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Three Buildings by Frank

Lloyd Wright: American

Spirit Alive in Japan

Through Jan. 19, 1997

at the National Building Museum

Although it was left to the next generation of architects to invent the style called “International,’’ Frank Lloyd Wright was no less an internationalist. His influences, though, were always eccentric and personal. He named his refuge Taliesin after the mythic poet of his forebears, who arrived in Wisconsin from Wales in the 1840s. His interest in a distinct American style encompassed both the plainness of the “prairie’’ and the ornate decorations of the Mayans. And where most aspiring American architects make pilgrimages to Italy, France, and Greece, Wright’s first overseas trip was to Japan.

Impressed by the Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Wright developed an interest in Japanese art and artifacts, notably the traditional woodblock style, ukiyo-e. On his initial visit to Japan, in 1905, Wright was more the art collector than the architect, and subsequently sold ukiyo-e prints to support himself during hard times. Ultimately, however, he designed 14 buildings for Japan, seven of which were built or partially built. It is the only foreign country in which he ever executed one of his designs.

Only two of Wright’s seven Japanese projects remain, although parts of two more are extant. The National Building Museum’s little exhibit of photographs, architectural drawings, and other artifacts, “Three Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright: American Spirit Alive in Japan,’’ focuses on the two that survive intact (not necessarily in good condition) plus Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, which was demolished in 1967 to make way for an utterly undistinguished (but bigger) replacement building. The latter qualifies as being “alive in Japan’’ because its entranceway was reconstructed at Meiji Village, a Japanese architectural theme park.

Though the hotel is one of the most elaborate buildings the architect ever designed—and he designed every bit of it, down to the carpets and the china—in some ways it was a typical Wright project: It went grievously over budget and outraged its financial backers. Where many of Wright’s buildings were deemed dysfunctional, however, this spectacularly proved its functionality. Minutes before the hotel was set to open in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake hit. The hotel did not fall down, which is more than can be said for most of the larger buildings in Tokyo that day. (Many of the small wooden structures that didn’t collapse burned instead in the fire that followed the quake.)

Though Wright is known for his low-rise work for prairie, desert, and remote picturesque locations, he had done his time in Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented. So had structural engineer Paul Mueller, who was enlisted to work on the Imperial. They designed the structure with a “floating’’ foundation and a low center of gravity, and put the plumbing and wiring in concrete conduits that were structurally separate from the rest of the building. Seismic stress on one part of the structure was not supposed to transfer to other parts, a strategy that succeeded. The hotel survived the earthquake and the American bombing of the city during World War II, but not modernization. In fact, plans were afoot to demolish it as early as the late ’30s, in preparation for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Those were canceled, of course, so the Imperial stood another 30 years, until the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair loomed.

The large photos and other artifacts in this show give a palpable sense of this remarkable if not especially likable building. Designed in an H-form that provided space within its perimeters for Japanese-style gardens, the structure is not otherwise very Japanese in spirit or form. It’s just too heavy. Though serene by the standards of modern Tokyo, the hotel’s limestone, brick, and terra cotta façades—extravagantly ornamented in a style that suggests Wright’s Celtic heritage as well as his interest in Mayan design—gives it a fortresslike quality.

The Imperial filled most of its lot, as most Tokyo buildings do, but the effect of the front garden and the driveway to the entrance is curiously suburban. The building was partially modeled on Midway Gardens, a large Chicago dance hall and garden complex Wright designed in 1914, and it had an American-style indifference to the adjacent street. Though the streetcars shown in one photo of the hotel have largely vanished from the streets of Tokyo, it’s still not a city of driveways. At least the current Imperial Hotel opens directly to the sidewalk, offering direct pedestrian access for this pedestrian-oriented city.

Of the other two extant Wright buildings in Japan, one is an elaborate retreat that answered to nothing but the imperatives of its site. Built on a hill overlooking Osaka Bay, the Yamamura House (1924) has a very Los Angeles feel, and in fact its decorative elements (also “Mayan”) resemble those of Wright’s Hollyhock House in L.A., which was designed around the same time. Wildly asymmetrical, built of reinforced concrete, and with 5,800 square feet of floor space, the Yamamura House is even less Japanese than the Imperial, although it did include a floor (one of four audaciously stacked atop each other) devoted to tatami-mat rooms. Once threatened with demolition, the house was designated as an important cultural property in 1974. (It was damaged, however, by the 1995 Kobe earthquake.)

Less secure is Wright’s other remaining Japanese building, the Myonichikan at Jiyu Gakuen School (1921-26). Sort of a Japanized Greek temple, this structure was partially designed by Arata Endo, Wright’s essential Japanese assist-

ant, and recalls the simpler, lighter style of Wright’s prairie buildings. (The exhibit’s photos indicate that both Wright’s Japanese hotel and his school made dramatic use of natural light, but the school seems airier and more luminous.) This was originally a girls’ school, and the first school in Japan to have music on the curriculum; Wright appreciated the institution’s progressiveness and insistence on developing both intellectual and manual skills. (The students, for example, had to build their own chairs to match the kid-size tables Endo designed.)

Today the structure sits unoccupied except for occasional alumni functions, and is in disrepair. Apparently, the low-rise building and its grounds are in what is now a very built-up section of Tokyo, although it’s impossible to know that from this exhibit, which is a sometimes a little scant on such information. From the most recent photo of the school here, it looks to be a fairly quiet section of a provincial city, but apparently that picture (undated in the show) was taken more than 20 years ago.

The Jiyu Gakuen School is clearly not the best documented of Wright’s Japanese projects. (It goes unmentioned in Meryle Secrest’s 1992 biography.) Still, it’s a bit frustrating to walk out of an exhibit that focuses on only three buildings with such simple questions left unanswered. It is difficult to comprehend fully the mercurial temperament and wide-ranging interests of Wright, whose diverse architectural legacy is so contrary to the work of today’s acclaimed one-idea architects. Still, if “American Spirit Alive in Japan’’ couldn’t have entirely detailed even this brief moment in Wright’s 70-year career, if could have at least filled a few more of the blanks.CP