Hotel Okura

A lost relic of 1960s Japanese modernism, few spaces are as sorely missed as the iconic lobby of Tokyo’s Hotel Okura.

The Okura was built in 1962 ahead of Tokyo’s much-anticipated turn at hosting the 1964 Olympic games. Symbolising the new-found optimism of post-war Japan, the hotel’s design team – led by noted architect Yoshiro Taniguchi – aimed to blend the richness of traditional craft with the pared-back modernism of the time. The result was like nothing the city had ever seen: boldly international and yet somehow intrinsically Japanese.

With its perfect linear symmetry and cavernous proportions, the lobby was the Okura’s proud centrepiece. On first impression, the space exuded the kind of retro opulence that earned its suave reputation; giant shoji paper screens, warm wood panelling and plush, sound-absorbing carpets. But much of the lobby’s magic was also in the less obvious details and references; the trails of hexagonal lanterns that seemed to drip from the ceiling were inspired by ancient Japanese burial beads. Chairs and tables were deliberately spaced to look like five-petalled plum blossoms. And the ‘hishi-mon’ diamond-shaped motif found throughout the hotel was a signature of the Japanese Imperial Court.

Hailed as one of Tokyo’s finest hotels, the Okura soon became the beloved haunt of diplomats, journalists and presidents – thanks in part to its proximity to the US embassy, but also its good looks and legendary good service. The lobby even makes a brief appearance as the backdrop to a scene from 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice.

However, despite repeated minor renovations, the building had been in steady decline. Aside from failing the latest earthquake regulations and tired plumbing, its mid-century facilities were increasingly unable to compete with the city’s more modern hotels. Enlisting the design talent of Yoshio Taniguchi (the original architect’s son), plans were set to demolish and rebuild the main wing of the Okura in time for 2020, when Tokyo will again host the Olympic Games.

Unsurprisingly, opposition to the demolition was fierce. In the hope of persuading its owners to preserve the historic parts of the building, Monocle magazine launched to highlight the hotel’s cultural importance and a social media campaign #MyMomentAtOkura asked people to share their most treasured experiences at the hotel. Sadly, neither petitions or outspoken figures from the world of architecture and design could save the Okura, and it was partially closed for demolition and reconstruction in 2015.

Many suggest that the hotel fell victim to Tokyo’s ‘tear down’ culture, which has seen a number of buildings demolished and replaced in recent years. As Fiona Wilson, the Tokyo bureau chief of Monocle wrote during the publication’s campaign, “Change and construction are features of life in Tokyo and contribute to the city’s thrilling sense of purpose and energy, but should they come at the expense of the capital’s history and identity?”. There will never be anywhere quite like the original Hotel Okura. But its loss has at least opened up an important conversation on how we find the right balance between preserving the past and making way for the future.

By Natalya Frederick