Are ’70s landmarks savable?

Hanae Mori Building still sound, don't raze it: tenants

by Akemi Nakamura

Standing along Tokyo’s Omote-sando Dori leading up to Meiji Shrine, the glassy, glittering, five-story Hanae Mori Building has been a landmark in the swanky Aoyama shopping district for 30 years.

But now the building, designed by famed architect Kenzo Tange, who died in 2005, is facing demolition. Obayashi Real Estate Corp., owner of the structure, plans to raze it and redevelop the site.

Tenants and architects oppose the plan. The building, they argue, is an example of 1970s Japanese modernist architecture and it houses one of the largest antiques malls in the country.

Kenji Watanabe, an associate professor of architectural history at Tokai University in Kanagawa Prefecture, said the Hanae Mori Building should not face the wrecking ball unless it has structural problems.

The building is a typical commercial complex of the 1970s and can be categorized as modern architecture, he said.

Modern architecture, advocated by, among others, Swiss-born French architect and painter Le Corbusier (1887-1965), focuses on function without ornamentation.

Erected in 1977 as a base for fashion designer Hanae Mori, the building when viewed from above looks like a butterfly — Mori’s signature design.

One of the first glass structures in Japan, it is also unusual for being one of the few projects Tange completed here, most of his work being done overseas in the 1970s, Watanabe said.

According to owners of some of the antiques shops in the building’s basement, the real estate company last year informed the tenants that the building would be replaced to increase floor space and that they would have to move out by July 2009.

Obayashi Real Estate said it is too early to reveal its redevelopment plan to the media.

The face of Tokyo is continually changing as old buildings are torn down and replaced by new ones.

Recent years have seen scores of new structures replace old ones in Omote-sando in Shibuya and Minato wards and Marunouchi in Chiyoda Ward.

Despite calls for preservation, the Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments, built on Omote-sando Dori in 1927, were replaced by the Omotesando Hills complex in 2006, while the Sanshin Building, built in Chiyoda Ward in 1929, was also demolished.

Developers take a “scrap and build” tack, raising new structures with better quake-resistance and pulling down old ones containing asbestos, while increasing economic efficiency via greater floor space, experts say.

While it is understandable for businesses to pursue economic efficiency, knocking down a 30-year-old building that has no major defects is simply unnecessary, argues Mahito Kanayama, a member of the Japan Institute of Architects who has worked to preserve structures.

“I wonder why (the developer) doesn’t use the (Hanae Mori) building longer,” he said. “I think the building should be used for another 30 years after necessary repair work is carried out.”

Echoing Kanayama, Watanabe of Tokai University likens demolishing a 30-year-old building to destroying the environment.

But the architects admit that in the absence of clear evaluation standards, it is difficult to ensure 1970s structures are preserved. Their appearance, unlike older buildings such as the Aoyama apartments or the Sanshin, may lack the character to garner public support for their preservation.

According to Cultural Affairs Agency rules, a building must be at least 50 years old to be designated a cultural asset.

A group of architects, including Watanabe, has formed a Japan branch of Paris-based docomomo international, an organization dedicated to preserving examples of modern architecture. Docomomo stands for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.

Since 2000, Watanabe’s group, docomomo Japan, has selected 135 buildings nationwide that members believe should be preserved, including a 1976 reinforced concrete house in Osaka designed by architect Tadao Ando. The group contacts the property owners and tries to persuade them to preserve their buildings for their historical or cultural value.

If no effort is made to preserve modern buildings, historically or culturally important structures from the 20th century could be lost, Watanabe said.

When a rebuilding plan is hatched, the parties involved should take the time to discuss the value of the structure, he added.

Some Hanae Mori Building tenants oppose the demolition on grounds that the basement antiques market must be saved.

Last month, to focus more publicity on the market, about 30 shops there dealing in Western, Japanese and other Asian antiques celebrated their 30th anniversary with auctions and other events. More are planned for the future.

“This antiques market has been recognized (by dealers) in Paris and London,” said Yotaro Katsura, who has run a shop specializing in antique jewelry in the building for 28 years. “There is no other venue like this where many shops deal with quality items and services. If I were driven out of this building, I would have no choice but to close down my business.”