing a problem is that should a structure achieve tangible cultural property status, which requires a 50-year existence period, Article 29 within the Law for the Protection of Cultural Property includes the possibility of annulment if the cultural value is removed or for another “special reason.”

Kabukiza in Ginza (The Tokyo Reporter)

Crucial, too, has been the financial incentive given to developers. In 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi passed legislation that lifted regulations that once placed major restrictions on zoning and building height in exchange for the establishment publicly accessible parks or plazas on any newly constructed properties. Often referred to as an “urban renaissance,” the deregulation was intended to maintain Tokyo’s competitive status with nearby metropolises Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore.

“That was the stimulus to Japan’s economic upturn,” says Mitsui of the economic expansion that took place in the middle of this decade. “Property owners wanted to maximize their buildings’ floor space because that is what makes more money.”

Non-property firms with robust real estate assets have been taking notice. Last year, brokerage house CLSA released the report titled “Googling value: Uncovering Japan’s latent land assets.” It cited double-digit percentage boosts in commercial land values in Tokyo’s Shibuya, Minato, and Chuo wards between 2006 and 2007. Though the data for 2008 as released by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism reveals a regression this conclusion remains largely true: “This development casts a spotlight on some less-obvious beneficiaries whose main business is often not related to real estate but who nevertheless possess large and valuable landholdings.”

Like Shochiku, falling into this category is Japan Post, which became a pseudo-private entity two years ago. It is in the process of constructing a 200-meter building on the site of the aforementioned Tokyo Central Post Office, a cornerstone to the square in front of the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. The curved, brick building will eventually incorporate parts of its exterior façade in the new design. Last-ditch attempts to save the building resulted in Japan Post earlier this year announcing that it will seek tangible cultural property status for the property and retain more of the original structure than first planned.

Kabukicho’s Koma Stadium theater had been, since 1956, a popular venue to view enka and musical shows. It was acquired last year by film studio Toho, which also owns the adjacent Shinjuku Toho Kaikan and plans to redevelop both plots. Publisher Kodansha’s Noma Dojo training facility, established in 1925, was knocked down in late 2007 in favor of a more modern complex.

Dojunkai Ueno Shita Apartments (The Tokyo Reporter)

“In Japan, the idea of scrap-and-build has been dominant for a long time,” explains Kengo Kuma, a leading architect whose firm (Kengo Kuma and Associates) designed the Suntory Museum of Art at Tokyo Midtown. “So there hadn’t been much attention paid to the preservation of buildings. The debate over the Tokyo Central Post Office, however, has provided a good opportunity for the public to think carefully about preservation of old architecture.”

Many other preservation pushes have failed. The Sanshin Building (1930), an eight-floor structure that overlooked Hibiya Park and contained elaborate ceilings and columns, was demolished by developer Mitsui Fudosan in 2007. The concrete Dojunkai apartments were innovative housing structures (featuring trash chutes and gas lines) upon their completion between 1924 and 1934 at 16 locations in Tokyo and Yokohama. In 2003, the five-story Otsuka Women’s Apartment House was demolished, and the Aoyama site was replaced three years later by Tadao Ando’s concrete and glass Omotesando Hills shopping center. Two apartment blocks remain today; one in Ueno, another in Minowa.

Mitsui believes that as a solution to here-today-gone-tomorrow Tokyo needs to adopt master planning. “The formation of a master plan will define such things as the height and use of the building,” he says, adding that complications within private land ownership and a lack of government impetus thus far have made such a concept very difficult.

Yet the government does offer some support — albeit through a tradeoff that benefits developers. In exchange for preservation of its notable Mitsui Honkan (1929), Mitsui Fudosan was allowed to develop a nearby site into the 39-floor Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower (2005). The height of the new structure exceeded that permitted by law but Mitsui was allowed to transfer the unused air rights (i.e. potential additional floor area) of the old building following its preservation.

The Paris-based conservation group Docomomo International, which works to preserve modern buildings, established a Japanese branch in 2000. Its group of experts has designated over 135 structures as important. In addition to the remaining Dojunkai units and the Tokyo Central Post Office, the list includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Myonichikan (1921), Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961) and the Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972), the Kisho Kurokawa-designed structure of stacked concrete residential modules.

Hiroyuki Suzuki, chairperson of Docomomo Japan and a professor of architecture at Tokyo University, says that the group submits appeals to land owners of listed buildings scheduled for demolition. He sees some hope with regards to preservation, citing the restoration of Tokyo Station’s red brick facade, set to be completed in 2013, as an example. “Modern architecture is very interesting,” he says. “Progress is small to this point but we will continue to make the appeals against the demolition of important works because it is essential we do so.”

Nakagin Capsule Tower (The Tokyo Reporter)

The group is now focusing its attention on buildings from the 1970s — a move probably too late for the Kenzo Tange-designed Hanae Mori building (1977), the glass-walled Omotesando landmark that is scheduled to be pulled down following the removal of its tenants this year.

As to Ichibankan and Nibankan, Docomomo’s Suzuki says that the group finds Takeyama’s work to be very significant. Yet an approach and time frame for preservation of his buildings has not been determined. “At Docomomo, we realize that there is a connection between modernism and post-modernism that needs to be discussed,” he explains.

Should the near future bring an end to the Kabukicho creations of Takeyama, he says he would not be irritated, knowing that the business is financially driven. He also looks at Issei Jingu, a Shinto shrine complex in Ise, Mie Prefecture whose buildings are dismantled and rebuilt every 20 years in an effort to ensure a new appearance. “I can’t really say if it is positive or negative,” Takeyama explains. “They have been up for 40 years. That’s not too bad. Maybe it is time.”