A Virtual Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Japanese Masterpiece, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo

Tokyo once had a hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright. Such an archi­tec­tur­al asset, one might assume, would be pre­served at all costs, yet this one was demol­ished in 1967. But the fact that Wright’s Impe­r­i­al Hotel stood for only 45 years won’t sur­prise any­one famil­iar with Japan­ese build­ing cul­ture, nor will the fact that it was only one of a series of Impe­r­i­al Hotels that have occu­pied the same site. As evi­denced by the Ise Grand Shrine, which has been demol­ished and rebuilt every twen­ty years since the eighth cen­tu­ry, a struc­ture’s val­ue in Japan has noth­ing to do with its longevi­ty. Still, this expla­na­tion may not sat­is­fy Wright enthu­si­asts, the great major­i­ty of whom have only been able to see the mas­ter’s most famous Japan­ese build­ing in pho­tographs, dia­grams, and post­cards.

Just this year, the Frank Lloyd Trust has giv­en us a way to expe­ri­ence it as nobody could in its hey­day: a vir­tu­al tour video “shot” from the per­spec­tive of a fly­ing drone. (Watch above.) It comes as an entry in Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Works, which “brings Wright’s demol­ished and unre­al­ized struc­tures to life through immer­sive dig­i­tal ani­ma­tions recon­struct­ed from Wright’s orig­i­nal plans and draw­ings, along with archival pho­tographs.”

Here we have Wright’s East-meets-West mas­ter­piece recon­struct­ed just as it must have looked when it opened on Sep­tem­ber 1st, 1923 — the same day, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, as the Great Kan­tō earth­quake that dev­as­tat­ed Tokyo. The Impe­r­i­al Hotel took some dam­age, but came through intact.

A less­er earth­quake had already struck the pre­vi­ous year, but it left the hotel unharmed despite its still being under con­struc­tion. (The same can’t be said of the frag­ile remains of the orig­i­nal Impe­r­i­al Hotel, built in 1890 and gut­ted by fire in 1922, that Wright had been com­mis­sioned to replace.) But over sub­se­quent decades, time took its toll in oth­er ways: “the Wright-designed Impe­r­i­al would even­tu­al­ly be con­sid­ered by the post-war trav­el­er to be dark and musty,” writes Steve Sund­berg at Old Tokyo, “and its un-air-con­di­tioned rooms too small. The hotel’s foun­da­tion, too, had by then set­tled uneven­ly into the soft sub­soil; its long hall­ways and cor­ri­dors came to have a wavy, rub­bery appear­ance about them.”

Even when new, the Impe­r­i­al Hotel had its dis­com­forts: Sund­berg quotes a 1925 Far East­ern Review arti­cle call­ing it “a hun­dred years ahead of the age in its archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures and fifty years behind in many things which make for the com­fort of its patrons.” Wright “sac­ri­ficed every­thing to his art, rais­ing a mon­u­ment to his genius and bequeath­ing to the Japan­ese the dif­fi­cult task of mak­ing it a finan­cial suc­cess.” It was finan­cial exi­gen­cies, in part, that moti­vat­ed its demo­li­tion and replace­ment with a third, high-rise Impe­r­i­al Hotel in 1967 — whose own impend­ing demo­li­tion and replace­ment was announced just last year. France-based Japan­ese archi­tect Tsuyoshi Tane has pro­duced a design for the fourth Impe­r­i­al Hotel; what trib­ute, if any, it pays Wright’s lega­cy we’ll only find out when it opens in 2036.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Take a 360° Vir­tu­al Tour of Tal­iesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Per­son­al Home & Stu­dio

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Hous­es Offer Vir­tu­al Tours: Hol­ly­hock House, Tal­iesin West, Falling­wa­ter & More

That Far Cor­ner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Ange­les – A Free Online Doc­u­men­tary

Build Wood­en Mod­els of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Build­ing: The Guggen­heim, Uni­ty Tem­ple, John­son Wax Head­quar­ters & More

Why Japan Has the Old­est Busi­ness­es in the World? Hōshi, a 1300-Year-Old Hotel, Offers Clues

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • John Rushby says:

    The lob­by and more was recon­struct­ed and is open for view­ing at Mei­ji-Mura, near Nagoya.

  • Bruce Ross says:

    Won­der­ful to see the Hotel as it would have looked„ so sad it was torn down it was a mas­ter­piece of art and archi­tec­ture,

  • Jonathan Toste says:

    Mei­ji-Mura is a large acer­age out­door muse­um that hous­es recon­struct­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant build­ings. The long impres­sive entry and lob­by of Wright’s Impe­r­i­al Hotel have been quite nice­ly rebuilt and pre­served. I vis­it­ed in 1986, I’m not sure of the muse­um’s present sta­tus. Anoth­er impres­sive set of archi­tec­tur­al gems are in a sim­i­lar type muse­um in Arn­hem Ned­er­lands

  • Nancy says:

    Wow! I’m sur­prised to see you went that many years ago. My hus­band and I vis­it mei­ji mura every year except these 2 years due to COVID-19. It is still absolute­ly amaz­ing.

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