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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

PROGRESS DOOMS PREWAR LANDMARK

Sanshin Building, at 76, nears its end


Staff writer

Overlooking Tokyo's Hibiya Park and the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace, the 76-year-old Sanshin Building has been a survivor -- of the turbulent early war years, the devastating U.S. air raids, the city's reconstruction and the intense economic and cultural changes of the 1960s and '70s.

News photo
The Sanshin Building has stood for 76 years overlooking Hibiya Park in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

But now it's living on borrowed time.

"Visiting this place is like talking to a senior citizen," architect Kazuya Urakawa, 34, said as he sipped coffee at New World Service restaurant, one of the few tenants still in business on the eight-story building's ground floor.

"A lot of things require efficiency and speed nowadays, but when you talk to someone elderly like a grandparent, everything automatically slows down -- that is exactly what the Sanshin Building offers visitors," Urakawa said. "It has that special something only time can accumulate."

The building is now one of a kind. With its antique elevators and second-floor arcade ceiling, the Showa Era setting boasts a distinctive aura unlike any other structure in Tokyo. It is so unique, in fact, that it was once used in a Japanese TV drama as a set for Madrid's police headquarters.

Although the building may conjure up feelings of nostalgia, the owner of the property, Mitsui Fudosan Co., sees it another way: obsolete. The company in January 2005 sealed its fate by announcing that it would be torn down and replaced by a new structure in ever-higher-rising Tokyo.

The announcement prompted a movement spearheaded by Urakawa to save the structure, but so far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Stating that the building's "structural design and facilities have become superannuated," the nation's leading real estate firm has been asking tenants to terminate their business as quickly as possible and move out, and such moves are expected to be completed soon.

Urakawa was quick to embark on a mission to preserve the building's legacy, establishing a group called Sanshin Building Preservation Project in February 2005 with 10 others.

With his expertise in architecture, he proposed a redevelopment plan that would leave the Sanshin Building intact, and gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition over the last 15 months.

Mitsui Fudosan, however, met with Urakawa and dismissed his proposals, saying the company's decision was final. Although the firm accepted the petition, it appears determined to carry out the demolition.

Also working to save the Sanshin Building is the Committee for Architectural Conservation Issues at the Kanto-Koshinetsu branch of the Japan Institute of Architects.

Mahito Kanayama, vice chairman of the committee, voiced regret that the group's request to preserve the structure was ignored.

"Back in the beginning of the Showa Era, buildings were constructed so they could stand for over 100 years," he said, questioning whether a mere 76 years is old enough to deem one of the capital's most precious buildings obsolete.

Mitsui Fudosan has announced it will rebuild the Sanshin Building in a manner that "keeps its attractiveness" intact.

A representative said that as of this month, neither the date for demolition nor the specific design of the new structure have been finalized.

Meanwhile the countdown to the wrecking ball continues. But those wanting to save the Sanshin Building have not given up hope, either.

"I'm not at the point of conceding defeat," Urakawa said.



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