1920s villa razed despite promise of talks

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KYOTO — Demolition crews moved in Wednesday to begin tearing down a traditional Japanese villa built in the Taisho Era despite a promise the owner made three days earlier to postpone the work due to opposition from surrounding residents.

Workers set themselves up in front of the gate of Tateishi Villa, in the eastern part of the city of Kyoto near Heian Jingu shrine, in preparation for razing the nearly 80-year-old complex, which will be replaced with a modern apartment building.

Built in the early 1920s, the approximately 990-sq.-meter villa includes examples of traditional wooden architecture, a tea ceremony room, warehouses and a landscaped garden. It was formerly a retreat for a department store owner before being sold to Tateishi Forestry Co. and then to Recruit Cosmos Co.

Tateishi Villa was originally scheduled for destruction Monday. But following protests by local residents at a meeting Sunday, Hiroshi Mae, a representative for Recruit Cosmos, agreed to postpone demolition indefinitely and to consult further with residents.

However, by late Wednesday morning, a truck and several construction workers had appeared in front of the main gate of the villa to begin the demolition.

According to Keizo Hoshino and John Ashburne, who live next to the property, the controversy began about two weeks ago when neighbors were visited by developers, including Recruit Cosmos, informing them the villa would be torn down. After Hoshino expressed concern, it was agreed a general meeting would be held to explain the project. “One plan we were thinking of was to preserve the villa by turning it into an international cultural center,” Hoshino said.

Mae rejected that idea. He said the decision had already been made to tear down the villa and claimed it could not be preserved. Mae has since refused to comment on the issue. A Tokyo spokesman for Recruit Cosmos said the matter was an internal affair. “The attitude of Recruit Cosmos is typical of developers who have destroyed the traditional architecture of Kyoto,” said Marc Keane, an American architect who heads the International Society to Save Kyoto. “The developers seek out old wooden buildings to destroy. Yet no one would complain if they tore down more of the nondescript concrete structures built in the 1960s and 1970s,” Keane charged.

Over the past 15 years, at least 10,000 traditional wooden structures in Kyoto have been torn down and replaced with modern buildings. Unlike many European or American cities, Kyoto has no strong building preservation laws.

Hoshino, however, had expressed pessimism from the beginning that Tateishi Villa could be saved. “It’s not a registered historical landmark, and the city has no money to purchase and preserve it,” he said.