July 11, 2014 4:32 pm

The Fast Lane: Let’s save a masterpiece

The Okura, in Tokyo, the last great 1960s original in that city . . . is to be ripped down

It wasn’t my intention to make last week’s column a cliffhanger but I have so many views on hospitality, mindless renovations and the constant race for innovation (when all guests really want are the basics, delivered smoothly) that I ran out of space.

For those who missed it, last week’s column was about the disappearance of many of the features that make for a great international business hotel and I went on to lament the imminent destruction of one of the world’s modernist masterpieces.

I didn’t name the hotel last week but the Fast Lane postbag quickly filled with correspondence from readers who knew the property I was referring to and asked how they might prevent the bulldozers from moving in.

The hotel in question is the Okura, in Tokyo – the last great 1960s original in that city and without question one of the most loved modernist hotels in the world. From late summer 2015, the original building is to be ripped down and replaced by a rather dull-looking tower, while the south wing (also a modernist delight) is set to stay – but who knows for how long? Early illustrations show a glass tower, a boxy, low-slung annex and the south wing still intact.

From Marc Newson to Jasper Morrison, the world’s most respected designers all have favourite nooks and features within the sprawling property

At a time when Tokyo is trying to position itself as a capital of cool (it’s doing fine in this department already, albeit with some odd definitions of what actually constitutes “cool”), and as a place that prides itself on heritage and is also environmentally minded, this initiative is wrong on every level.

For starters, no other mid-century hotel boasts a loyal following of architects, designers and artists quite like the Okura. From Marc Newson to Jasper Morrison, the world’s most respected designers all have favourite nooks and features within the sprawling property and which turn up on mood boards and plans for other projects. The hotel’s back-lit façade, for example, has been the inspiration for countless luxury goods stores’ display concepts, while the lobby’s subtle tones have become shorthand for a certain type of hushed elegance. The Orchid Bar’s beaten-copper table tops have been replicated by many lounges hoping to capture even 5 per cent of this establishment’s smoky, twinkling, tinkling ambience.

Why the owners would want to mess with such a fine piece of design and architecture leaves many speechless and racing to book rooms before the party’s over. While the hotel rooms do leave a lot to be desired and should be brought back to their former glory if the management can be persuaded to let the property remain, the rest of the place just needs a few nips and tucks to keep it looking fresh.

The wonderful geometric Seiko timezone map of the world, complete with buttons beside major world cities that display the local time when pressed, employs different Japanese prints to represent the continents and is nothing short of a national treasure representing Japan’s rise to industrial greatness. And how can anyone even consider replacing a tiny little kiosk staffed by an elegant woman in a kimono?

Japan suffers from a rather unhealthy culture that likes to rip things down and replace them with shiny replicas that never quite work, or with entirely new projects that eradicate history altogether. Not only is this a wasteful and not particularly eco-friendly approach to development, it also fuels a system of vested interests (property developers, land owners and suppliers) who keep each other in business. While I’m not advocating a halt to development, I do think the Okura should stand as an example of Japanese ingenuity in engineering and design. The easy route is to knock something down and build a tower. True genius would be to preserve the original hotel and build a tower above and around it.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to use the 2020 Olympic Games as a platform to demonstrate all that’s good about Japan, and the country’s biggest industrial players are all falling into line to show the world how good they are at infrastructure, retail, hospitality, waste management and digital connectivity. By saving the Okura, the hotel’s owners could set a new tone for others in the country to follow. The last thing the travel sector needs is more hotels built and designed by a clutch of international firms with little or no personality.

Many readers have asked what can be done, so I’ve decided to launch an online petition in the hope of forcing a rethink. Whether you’re a lover of the Okura or simply believe that fine institutions should be preserved, please visit Monocle’s microsite savetheokura.com. It has more information about the hotel and its importance. I’ll keep you updated on progress.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

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