TOKYO — Ever since Commodore Perry sailed his black ships into Japanese waters in 1853, Western architects and aesthetes alike have harbored a fascination with Japanese design. Frank Lloyd Wright was no exception.
Wright's buildings with their strong lines and hovering roofs seem to bear the stamp of traditional Japanese architecture, but in fact, explained the architect, "nothing from `Japan' helped at all, except the marvel of the Japanese print." While Wright may have studied the displays of Japanese art at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, it was not until his first trip to Japan in 1905 that he amassed 200 wood-block prints and enough expertise on the subject to stage an exhibition of his collection at the Art Institute of Chicago the following year.
The architect was deeply impressed by the printmaker's ability to express the essential characteristics and true "nature" of his subject with a minimum of means. Wright biographer Robert C. Twombly explains that "in analyzing printmaking Wright was actually describing the methods by which he worked and the objectives he himself sought."
Wright's interest in Japanese art may have helped him secure the Imperial Hotel commission in 1913. At that time, a Western architect was sought to design the new hotel, which was envisioned as a social center for the ever-increasing number of travelers from Europe and America. Wright, who spent months at a time in Japan working on the project, had a hand in every aspect of design - from copper roof to cups and saucers.
When the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck Tokyo on the hotel's opening day, Wright's edifice miraculously survived. Regretably, the hotel's management in 1968 had it demolished to make way for a new and bigger hotel. Today, all that remains of the Imperial Hotel is its entry lobby, which was rebuilt at Meiji Mura, a building museum outside Nagoya.
By contrast, the Yamamura residence that Wright designed in 1918 for a wealthy sake maker sits on a hillside outside Kobe, west of Tokyo, in fully restored splendor. Now owned by the Yodogawa Steel Co., the house was declared an Important Cultural Property by the government in the 1980s and underwent a $1.9 million restoration.