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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008

The time before the 'starchitects'

A missionary to Japan, William Vories started with churches


Special to The Japan Times

A brief respite from the 21st century's relentless demand for "starchitects" — exemplified by Rem Koolhaas, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry — can be found at the Museum of Modern Art, Shiga, in "100 Years of W. M. Vories' Works."

Daimaru Shinsaibashi
The Taisho Era Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store IMAGES COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, SHIGA

William Vories (1880-1964), an American who later became a naturalized Japanese citizen, was a 20th-century architect of 19th-century religious and moral persuasions who would understate his achievements, referring to his trade as a "lucrative side-issue." Vories the architect was enamored with doing Jesus the carpenter's work, taking up the spirit of humility in contrast to the present day's desire for celebrity.

Architecture had been the dream of Vories' youth, but he arrived in Japan in 1906 as an English teacher in the city of Omi Hachiman at the Shiga Prefectural Commercial School. Vories described the place as "the heart of the last determined stand of Buddhism, in its least enlightened manifestation," and local opposition to his bible classes and encouragements to convert to Christianity led to the dissolution of his teaching contract two years later. To satisfy the need for a salary, he turned to architecture, with the accumulated profits going toward the establishment of the "Omi Brotherhood" and the task of evangelism.

Vories' foray into the trade in 1907 began with an inspection of a church tower for the princely some of ¥5, followed by the securing of a site for a mission school in Japan, and drafting of preparatory sketches and final working drawings, which netted him ¥265. From such a small start, by the end of his life, there numbered some 1,091 structures in Japan and South Korea built by W. M. Vories & Company Architects. Financial support came through Vories' establishment of the Omi Sales Company, which acquired the rights to sell Mentholatum-based products of over-the-counter medications in Japan. The model of business was Christian Socialism, and work hours were restricted to an unheard of eight a day, with Sundays off.

William Vories
A sampler rather than a pioneer, William Vories often copied Art Deco styles

Formally, Vories was no architectural pioneer. Already-existing styles were deemed sufficient, and so he dispensed with an architectural "signature." His approach to building design was of a particularly utilitarian bent, and his stylistic similarities to earlier American architects from the beaux-arts tradition, such as Henry Hobson Richardson and Charles F. McKim, show Vories' emphasis on functionalism — though sometimes with the addition of ebullient decoration.

A telling example of such flourishes being integrated into one of his structures is the arched entrance to the Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store (built 1922-1933) in Osaka, which features a peacock, the symbol of the retail giant.

More superficial exterior decoration that reveals inspiration from Art Deco can be found on the exterior walls of Tokasaikan (1926) in Kyoto. The facade of the building was decorated around the theme of "Products from the Sea and Mountains," and featured Arabesque geometric designs. Told it would be a Western restaurant, Vories was kept in the dark about the building's true nature — it was to be a beer hall — due to the disapproval anticipated from him in light of the temperance he espoused.

William Vories
American architect William Vories

The gamut of architectural styles and periods Vories referenced was vast and anything but progressive. His repertoire ranged from the favored white-walled Spanish Mission style of Kwansei Gakuin University (1929) to the Renaissance facades and classically decorated eaves of the Kobe YMCA Hall (1922); from the steepled Gothic style of Meiji Gakuin Chapel (1916) to the 16th-century, Tudor-inspired architecture that Daimaru President Shotaro Shimomura requested of Vories for his private residence. And at the Shiga museum's exhibition, the replica of his own hut in Karuizawa shows him sacrificing domestic luxury for restraint.

Even if the designs were typically uninspired, architectural stability had been thrown into sharp focus with the Great Kanto Quake of 1923. The former Daido Life Insurance Company Building (1925) by Vories became exemplary for its time because of its incorporation of earthquake-resistant elements in the design process (along with air conditioning and elevators — one of the first buildings to feature these conveniences). The quality of the firm's productions also brought in commissions. Its architectural department was inundated with requests by clients for building fixtures and house paints not then available in Japan.

The timing of the present exhibition auspiciously coincides with recent conflicts over the preservation of Vories' work. Mayor Wasaburo Ono of Toyosato, Shiga Prefecture, wanted to demolish an elementary school built by Vories — citing earthquake fears — but was ousted by riled townsfolk (they subsequently re-elected him).

Only 100 or so of his buildings remain, and while the present exhibition gives a thorough overview of Vories' career, a brief sojourn to Shiga's neighboring Omi Hachiman, where 28 buildings remain, is the best way to feel the palpable historical legacy of this architect abroad — and his diminishing presence.

"100 Years of W. M. Vories' Works" is at The Museum of Modern Art, Shiga, till March 30; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m (Closed Mon.); admission ¥900. For more information call (077) 543-21111 or visit www.shiga-kinbi.jp


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