Rethink urged on revamp of '60 s chic hotel in Tokyo

Monocle's Tyler Brule goes against globalised style by leading an effort to preserve the mid-20th century modern architecture of the Okura

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2014, 5:16am

The announcement that froze the marrow of every devotee of mid-20th century modern architecture - that Hotel Okura Tokyo, the epitome of 1960s chic, is to be partly obliterated from September next year - caused a seismic reaction in the blogosphere.

But all is not yet lost - and it will not be if Tyler Brule has his way. Channelling the power of his global affairs, culture and business magazine Monocle, the Canadian journalist and entrepreneur is standing in the path of the bulldozers waving an international petition designed to force a rethink.

The Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 may be the impetus behind the decision to destroy the main hotel building in favour of a 38-storey steel-and-glass tower expansion, but Brule envisages a different means of taking gold.

"We're heading towards 6,000 names and we're not just going to forward the petition as an e-mail," says Brule. "We'll present it in a beautiful format and make sure all the hotel board members, management, cabinet office and the Tokyo governor's office see that people care. That international opinion is not just 'why are you doing this?' but that 'I'm going to vote with my feet and stay somewhere else. I might as well, because your new hotel is probably going to be like every other new property'."

Having just landed in London after another visit to the Tokyo frontlines, Brule is effusive about the singular attractions of the Okura - a cavernous, retro-kitsch lobby with an enormous, LED-lit world time zones map; period furniture and lighting; and a low-slung main building in what was once known as the "international" style - and its proposed successor, in what might be called "21st-century bland".

"Japan is an important market for us and the hotel has long been the place to have meetings, go to the Orchid Bar, the Highlander Bar, and of course I've stayed there," he says. "So I hope we have a voice to help bring about a change. It's great that people are picking up on this but you're not seeing opinion pieces in the Japanese press and that needs to happen.

"There is a cultural component here: Japanese people like to renew things, even if it means tearing something down and building it again with fresh bricks and re-upholstering the furniture. That's part of Japan's cultural heritage. Even temples are torn down and rebuilt. And people might like to go and drink in places like the Okura, but there's just not that level of respect for mid-century modern architecture."

The official Okura line reads: "The hotel's main building will go under reconstruction in preparation for reopening in spring 2019 … Hotel Okura will always continue, in the same familiar way. During the main building's reconstruction, the south wing's accommodation and banquet facilities will be open as usual."

But Brule is unconvinced by such soothing noises. "The south wing may stay, but for how long?" he asks. "There's a message that needs to get through to planners and governments. Whether it's Hong Kong or Singapore wanting to be Asia's gateway, cities are duking it out for business, tourism and investment supremacy. But if you've got the same architects building the same towers and the same stores, what are the differentiating factors? This is where I hope the penny, or the yen, will drop, that people realise what they have.

"Tokyo is working hard to re-establish itself as a financial hub. They've got all this momentum with the Olympics, but when you have amazing assets like the Okura, it's absolute lunacy that everything should look like everything else.

"I'm a child of the international style, born in the late '60s, grew up in North America. My first recollection would be a clocking of a certain style of architecture, going through those airports, those lobbies. What you see with the use of screens and patterns and lighting, all those things done in the '60s with the Okura, are missing from a lot of buildings, airports and residential towers. We've forgotten their value. If I look at the Hong Kong or Singapore skylines, there's not much that couldn't be in Houston or Toronto. Maybe the challenge should be to fly against the globalised style that big firms deliver," says Brule.