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Japan Society building heard at Landmarks Preservaton Commission on June 22

June 27, 2010

The Japan Society’s headquarters building at 333 East 47th Street is the most recent Modern building to be heard by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for potential designation. DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State member and volunteer Lisa Chin did research and prepared the chapter’s testimony supporting designation and also delivered the testimony at the public hearing. The Japan Society has recently completed some appropriate renovations that work in favor of designation. Testimony in support of landmarking was received positively by the Commission. When the Commission makes its decision we will pass on the news.

Excerpt from DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State’s statement:

The Japan Society, designed in 1971 by Junzo Yoshimura, is the first structure in New York City designed by a Japanese modernist architect. Designed for the Society, an organization that promotes cultural understanding between the United States and Japan, the building houses galleries for exhibitions, research and publications on Japanese art.

The building’s design exemplifies a type of regional architecture specific to Japan and also serves as a reminder, through its simple details and spatial concepts, how Modern architecture borrowed from the Japanese tradition. The architect Junzo Yoshimura (1908-1997), was well known for designing a number of Japanese cultural institutions including the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art (1959), the Tokyo Imperial Palace (1968), the Nara National Museum (1972) and the Royal Norwegian Embassy (1977).

Indicating Yoshimura’s significance, in 1953 John D. Rockefeller III, president of the Japan Society, and Arthur Drexler, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, had previously selected Yoshimura to design the “Tea House in the Garden” at MoMA. The teahouse was a gift to the United States from Japan as a goodwill gesture after World War II. Rockefeller and Drexler traveled to Japan to investigate Japanese architecture and assemble a design team. This teahouse exhibit was part of a series called “A House in the Garden” that included structures by Richard Buckminster Fuller in 1941, Marcel Breuer in 1949 and Gregory Ain in 1950. The garden itself was designed by Philip Johnson. After the exhibition concluded, the house was given to Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park.

Yoshimura graduated in 1931 from the Architecture Department of Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music, and in the same year he joined the design firm of architect Antonin Raymond, where he designed innovative residential projects. Ten years later, Yoshimura established his own architectural practice and became an assistant professor at his alma mater. The MoMA installation also led to the commission of a teahouse at the Japanese garden for the Rockefeller estate at Kykuit and this commission for the Japan Society.
Yoshimura designed the four-story structure to capture his vision of combining Classical elegance with Modern simplicity, creating a distinctly Japanese building through the use of contemporary materials of concrete, steel and glass. The black painted façade detailed with slatted window screens and latticework along the street conveys a sleek, elegant image of Modern Japan. The interior is a calm and peaceful oasis with a skylit garden and soothing sounds from the water fountain, which embodies the traditional Japanese standard of beauty Wabi-Sabi characterized by simplicity, serenity, nature, and transience. At the lobby an expanse of polished black slate surrounds the shallow pool filled with bamboo.

In the Japan Society building the Modern concept of minimal and simple spaces is combined with the Japanese respect for nature and is carefully detailed using wooden walls, stone flooring, birch tree benches, and windows covered with Shoji screens, which are typically used in Japanese homes to divide spaces. Despite the emphasis on Japanese tradition, the spaces are contemporary and functional; the first two floors and lower level auditorium provide public spaces housing the lobby, meeting room and gallery. The staff offices and library are on the third and fourth floors. Interior furnishings include a superb collection of tables, chairs and benches designed by Japanese American George Nakashima, an innovative furniture designer. Renovations were made to the building 1991-1998 in keeping with Yoshimura’s original vision.

Make a point of visiting the Japan Society if you are not familiar with this excellent contribution to our city’s Modern architecture set. The Society is open to the public weekdays 11:00am – 6:00pm (it is closed on weekends in July, but normally is open all week.)

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