Last month on Mount Rokkō, overlooking the city of Kobe, opened the English Building renovated by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi. This project is part of an extensive redevelopment of the entire Mount Rokkō area, known for its impressive view of Hanshin region and considered by the Japanese as a “place closer to the sky than the sea”.

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Michele De Lucchi

Included in the Heritage of Industrial Modernization list, the English Building was designed by the Japanese architect Masaharu Furuzuka and completed in 1929. Known as Rokkōsan Hotel, it was used as a mountain retreat, but in the last decades, it gradually fell into abandon. Hakkō Car Group – a leading importer of luxury European cars in Japan – recently acquired the property and decided to invest in the redevelopment of Mount Rokkō, aiming to offer a stunning hospitality and driving location to its customers.

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“Rokkosan is a beautiful mountain, situated in a National Park. Everything around it exudes a sense of the Planet’s force, of nature and its capacity to always recapture what humankind has stolen from it”. These words of Michele De Lucchi synthesize his vision and approach on this project, where nature is the starting and ending point of the design. The opening of the English Building is only the first step. The masterplan for the area will also include a modern and environmentally-friendly luxury retreat, shaped like a ring and surrounded by the forest.

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I had the chance to discuss this project – where both Japanese and Italian cultures are blended in smart and elegant design - with the architect Michele De Lucchi and Ikeda Junhachi, CEO of Hakko Car Group. From their words emerges deep respect for traditions and the natural environment, the same core values shared by most of the recent architectural production in Italy and Japan.

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Matteo Belfiore:

What was your approach to this project in terms of sustainability?

Michele De Lucchi:

Besides all the technical and technological features that architecture allows us to achieve today, sustainability is also a cultural problem. Sometimes we cannot accept nature and naturalization, that is, the fact that all things have a path of birth, life, and decay. In the Rokkosan project, the theme is the restoration of this old building of 1929. It put us in front of some choices: what to preserve, what to rebuild, how to conserve and reconstruct. There is much difference between a restoration project and an architectural project. In the second there is an excellent variety of possibilities. Even in the restoration project, there are many possibilities, and this is something that not everyone is aware of. For example, when restoring, we can decide what to maintain or demolish, how to make it functional, how to demonstrate if the object has been rebuilt or simply repaired. In Italy, this is a particularly sensitive topic. It is often challenging to have a dialogue with the superintendence, mainly because the supervisors are often historians. Instead, our task as architects is not only to reconstruct the historical image of buildings but also to make them functional and usable again.

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Matteo Belfiore:

This also has to do with the concept of “cultural sustainability”. I mentioned it recently at a conference in Vietnam, proposing strategies such as smallness, re-use of materials, and restoration of buildings as an alternative to demolition and reconstruction in the Asian cities.

Michele De Lucchi:

I fully agree. Above all, there is a big difference between the Italian mentality of restoring -maintaining the authenticity - and the Japanese approach, where the concept of authentic is different. Here, authentic is what has the form of the ancient.

Matteo Belfiore:

The Japanese recover the sense and the tradition of the project and the construction techniques, we instead recover the matter. This is the real difference in approach. 

Michele De Lucchi:

The Japanese mentality has much more durability than the Italian one. This is because the material is consumed, but techniques and knowledge last longer.

Matteo Belfiore:

What are the traditional techniques that you have rediscovered through this project?

Michele De Lucchi:

In this project, we had the chance to blend the different Italian and Japanese methods. For example, with my Italian approach, I insisted on preserving the old woods when they were still robust and reliable. We have therefore recovered the material with great effort, also because the local workers are used to redoing but not restoring. When using old parts, which are not exactly suitable for the purpose, they find it very difficult to adapt them. We also had moments of practical difficulty, and it was, in this sense, very instructive for both parties to discuss this matter. On the other hand, inspired by the Japanese approach, we recovered the technique of traditional wood joints. I was amazed by how they managed to make beautiful joints with wood, with such an effective method.

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Matteo Belfiore:

Ikeda san, when will the project be completed?

Ikeda Junhachi:

On the site, there is a small lake with a seven-story building that will be demolished to make room for a small café / Italian restaurant. This will be built in about a year. The new hotel will be immersed in the mountains, and from the outside, it will be almost invisible. The idea is to reduce as much as possible, its visual impact.

Matteo Belfiore:

Kengo Kuma - with whom I have collaborated at the University of Tokyo for many years - talks about the concept of “anti-object”, or the dissolution of the building in its natural context. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “the building is not on the hill, but is the hill”.

Ikeda Junhachi:

On a recent trip to Milan, I met Kuma in a bookstore while consulting several books by Michele De Lucchi!

Matteo Belfiore:

It seems that Kuma san is an admirer of Michele De Lucchi…

Michele De Lucchi:

We admire each other!

Matteo Belfiore:

This relationship between Italy and Japan, how was it in terms of human relations? What does it mean for an Italian architect to work in Japan? And for a Japanese entrepreneur to entrust an outstanding job like this to an Italian architect?

Ikeda Junhachi:

On several occasions, we have had very different ideas about the project. Our cultural and architectural traditions are very different, and sometimes we clashed. It is mainly in the moments of confusion that Michele’s philosophy emerges. I always care if my actions are right or not for nature and the environment. When we think of this, answers come out. I learned that when there are these moments of uncertainty, having a clear philosophy and principles helps to maintain the road. Many famous Japanese architects have sent me proposals for this project. But everyone claimed that the English building was too old and had to be demolished. This was the stock point of all projects. Actually, I bought this property because I wanted that old-fashionable building. Michele instead understood that the English building was an important symbol for this project and should be preserved. From that moment, I realized that he was the right person. Michele gave a presentation where he showed the techniques of conservation and restoration of the Italian tradition he would have used. Unlike all the other competing architects, at the time of the inspection, Michele made holes in the wall to understand the construction technique. Then he showed appreciation for the method used.

Michele De Lucchi:

Sometimes we had a total diversity of views, which comes from different cultures. When we work on a restoration project, we want to keep the original materials and restore them. The Japanese instead restore the atmosphere and recover the technique. But this dialogue was very constructive and allowed me to learn a lot. I understood, above all, the difference between architectural restoration and a creative project. Creativity in restoration is very different from that of architectural design. The opportunities that exist in the act of recovery are as many as those offered by the creative project. It is, therefore, not a limit.

Notes:

I would like to thanks Stefania Viti – responsible for Public Relations for the Press Conference – for kindly helping me as an interpreter in the interview with Ikeda Junhachi.

Photos: Giuseppe De Francesco and Rokkosan Silence Resort