Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.
[RV] Another project we love that’s foreign was the project in Japan near the city of Nikko. And that is a project in the rural area around Nikko in a national park. And that project is, or was to be… they later changed it… changed… it was designed as a… as a hotel spa complex. And the client and we got along very well from the beginning… we understood each other, the whole process with the local associate architects and with the client and with the builders was just wonderful and very smooth. We made 17 trips back and forth. And every one of the trips was just… involved a great pleasure. When we presented the building – just an indication how we understood each other – to the… even though it was to be a hotel, later it became something else, but to be a hotel it was to be run by the government. And when we presented the original idea – the very early preliminary idea – for the design to the individual who was representing the government, we said, ‘Our approach is going to be one where the buildings will not just be Modernist – abstract form – but will be Modern, but also accommodate and employ explicitly symbolism’. And we mentioned that there would be the lobby and the area between the two buildings and which would be a lobby… or it looks like an outdoor space, but it had a glass roof, and that would be a way again through the building and would – via symbolic elements within it – would exemplify a typical country village street, which was very rich in Japan – full of all sorts of objet. And we had signs along it that represented… that do represent flowers that are hanging from the lampposts. We had the lampposts, we had signs that represent the green telephone booths and public telephones. And also the mailboxes and other everyday elements, but that would be… involved symbols of… would be symbols of Japanese ordinary elements. But, I said in this presentation to the… to the client representative, I said, ‘But we have to be very careful because we are not Japanese and we have to work with a Japanese group of people, with a committee, to advise us on this’. And he said, ‘Yes, we do not want this to become a Madame Butterfly’. I just roared with laughter because that was just a wonderful indication of humor, but also of understanding the problem entirely. I think this guy was an opera fan but also as a Japanese person who was… Madame Butterfly must be very funny.
[DSB] I think it still is a hotel, it was just going to be a different kind of hotel.
[RV] I think that’s right, yeah, it was a… run by the government, now it’s another agency that runs it. You’re right, it still is a hotel.
[DSB] It’s to be for the employees of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication and then they changed that and made it open to the public. And then eventually, it was also run by different people, not by the Ministry.
[RV] But it was just… it’s just a lovely complex in the countryside where it has indoor tennis courts buildings, it has the hotel it has other elements for meeting, for conferences and so it makes a kind of complex of buildings within a natural setting. It has a bridge that is both Modern but does employ symbolism applied to it. It has the ends of the buildings that look like Mondrian compositions, one of them being Broadway Boogie Woogie, but it also reminds you of the system in Japanese architecture of having exposed steel… exposed steel… exposed wood elements on that… on the ends of buildings. We made the roofs flat, but flat roofs were considered illegal in that part of Japan, you had to have traditional buildings – sloping roofs – but we made decorative elements that implied that the roof did that, but you are also aware that the roof didn’t do that. So, we had that annoying element that we were able to turn into a positive esthetic element in the thing. It was a wonderful experience, going there every day, and having everything work well, being understood and so forth.
[DSB] It was also a beautiful national forest landscape and we handled it with ecological care.
[RV] Yeah, right.
[DSB] We brought with us from just up the road on Main Street, Andropogon – the famous landscape architecture firm – and they were our landscape architects there. And even all the trees that were removed to put buildings there were replanted. And an amazing experience happened when we went to visit the site in the first place with our friend and mentor, and the person who helped organise our work in Japan, Akio Izutsu. And we were all tramping this forest site and we came across a series of trees that were marked and we asked, ‘What is this?’ And they said, ‘They are…’ no, they didn’t know what it was. And then as we walked we came across the people putting the markings on the trees. And we asked what it was for and they said, ‘This is where the construction road is going to be’. So, we said, ‘But we don’t know what we’re building yet’. And they said, ‘Well, the construction road will eventually go away again so, it doesn’t matter where it goes’. And I said, ‘If you’re going to have trucks coming over this site, day in and day out thousands of them, what you do to the landscape may not be remediable, you should think hard before you put this road and get the right place for the road’. And we went away for lunch and during lunch a message came: ‘We’ve stopped the road’. And I’ve thought not in America would my say so ever stop a road, perish forbid, would they ever do that. And here, they had responded quickly and correctly and we pointed out that Colin Franklin from Andropogon would be arriving the next day. And the next day, Colin gave them chapter and verse of what it would do, particularly to the stream through the site, if they put the road where they were thinking of putting it. And, in fact, I watched those trucks drive back and forth, and back and forth on this road and at the end when we came back, thanks to Andropogon and their careful planting, there was no sight of that road.
Title: Hotel Mielmonte Nikko Kirifuri, Japan (Part 1)
Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.