No Tomorrow for Wright Landmark?
The “Building of Tomorrow” that Frank Lloyd Wright built 69 years ago has survived the worst of man and nature. But the great architect’s legacy may meet its match in Tokyo’s land fever.
Marked by the horizontal planes and simple wood and mortar of Wright’s “Prairie style,” the building sits cracked and leaking on a green square of land encroached by high-rises and construction cranes in one of Tokyo’s busier sections.
The approximately 3,000-square-yard plot owned by Jiyu Gakuen, or Freedom School, is worth at least $230 million, according to the school’s president, Gyo Hani.
That may prove to be an offer the school cannot refuse.
The controversy over Myonichikan, or “Building of Tomorrow,” points up more than just the dominance of assets over aesthetics in Tokyo’s constantly changing skyline, where few traditional structures remain since the firebombing of World War II.
Architectural landmarks are rare and legal protections weak in a nation with a habit of rebuilding itself from fires, earthquakes and war.
In Japan, says Prof. Hiroyuki Suzuki of Tokyo University, artistry bows to function. “Generally speaking, Japanese love new buildings.”
Wright himself, the father of organic architecture, preached that “the building should be a natural circumstance of the land.” But the fields and farmhouses amid which he built Myonichikan in 1921 are no longer there. Today, the building is used as a center for craft making and other activities.
Hani insists that there is no plan to sell, but he says financial security is his first priority as head of Jiyu Gakuen, now a 25-acre campus about 10 miles north of the site.
“If Mr. Wright came in here today, he wouldn’t have built it like this. . . . It shows spaciousness,” Hani says. “I doubt the value of that building standing there amid many ugly high-rise buildings.”
The president has resisted efforts by alumni and Tokyo architects to have the government declare the building an Important Cultural Asset.
Such a decision, which is made by private owners in Japan, would obligate the government to pay 50% of the funds needed to rebuild Myonichikan. But it would also obligate Hani not to sell the land.
Hani’s cousin, Yuko Hani, is seeking to raise the estimated $2 million needed to save Myonichikan. Both are related to the school’s founders.
“If Japan is a great economic power, why doesn’t it spend money on preserving these cultural assets?” Yuko Hani asked. “In that sense we certainly can’t call ourselves a civilized nation, can we?”
Wright, who died in 1959, designed the building while in Tokyo to supervise the construction of his Imperial Hotel, which was later razed. Along with a private home near Osaka, Myonichikan is the only Wright building left in Japan.
Edwin O. Reischauer, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan who died this year, wrote that Myonichikan “symbolized Japan’s search in the 1920s to become a liberal, innovative nation and a free democratic society.”
Gyo Hani says symbols are nice, but with $230 million in land underneath, “we don’t want to commit our posterity to giving up important assets.”