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Despite its reverence for tradition, Japan has an ambivalent — and unsentimental — relationship with its Modernist architecture. Why preparing for the future sometimes means destroying the past.
EVERY 20 YEARS, the most sacred Shinto site in Japan — the Grand Shrine at Ise — is completely torn down and replaced with a replica, constructed to look as weathered and authentic as the original structure built by an emperor in the seventh century. To many of us in the West, this sounds as sacrilegious as rebuilding the Western Wall tomorrow or hiring a Roman laborer to repaint the Sistine Chapel once a generation. But Japan has a different sense of what’s genuine and what’s not — of the relation of old to new — than we do; if the historic could benefit from a little help from art, or humanity, the reasoning goes, then wouldn’t it be unnatural not to provide it?
The motto guiding Japan’s way of being might be: New is the new old. For proof, you need only look at three recent high-profile and much-debated demolition jobs in Tokyo. The Hotel Okura, an icon of Japanese Modernism built in 1962 to commemorate the country’s arrival in the major leagues of nations as the host of the 1964 Olympics and cherished for its unique and atmospheric lobby, is currently being reduced to rubble in favor of two no doubt anonymous glass towers, meant to announce Japan’s continuing position in the big leagues, as the host of the 2020 Olympics.
The once state-of-the-art National Olympic Stadium, designed by Mitsuo Katayama for the 1964 event, is being replaced by tomorrow’s idea of futurism: a new structure that was, until recently, set to be designed by Zaha Hadid. Even Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market and the mainstay of jet-lagged sightseers for decades — is being mostly moved to a shopping mall, with the assurance that a copy of a place can sometimes look more authentic than the place itself. These erasures — most notably of the Okura, which became the personal cause of Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta — have elicited protests from devoted aesthetes the world over: What could the Japanese be thinking?
The answer is simple: The Japanese are different from you and me. They don’t confuse books with their covers. Over the course of my 28 years in the country, I’ve come to see my adopted home as a land of pragmatic romantics; it’s strikingly unsentimental — to our eyes — in finding new ways to generate sentiment. This is, after all, the place where those who are missing grandparents think nothing of turning to a company to hire elderly actors when a family dinner is scheduled; it’s a place where I watched Kyoto celebrate its 1,200-year anniversary in 1994 by erecting a 17-story hotel (now also run by the Okura chain) that destroyed the classic sightlines from the center of the ancient capital to the magic mountains to the northeast.
A quarter of a century earlier, Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated Mayan Revival-style Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, having survived both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the firebombings of World War II, was unceremoniously torn down to make way for a generic tower block. […]