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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001

Wright's modern masterpiece comes back to life

Staff writer

All too often in this country, modern buildings of architectural and historical value are bulldozed to make way for new commercial development. The "lucky" ones may be granted a stay of execution, if only to survive as unused and lifeless monuments.

Neither of these fates, happily, has befallen a building in Tokyo's Toshima Ward designed in 1921 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead, Myonichikan -- originally a private school called Jiyu Gakuen -- has recently made a rejuvenated appearance as one of Japan's designated "important cultural properties."

Myonichikan is one of only a few schools designed by Wright (1867-1959), who was perhaps the most creative genius of 20th-century American architecture and is best known today for his 1943 Guggenheim Museum in New York. Along with Yodoko Guest House in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, the school is also the only other example of his work in this country to completely retain its original appearance.

But the building is no mere monument to its big-name designer. After three years of renovations it reopened last month as a venue for Jiyu Gakuen activities and for public events such as concerts, wedding receptions, conferences and other gatherings. It is already attracting visitors who enjoy strolling around the beautiful building laid out round a central lawn, soaking up an atmosphere so peaceful that it's hard to imagine this place is within a few minutes' walk of bustling Ikebukuro.

Throughout the 2,800-sq.-meter complex, the stamp of its largely self-taught creator is clear to see in his use of bold, plain walls and roomy, welcoming spaces with large windows framed in stylish geometrical patterns. Myonichikan is also given a Japanese touch by Wright's extensive use of gray-green Oya stone (from the Tochigi Prefecture city of that name) for pavements, columns and the lanterns standing in the corridors.

Echoes of history

The Japaneseness of this quintessential Wright building extends to its layout as well. The structural arrangement, with classroom wings spreading out from the main complex to surround the lawned yard, is believed to indicate that when Wright drew up his plans he had in mind the 11th-century Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) of Byodoin temple in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. Certainly this is possible, as the American travelled extensively in Japan, visiting twice in 1905 and 1913, and returning in 1916 for a sojourn that would last more than five years.

In 1921, the architect was busy supervising the construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo to his design. He only accepted the school's request after hearing about its innovative educational approach that attached importance to learning through everyday experiences in a familylike environment, in addition to the acquisition of academic knowledge.

More than a bit of a rebel himself, Wright -- famously quoted as saying Americans "boast the highest standard of living in the world, when it is only the biggest" -- no doubt appreciated the school's liberal ethos.

In addition, architect Shoji Hayashi, who is known for such Tokyo landmarks as the Palaceside Building in Chiyoda Ward and the IBM Japan Building in Minato Ward, said in a recent article in the monthly magazine Fujin no Tomo (Women's Friend) that by locating the school's dining hall in the main central building, Wright's design of Myonichikan also reflected the school's philosophy: that education cannot exist apart from students' daily lives.

Regular classes at Myonichikan ended as soon as 1934, however, when the school relocated to western Tokyo, leaving Wright's building, with a floor area of 1,517 sq. meters, to be used as a center for its alumni activities. In the decades that followed, the wooden building became dilapidated to the point of needing hugely expensive repairs. This led to a heated debate on the building's fate that involved both architects and alumni.

"In two senses, namely as a valuable example of Wright's architecture and as the place Jiyu Gakuen started, there was a strong urge to preserve Myonichikan," said Tsutomu Yoshioka, the director of Myonichikan. "We had lots of discussions over how to breathe new life into the building while at the same time preserving it."

The result was an application to the Cultural Affairs Agency for cultural-property designation. This privileged status was granted, allowing the building to be used for educational and cultural activities while also being preserved as an "important cultural property."

Citizens' college plan

The 765 million yen restoration project (75 percent paid for by the national and metropolitan governments) got under way in early 1999, based on Wright's original plans and including the furniture he created for the school -- functional yet artistic pieces that complement the design motifs of the building. Now, it's all there for visitors to see, along with a Wright museum. And in spring, Jiyu Gakuen plans to open a citizens' lifelong-learning college there too.

"This may be an unusual project, something like an experiment in how to preserve historical structures built in the modern era," said Yoshioka. "We hope this building will be used for next 100 years, in the spirit of the name Myonichikan -- 'the house for tomorrow.' "

Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan is a 5-minute walk from Ikebukuro Station, or 10 min. from JR Mejiro Station. It is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. except Monday. Admission is 400 yen. The main hall, dining hall and rooms can be hired. For more information, call (03) 3971-7535.

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