The Former Residence of Prince Asaka was built by craftsmen employed by the Works Bureau of the Imperial Household Ministry using interior designs supplied by Henri Rapin, a French architect and leading representative of the Art Deco movement. This unusual structure, a blend of Western architecture and Japanese craftsmanship, now houses the main building of the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. In this interview, Teien curator Jimbo Kyoko discusses its architecture with Mark Dytham, an architect long active in Japan, as together they explore the building and enjoy our current exhibition, Namikawa Yasuyuki and Japanese Cloisonné — The Allure of Meiji Cloisonné, The Aesthetic of Translucent Black.
Jimbo (J): What is your impression of our Main Building?
Mark (M): Even in Europe and America, there are few if any examples of Art Deco architecture this well preserved. Also, I really like these spaces, with their blend of simplicity and gorgeous decoration. What is fascinating is the way in which the simplicity so beautifully brings a stripped-down feel to the dazzling decoration.
Many architects in the West have been influenced by Japan. The Art Deco concept, however, developed from non-Japanese sources, then came to be used in Japanese architecture. That it attracted so much attention in Japan seems very uncanny. Even in this building, many of the Japanese elements have been influenced by Art Deco.
Speaking of which, Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect influenced by Japan. When I was young, I was inspired by his buildings and traveled the world to see them. When I arrived in Japan and saw the “House of Tomorrow” in Ikebukuro, I was truly amazed. I hadn’t imagined that I would see a real example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture in Japan.
As a young man, Dytham traveled the world looking at architecture. He arrived in Japan when the economic bubble was at its peak. “At the time, there were many radically innovative buildings in Japan.”
J: The House of Tomorrow is a beautiful building. Built in 1921, it is just a little older than this one. You must have been really surprised to see a Frank Lloyd Wright building in Japan! But, changing subjects, I see similarities between this building and your work. While it reflects a certain period in architectural history, it was, in its time, extremely avant-garde in many of its elements. When I look at buildings by Klein Dytham architecture, I sense both the decorative designs and, at the same time, a simplicity. Consider, for example the Daikanyama T-SITE. I see an example of that kind of simple decorative design in your use of the letter “T” as a motif in the walls.
Mark Dytham examines the doors in glass relief by René Lalique in the front entrance. “These are really beautiful. The way in which we pass through the arch, open the doors to the entrance, and only then see these doors is rare and exquisite.”
M: Many architects want to avoid use of flat, white walls, but my partner and I are not so worried about that. What we see as necessary in architecture is something simple and easy to understand. It is important that anyone from five to eighty-five will instantly understand the architecture’s message. For T-SITE we created two devices. The first is the T-shape of the building as a whole. The other is the three large Ts that are visible when seen from the cafe across the road.
Right: Three large Ts seen when looking across the road toward the building. Left: The linked-T motifs decorating the surface of the buildings.
It was a big joke when the building appeared in Daikanyama, actually. Hardly anyone noticed the form of the building itself. It was our use of another device, the use of innumerable interlinked-T motifs, that most people noticed. These T-shaped motifs add depth to the surface of the walls. The walls appear to be flat, but that T-pattern catches the eye, creating the feeling of being drawn into its depths.
J: That combination of pattern and depth can also be seen in the cloisonné on display in our Namikawa Yasuyuki and Japanese Cloisonné exhibition. Multiple layers overlap on the surface of the cloisonné, generating a sense of depth. Can we see here the inspiration of ordinary Japanese traditional crafts?
M: The patterns repeatedly used in Japan are very interesting. We are always, almost unconsciously, absorbing patterns from kimono and furoshiki (wrapping cloths). I am fascinated by the black we see in Namikawa Yasuyuki’s works. In several of them, the black is extremely deep, so that the other colors in the surface almost seem to be reflected in it. The color black is a very important element in architecture. Where black provides depth, light and shadows appear.
When it comes to patterns, I often use Japanese motifs; their patterns are extremely interesting. As I said before, I am always, almost unconsciously, discovering patterns in kimono and furoshiki.
J: It’s true that you use a wide variety of patterns in the buildings you design. We can also perceive how much attention has been paid to harmony between the buildings and their surroundings. It seems to me that GINZA PLACE, built in 2016, at the Ginza intersection, is typically Klein Dytham architecture in its bold use of pattern. What is your thinking about that?
M: For the exterior surfaces of GINZA PLACE, we used fretwork. Since having the three sides of the building be nothing but flat walls would be boring, we built the corner with five sides and used eye-catching patterns on them. As the eye moves upward from the bottom, the gaps in the fretwork become larger and larger. It is also, of course, a design that considers Ginza’s history and the landscape of this place. For example, the first floor has show windows as along the rest of the street. The seventh floor is glassed in, in a reference to the days when the height limit was seven stories, as in the older buildings in the area, especially the historic Wako building diagonally opposite, which was completed in 1924. That will also be a great place to view parades, including, of course, the Olympic parade in 2020. We designed it thinking that being conscious of the building’s surroundings and its history is appropriate for a new Ginza icon.
Left: Overall view. We can see how the fretwork patterns grow larger from bottom to top. Right: The 7F glassed-in balcony matches the height of the historic Ginza Wako building diagonally opposite GINZA PLACE, to harmonize with the cityscape.
J: We can also see distinctive Art Deco features in the Wako building. But, could you tell us about anything in particular that you like about our museum’s Main Building?
M: I like the glass reliefs in the main entrance. Outside the entrance, all we see is a simple arch. It’s a surprise when we open the door and see that decoration.
Also, the path that leads to the entrance is interesting. As we walk beside the garden, we can see the simple arch in front of the entrance. Then, when the doors open there is a moment when everything is dark and we see nothing. Then, in the darkness, the patterns created by the reliefs gradually appear. This effect is truly beautiful. When we think about the building, this combination of simplicity, decoration, and depth is very important.
For a foreigner who has spent a long time in Japan, there are some things still difficult to comprehend. There are almost no auto or design museums, for example. Of course, there are important places, such as Meiji Shrine, Ginza, and Asakusa. But when you’ve done the tourist spots, there isn’t much left. Here, however, we have a very Japanese Art Deco building. This kind of building cannot be found in Europe or America. That makes this a great spot for foreigners who have lived for a long time in Tokyo. The gardens, the historical background, and then the exhibitions and the building itself, make this an indispensable oasis.
J: Thank you very much indeed.
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Mark Dytham at the main entrance to the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.
"What a uniquely designed lighting fixture!" Mark Dytham explores the distinctive pattern on the large columnar lighting fixture in the hall on the second floor.
Mark Dytham during the interview. "When I was young, I traveled the world looking at architecture."