Making Kyoto’s modern architecture part of the city’s heritage

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

On the Kamo River of Kyoto, a city renowned for its traditional wooden houses and temples, sits a neglected concrete building. Though now looking a little forlorn, when it opened 40 years ago, this was the glamorous Hotel Fujita Kyoto, a holiday spot much loved by numerous sophisticated visitors, including Shintaro Katsu, the star of the original “Zatoichi” series of films, the renowned architect Kazuo Shinohara, other actors, artists, scientists, writers and more. On Jan. 29 of this year, however, it closed its doors and now awaits its fate, possibly to be torn down to make way for something new.

The architect of Hotel Fujita, Junzo Yoshimura (1908-97), was highly respected — so much so that he was trusted to design part of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and the new wing of Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto. He familiarized himself with traditional Japanese wooden architecture (he once personally measured a Kyoto teahouse to understand its proportions) and his work for architect Antonin Raymond both in Japan and in the United States put him at the forefront of modern architecture.

Overlooking the Kamo, Yoshimura’s hotel offered guests a fantastic view of the river against the backdrop of the Higashi-yama mountains. Its relatively small size gave it an intimate and cozy atmosphere, and its basement bar had the unexpected view of a manmade waterfall behind the river bank.

“I strongly want to infuse the spirit of wooden structures into concrete buildings,” said Yoshimura, explaining his aesthetic in “Kenchikuzasshi” (“Journal of Architecture and Building Science”).

At a time when many architects struggled to bring modern architecture into a Japanese aesthetic context, creating new buildings in Kyoto — where so many traditional-style structures were not only steeped in 1,200 years of history but also complemented the surrounding nature — could only have been an extra challenge. Who dared compete with the masters who created buildings such as the ve-story pagoda at Toji Temple or the Imperial Villa in Katsura?

“Modern Architecture in Kyoto” at the Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT) introduces those who did dare and illustrates that Kyoto does indeed have many modernist buildings. The exhibition covers 22 outstanding structures built between the 1920s and ’70s, including the Hotel Fujita Kyoto, an example of an architect’s effort to harmonize a concrete building with the historical landscape.

KIT was established in 1949 as a union of an engineering, design and applied arts school and a sericulture school, both of which have a history going back more than 100 years. This exhibition is the first time that KIT has offered “a comprehensive picture of modernist architecture in Kyoto,” says the organizer of the show, Prof. Hiroshi Matsukuma, who hopes that the exhibition will help visitors understand the signi cance of modern buildings.

Matsukuma believes that such architecture should be recognized as important heritage on the level of the city’s temples and shrines. The recent renovation plans for Kyoto Kaikan Hall (1960), which are putting the structure in danger of losing its original identity, he says, spurred him to organize the exhibition.

“Kyoto Kaikan Hall, a multicultural hall for concerts and events, is an important example of architecture designed by Kunio Mayekawa, a disciple of Le Corbusier. It carries a kind of quality that echoes the big eaves of traditional wooden houses and the gate of Nanzenji Temple,” he explains. “So many modern buildings have been torn down without much debate. We should raise the awareness of their importance in order to preserve them.”

Such works, Matsukuma stresses, are also a great resource for future architects. “We and the following generations can learn so much through these ne examples,” he says, “such as how to combine Japanese tradition and modern techniques and how to create new buildings in tune with the existing environment of the city.”

On display are new photographs of buildings, taken by Yasushi Ichikawa, accompanied by panels explaining each building’s history, as well as related documents, drawings and models. Some examples are outstanding, such as The Catholic Katsura Church (1965) by George Nakashima, which displays a dynamism in its structure, and Koji Fujii’s Chochiku-kyo private residence (1928), a forerunner of the architect’s eco house, which combines the environmental-engineering of Japanese traditional houses with modern technology. Both these buildings are on the list of buildings selected by Docomomo (Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement).

Most of the models on show, which are meticulous in detail, were made by Matsukuma’s students, one of whom even used his own money to stay at Hotel Fujita so that he could fully absorb its atmosphere and translate it into his model. Even Kyoto Tower (1964), a structure so heavily criticized that it was often omitted from architectural publications, and is still a subject of debate concerning the protection of Kyoto’s skyline, is seen in a new light. Mamoru Yamada’s detailed plans and drawings of the giant structure highlight its use of innovative technology.

“Much modern architecture from the period this exhibition covers is still standing. Kyoto escaped the heavy bombing of World War II and it hasn’t suffered major earthquakes. But most people don’t recognize the buildings’ historical and artistic importance because they regard them merely as facilities,” says Matsukuma. “It’s a pity if we let them disappear, at least without much debate. We run the risk of losing a link to a particular time in the history of architecture.”

“Modern Architecture in Kyoto” at the Kyoto Institute of Technology runs till May 8; admission ¥200; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Sun. For more information, visit www.cis.kit.ac.jp/~siryokan/20110207.html (Japanese only) or call (075) 724-7924.