The passion of Tomas

Fashion is not all glitz and glamour. While its primary concern is to give us a veneer of beauty, fashion has real power for good. Beyond the runway, it can influence society, if it wants to, and fashion conglomerates certainly have the financial and cultural clout to give some substance to our vanity.

There are trailblazers: Prada established an art foundation in Milan; Issey Miyake built a design museum in Tokyo; François Pinault (an art collector and the main shareholder in Gucci’s parent company, Kering) turned a palazzo into a contemporary art museum in Venice; Donna Karan promotes Haitian artisans; Yohji Yamamoto set up a Sino-Japanese scholarship fund; and Bernard Arnault (CEO of LVMH) created an art site for Louis Vuitton in Paris.


In the same spirit, Bottega Veneta, with Tomas Maier at the helm, has launched an initiative to raise awareness of the threat facing Japan’s modernist buildings as Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics. Some of the post-war structures at risk include Kagawa Prefectural Government Office, (Kenzo Tange, 1958); Hotel Okura Tokyo (Yoshiro Taniguchi, 1962); Nissay Theatre (Togo Murano, 1963); Yoyogi National Stadium, Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, St Mary’s Cathedral (Kenzo Tange, 1964).

Maier explains that buildings from the post-war period are not landmarked in Japan, unlike temples, and are vulnerable to the wrecking ball. Part of Bottega’s strategy is an online campaign, #MyMomentAtOkura, that encourages visitors to post pictures of the Hotel Okura on a special Instagram page, a simple gesture which he hopes would speak volumes.

Julian Worrall, a scholar of Japanese contemporary architecture, shared Maier’s sentiment in The Japan Times: ‘The lobby of the main building is a peerless exemplar of early 1960s Japanese modernism, with shoji screens, geometric pendant lamps and low chairs grazing on a lush Serengeti of tatami-toned carpet. Aficionados of the atmospherics of mid-century Tokyo are advised to soak up the ambience now, before it disappears, like so much else of that period, into wistful remembrance.’

The Okura’s president, Masaki Ikeda, told the Washington Post that the renovation project is “going to create something that is even more aesthetically pleasing”. But Rachel B Doyle cast doubt on his plan in a Yahoo! report: “Ikeda claims that the 53-year old building has outdated plumbing [totally fixable] and that making it compliant with modern earthquake regulations will be too expensive [more than the $1B they’re spending to build a new one? Doubtful].”

Last autumn, Maier and I had stayed at the Okura, missing each other by only a few days. Both of us were there to experience the hotel – and its iconic lobby – one last time before Yoshio Taniguchi and Masaki Ikeda set out to demolish it this summer in the name of “redevelopment”. Later, I caught up with Maier in New York.

Japan has a special place in your heart.
Japan does have a special place in my heart. I have an enormous admiration for Japanese craftsmanship and design. In 2010, we held a student design competition in cooperation with the University of Tokyo as part of Salone del Mobile, where I was able to meet so many talented young Japanese designers.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with the legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki for Bottega’s SS15 ad campaign?
I am a long-time admirer of Araki and was very pleased we were able to work together. I knew that he would bring his own distinctive signature to the images, even though our models would be understandably more clothed than his usual subjects.

How was your stay at the Okura?
My first visit to the Okura was unforgettable. I was struck by the beauty of the natural light coming through the screens, the subtle design and colouration of the lobby furniture, the poetic lighting fixtures, just everything.

Why do you think its impending destruction is a tragedy?
It’s a tragedy because the Okura is truly one of a kind, and once it’s gone the world loses it for ever.

Who are your favourite Japanese architects?
Togo Murano, Kunio Maekawa, Yoshiro Taniguchi, Kenzo Tange and their peers refused to cling to old conventions. They brought in new methods in terms of forms and materials. This attitude speaks to me.

What aspects of their design appeals to you?
Japan’s post-war architects were able to synthesise the era’s American and European Modernism with the traditional ‘minus aesthetics’ of Japan. This combination of Eastern and Western cultural influences is very unique.

What are the threats facing them?
It’s a different story for each building. In some cases the buildings are being taken down in preparation for the upcoming Olympics. In other cases, the buildings are being renovated, but beyond recognition. Of course, a building has to function for real life, so even the most beautiful structure needs to be updated in order to become useful as an office building or home or hotel.

But too often, the renovation is not a sensitive one and it destroys the essence of the building. I don’t think there is any debate that great, historic architecture should be preserved for future generations.

For instance, Japan has protected many of its ancient temples and shrines as national treasure. The problem is that Japan’s post-war architecture is not yet fully appreciated in this same way. In our rush towards “progress”, it’s easy to forget that architecture is the face of a city – it gives character to the city. When distinctive architecture is destroyed, it is a loss for its residents as well as its visitors.

What if replacing old buildings is a uniquely Japanese experience?
Yes, there is a huge demand for new buildings in Japan due to economics, cultural attitudes and seismic activity. I have read that half of all homes in the country are demolished within 38 years, which is quite remarkable. But what we are talking about here is the preservation of a handful of very special post-war buildings designed by true masters.

In what ways are you bringing awareness to the public?
We partnered on a special issue with the Japanese architecture magazine Casa BRUTUS, which was a very satisfying way to explore this topic in depth. We also sponsored a symposium in Kanazawa where we invited leading architects to discuss the endangered architecture.

What have you learnt from your dialogue with Japanese architects?
I’ve learnt a lot from speaking with architects such as Fumihiko Maki and Toshiko Mori – particularly it’s been interesting to understand how they explain the Japanese attitudes towards new construction, which is very much tied to the country’s experience following World War II.

by Peter Yeoh


About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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