Meiji-Mura and the Imperial Hotel

Man has been committed to leaving a trace of his passage in the world by constructing buildings, cities and landmarks. However, these constructions suffer the wear of time. Some are demolished to give space to new buildings, perhaps with more innovative technologies and materials. Some others are restored and aspire to survive the oblivion. The topic of conservation is popular in Europe - defined as the oldest continent – due to historic buildings of indescribable value. Their existence and resistance to the centuries are due to their strong attachment to their historical and cultural roots. Restoration and conservation are the pillars of European culture.

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All images @ Matteo Belfiore

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In Europe, the concept of restoration is understood as maintenance, recovery and conservation of artworks, monuments and architectural artefacts. Cesare Brandi stated that restoration is "the methodological moment in which the work of art is recognized, in its physical being, and its dual aesthetic and historical nature, because of its transmission to the future". The heritage is handed down to posterity in its originality and material integrity. Where the matter is degraded and no longer recoverable, each subsequent integration must be recognizable.

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Japan, on the other side of the planet, has an entirely different approach to restoration. Here, most of the buildings have a short life, often not exceeding thirty years. The structures are demolished frequently to make room for new constructions, "where it was and how it was". The historical and material value of a building does not lie in its materials, but in its pure essence. This approach represents an original point of view motivated by deep cultural roots.

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Begun in 1868 and finished in 1912, the Meiji Era represents the first half of Japan's Empire. In this period, there were significant changes in society, and Japan came out of its millennial isolation and got in touch with the Western world. These transformations were especially evident in the architecture. During this period were built several buildings of European inspiration.

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Wood – the traditional material for constructions in Japan - was replaced with stone and brick. After centuries of isolation and millennial traditions, the Japanese were catapulted into a new world. These new constructions, however, did not have a long life. In many cases, they suffered extensive damage in the war period or were demolished in the post-war redevelopment. Fortunately, some of them have survived and can be visited today at the Meiji-Mura Museum.

Meiji Mura Map

Founded in 1965 - to save the Meiji period's most significant works - the Museum was conceived by Doctor Yoshiro Taniguchi, who also became its first director. With the collaboration of Mr Moto-o Tsuchikawa, he selected notable buildings that were about to be destroyed and reconstructed them in their original appearance. Located one hour from Nagoya, in Inuyama, the Museum stands on a hill facing Lake Iruka and occupies ​​one square kilometre area.

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It is conceived as a large village, where the visitor can admire the architectural works and take advantage of the two railways, trams, the first steam locomotives, and use the post office. Many constructions have been used as cafes and shops. The Meiji-Mura Museum include over sixty buildings, eleven of which are designated as an Important Cultural Asset.

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Walking through the village, the visitor can breathe and discover the spirit of the Meiji period. Entering through the Kanazawa Prison Main Gate, or the main entrance, the visitor is greeted by notable buildings. St. John's Church, for example, which was one of the first buildings to be moved to the Museum. The church has some symbolic elements of the Gothic style - such as pointed arched windows and doors - that remind the European cities' atmosphere.

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The Higashi-Yamanashi District Office (1885) is a government office in Giyōfū style. The buildings in this style were usually erected by Japanese carpenters with traditional techniques, blending ornaments, and Western-style internal layout. Another impressive building is The Tomatsu House, realized with the conventional method called nuriyadzukuri. This method consists of burning the walls of a building, of preventing the possibility of future fires.

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One of the structures of historical and cultural interest is the Uji Yamada Post Office (1909). Initially located in front of the Ise Sanctuary, this building features a copper roof. It is centred around a circular atrium, with two V-shaped wings extending to the side.

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Meiji-Mura's biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Main Entrance and Lobby of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Featuring a "Maya Revival" style, the Hotel is designed according to its logo lines and erected with concrete and carved Oya stone. This stone, original from the prefecture of Tochigi, is easily workable, versatile and fireproof.

adf-web-magazine-imperial-hotel1adf-web-magazine-imperial-hotel13A few days after the inauguration of the Hotel in 1923, the Kanto region suffered a great earthquake. Only a few buildings survived, and one of these was the Imperial Hotel. The structure was built with some features that minimized potential earthquake damage. For example, the foundations were shallow and laid on the surface to "float" on the mud.

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Wright could realize a lighter structure and, therefore, better resistance to earthquakes - by fragmenting the walls with ornaments. As he wrote about this structural solution: "Why not adopt extreme lightness combined with tenuity and flexibility instead of the great weight necessary for the maximum possible rigidity?".

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After the great earthquake, the Hotel temporarily housed various embassies and the Chinese and Swedish ministries. During the Second World War, the south wing of the Imperial Hotel was destroyed by bombs. The Hotel was then requisitioned by the occupation forces and managed by the US. In 1952 the Hotel returned to its legitimate owners, who began the repairs and added a new wing. In 1967 it was decided to demolish the old Hotel, that in the meantime was fallen into disrepair. The only surviving parts were the central atrium and the reflecting pool.

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It was decided to dismantle and rebuild the parts that had survived, to prevent one of the most important and beautiful works of the Meiji period from being completely destroyed. However, the structure of the building - in brick and concrete - could not be dismantled. Therefore, it was only possible to preserve the Oya stone's finishes and the furnishings. In 1968, when the demolition of the Hotel was completed, the remains were brought to Meiji-Mura. In 1970 the reconstruction of the lobby and swimming pool began, and it lasted six years. The restoration of the interiors was then completed in 1985. The Imperial Hotel - a milestone of the Meiji Era and Frank Lloyd Wright's career - today is the most crucial attraction of the Meiji-Mura Museum.

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Olimpia Niglio investigated the concept of restoration in Japan through the traditional notions of MA (間) and change awareness. "The conception of a cyclical and impermanent existence that dominates Buddhist culture leads man to relate to a constantly evolving nature. The relationship between past, present and future, therefore, depends on this".

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The space in Japan is not intended as a physical entity but concerning the passage of time. The ideogram MA (間) - which takes on different meanings of distance, pause or interruption based on the context - summarizes the Japanese concept of restoration and conservation. MA (間) is the pause between notes or speeches, the intermediate space between things or people, the void that becomes tangible matter. It represents the fourth dimension and therefore, also the transience of matter. If all things are impermanent and everything is destined to perish, even the material of temples and cities has a limited time, and it is worthless conserving it. Better then to demolish and rebuild, perhaps concentrating efforts on passing on the construction techniques and refining them through artisans' generations over the centuries.

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This ideal is perfectly embodied in the famous Ise-Jingu Shinto shrine, which has been cyclically torn down and rebuilt for hundreds of years. "Rather than preserving the material, in Japan prevails the desire to transmit the construction techniques and the craftsmanship ability", writes Olimpia Niglio.

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Based on these principles, in Japan, most buildings have a short life, often not exceeding thirty years. Constructions are frequently demolished to free up space or rebuild them "where it was and how it was". In light of these considerations, the Meiji-Mura is a peculiar museum and, undoubtedly, one of Japan's most captivating attractions.