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The present iteration of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which has been called “a failure of design”. Photo: Shutterstock Images

In Japan, will Imperial Hotel’s US$2 billion facelift make it finally fit for royalty?

  • The storied hotel has hosted distinguished guests from Lee Kuan Yew to Queen Elizabeth, but urban designer Hiroo Ichikawa sees it as a ‘failure of design’
  • He’s hoping the owners of the Imperial Hotel, including real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan, will approve a new design that is truly spectacular
The storied Imperial Hotel in Japan’s capital is to be demolished and rebuilt at an estimated cost of nearly US$2 billion, part of a larger redevelopment of several blocks of the city’s Yurakucho district, although not many are expected to lament its passing.

The venerable Imperial may be a landmark that has hosted royalty, foreign leaders, world-renowned sporting heroes, and stars of the stage and screen, but an urban designer told This Week in Asia that it was time for a hotel that’s very much a product of the 1960s to be replaced.

Hiroo Ichikawa, a former professor of urban planning and policy at Meiji University, said he considered the present building to be “ugly” and “badly designed” – and that he hoped the new incarnation of the hotel would better reflect the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, the US architect who designed the cutting-edge second generation of the property, which opened in 1923.

The facade of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Tokyo Imperial Hotel, which was dismantled from its original site in 1968 and then reconstructed at the Meiji-Mura architecture museum near Nagoya, Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

“My honest opinion about the present hotel is that it is a failure of design,” he said. “Frank Lloyd Wright designed a unique and wonderful building and I see this as an opportunity for the owners of the property to really emulate what he did a century ago.

“Right now, the hotel is ugly, and I shall be very disappointed if the new design fails to at least reflect some of the thoughts and design concepts that were in that earlier hotel.”

The Imperial Hotel is expected to make a formal announcement about its plans at the end of March, although it is giving little away about the form and functions of the property, which is expected to reopen its doors to guests in 2036,

A high-rise annex is due to be completed in advance of that date, with the main building the final piece of the hotel project.

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Real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan owns a stake of around 30 per cent in the hotel and reportedly envisages it becoming the centrepiece of an ambitious regeneration of several surrounding blocks that face Hibiya Park and the outer gardens and moat of the Imperial Palace.

The aim is to incorporate the hotel with the green space of the park with an eye-catching bridge over the six-lane road that separates it from the park, while simultaneously redeveloping neighbouring office buildings. The only structure that will escape the wreckers’ ball is the Takarazuka Grand Theatre, home to the famous all-female Takarazuka Revue and only completed in 2001.

The first Imperial Hotel was built on the present site in the late 1880s in response to requests from the nation’s leaders for a suitable hotel for the increasing number of foreign visitors to Tokyo. Completed in 1890, the three-storey hotel was in the German neo-Renaissance style but was destroyed by fire in April 1922, while Britain’s Edward, Prince of Wales, was a guest. The prince was attending a garden party, however, and there was no loss of life.

Wright was invited to design the replacement, which opened in June 1923. Considered in architectural circles as a masterpiece, it incorporated designs from the Mayans and the Hopi Indians of the Americas and was detailed, dramatic and ahead of its time.


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It was, however, damaged in the September 1923 earthquake that laid waste to large parts of Tokyo, although it was subsequently repaired. The H-shaped building suffered further damage from bombing and fires during World War II, but after further repairs it lasted until the mid-1960s.

Part of Wright’s design were preserved, but the third version of the hotel is a 17-storey tower with 772 guest rooms, while construction of a 31-storey annex was completed in 1983.

The hotel has 17 restaurants and bars – which serve the Mount Fuji, the hotel’s signature cocktail, which was first poured in 1923 and is a combination of gin, pineapple, lemon and egg white, served with a glace cherry – a fitness centre, pool, sauna, a traditional teahouse and business centre facilities, but there has been precious little acclaim for its visual appeal.

Yet the name still held cachet. Guests have included Queen Elizabeth and baseball legend Babe Ruth, Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Bob Hope. The shoe shiner in the lobby has buffed the shoes of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the cowboy boots of John Wayne.

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The most pressing problem recently has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism in Japan. The Nikkei newspaper reported that the hotel suffered a loss of 8.6 billion yen (US$78.7 million) for the nine months that ended in December, a dramatic turnaround from the profit of 3 billion yen reported for the previous full year.

With a state of emergency in place and most foreign visitors still banned from entering Japan, occupancy of the hotel has slumped to around 10 per cent.

The operator has attempted to halt the decline by turning some of the hotel’s suites into full-service rental flats aimed at telecommuting businessmen, but the ultimate goal is to have a new five-star hotel in a few years to compete with the growing number of other high-end properties in the city.

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But Ichikawa remains hopeful that the owners of the hotel, including Mitsui Fudosan, are aware of the cultural and historic significance of the hotel and will approve a design that reflects that history but pushes new architectural envelopes.

“Mitsui Fudosan’s great rival is Mitsubishi Estate, which is pushing ahead with the redevelopment of the nearby Marunouchi district and the area directly around Tokyo Station,” Ichikawa said. “It’s an area of office buildings and stores and their approach has been quite conservative.

“I hope that Mitsui Fudosan are more adventurous with their vision for the hotel and the surrounding area,” he added. “This is an opportunity for them to make their own mark, to be seen to be different, to make an area famed for entertainment something special.”