Sometime in the next few months, the last drink will be sold in the Hotel Okura's Orchid Bar. The final patron will pay their tab and stroll out through the dimly lit lobby. Their quick exit after last call, across rich green carpets, below hanging lamps cut like paper lanterns and a vast screen of four-petal flowers, isn't just the end of an evening, but a stroll through Japanese design history. It'll be a last look at a joint project between architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and Hideo Kosaka that symbolizes a moment in time, optimistic '60s Tokyo, and a synthesis of craft and design.
"It's not just a building," says Don Choi, Associate Professor of Architecture at Cal Poly, of the soon-to-be demolished Hotel Okura, which is undergoing a massive renovation beginning in September. "It's the lighting fixtures, the furniture. What's exciting is that you see this concept of Japanese design history play out across the lobby. You wouldn't see that in Paris or New York. That attention to detail makes it a complete work of art."
According to Ryutaro Suzuki, the hotel's Director of Public Relations, the new design, overseen by Yoshio Taniguchi (the son of the original architect) and scheduled to open in 2019, will preserve the blend of traditional Japanese art and modern design that served the original so well. While additional details are forthcoming, at a cost of a hundred billion yen will be spent (roughly $837.5 million dollars), the new-look Okura will received a significant upgrade for the upcoming 2022 Olympic Games.
While one Olympics may have provided an incentive to add new rooms, the previous 1964 Tokyo Olympics served as the hotel's catalyst. Going up in 1962 during a golden age of postwar architecture, when structures like Kenzo Tange's sweeping Yoyogi National Gymnasium announced the era of cloistered, postwar austerity was over, the hotel immediately started rolling out the red carpet for celebs, presidents and high-profile guests. Set on the grounds of a former feudal estate across from the U.S. Embassy, the Okura reflected a growing internationalism and a certain '60s Tokyo chic, a blend of Parisian style and Japan's own elegant approach to food and service.
"In many ways, it's the little stuff that mattered," says Dana Buntrock, an architecture professor at UC Berkeley who recently visited the Okura. "The elevator was nothing great, but the elevator lady would elevate the whole experience. The Okura still feels like that. Perhaps that's what people want to save, the uniforms, guys walking through the lobby with a signboard and bells, or architecturally, the little backlit strip of alabaster in the bar and the low carrels with chairs on the mezzanine level. That reminds you of an age of elegance."
Okura didn't have a monopoly on midcentury charm. The International House, built in 1955 by a trio of architects associated with Le Corbusier, and Junzo Sakakura's Institut Franco-Japonais de Tokyo both exemplify the era. But in a country where mainstream preservation normally focuses on centuries-old shrine and temple architecture, the Okura, which received periodic updates from Yoshio Taniguchi, still seems eclectic and elevated, despite its age. Taniguchi and Kosaka's interior, dignified on the surface, has the patterns and motifs of Japanese history cut into the walls like tree rings; diamond shapes recall those used in the Imperial court, hemp leaf designs on screens were lifted from kimono patterns, and overlapping Chigaidana shelves recall layers of fog in the distance.
"It's like one of those grande dame gals wearing her '60s vintage miniskirt," Buntrock says. "You go: wow, she still has legs, doesn't she?"
But economics, as the current renovation plans suggest, don't favor the wishes of the preservation crowd. Addressing seismic issues for a concrete building of this size, especially in light of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan a few years ago, requires serious investment, and while it may be a bitter pill to swallow, so will the little service touches and extra staff required to maintain the Okura patina. Management says while it's theoretically possible to retrofit the old building with earthquake-resistant technology, financially, it's totally impractical.
"Hotel Okura Tokyo, which opened in 1962, was built with what was then a state-of-the-art infrastructure, incorporating the most advanced electrical, communications and building technologies available at that time," says Suzuki. "Fast forward 53 years, and the infrastructure of the hotel has aged gravely and so have our guest rooms."
Suzuki says the final blowout will take place the week of August 24. Billed as "The Grand Stage," the long-running nostalgia campaign will commence with a traditional Noh theater performance, the crescendo of the hotel's 300-day "This is Okura" promotional campaign. Amid memories from generations of guests, the hotel will also throw one final lobby concert. After decades serving as a crossroads of sorts for travelers, it seems fitting the grand lobby gets to take a final bow.