Thursday, September 15, 2011

Landmark Birthday for Japan Society’s Building

"I have tried to express in contemporary architecture the spirit of Japan." --Junzō Yoshimura
Days before the opening of its 104th gallery exhibition, just after turning 104 years old, Japan Society celebrated the 40th birthday of its building, recently designated New York City’s youngest landmark.

It was shortly after Japan Society launched the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund to aid recovery after the devastating tsunamis struck Northeast Japan when news broke that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved four new landmarks, including Japan Society.

“We’re very proud of our building,” Japan Society gallery director Joe Earle told HyperAllergic at the time, adding, “It’s a remarkable place to walk into every day.” The article continues:
As a manifestation of the relationship between the United States and Japan, Earle points out, the design and construction of the Japan Society building came at a very interesting time. In 1971, “New York was just becoming aware of Japanese architecture. [The building] represents the rebuilding of the relationship between the two countries after World War II.” As a combination of Brutalist severity and Zen simplicity, the structure crosses artistic cultures.

“Looking out of my window now,” Earle describes during a phone conversation, “the long horizontal bars that filter the light give the whole front [facade] this kind of horizontality that was associated with Japanese domestic architecture … It’s a suggestion of Japanese architecture without actually being a copy of it, that’s what strongly appeals to me.” 

Completing a circle of great Midtown East architecture including the United Nations headquarters, Tudor City, the Ford Foundation building and Grand Central Station, Japan Society’s 5-story, charcoal gray building on 333 East 47th St. overlooks the cozy Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza Park.

The building is a smartly designed, geometrically playful edifice that contains warmth and reflective quietude—as useful for solitary thought as it is for intimate conversation and coming together to share ideas. While some might dismiss it as a “modernist box”, for most who visit, the brooding boxiness is a dark chocolate square with a liquid caramel center. It is the architectural incarnation of the quintessential New Yorker—austere and brusque perhaps at first blush, but warm, storied, and endlessly fascinating once you break the surface.

Known for infusing traditional Japanese elements in his modern works, architect Junzō Yoshimura used a much subtler blending of Japanese sensibility with contemporary materials in Japan Society’s building. The slats mentioned by Earle above, running horizontally on the second and third floors of the façade, are meant to evoke amado (Japanese storm windows used during typhoons). Hinoki (Japanese cypress) louvers in the exterior entry continue into the lobby ceiling, diffusing light and warming shadows. (Initially, the heat from light bulbs would release the wood’s fragrance, but regulations now require they be flame retardant, which masks the scent.)

Although the building has undergone two campaigns of adaptation and extension over the years, its original atmosphere is especially well preserved in the lobby area with a low, modular, precast concrete ceiling; extant original slate floors and walls; a large river stone near the entrance positioned as a foundation for seasonal floral arrangements; bamboo pond and waterfall; and stairs leading invitingly up to the gallery spaces, which encompass the entire second floor.

And while the building also contains a sub-level language center, a 262-seat state-of-the-art theater for lavish performances, pop concerts, film screenings and more; and three floors of administrative space, almost everyone who enters comments on its quiet beauty and remarkable stillness, welcome relief from the tireless energy of the city’s streets.


A brief history of the Turtle Bay neighborhood, home to Japan Society, the United Nations, missions of foreign governments and many private organizations including the International Institute of Education and the Ford Foundation, has been included in the Landmark Preservation Commission Japan Society Designation Report (PDF).

The area had remained little developed until after the Civil War, when residential and commercial development followed the opening of the Second and Third Avenue Elevated Railways around 1880. The large waterfront site along the East River between 42nd and 48th Streets was acquired by the Rockefellers, and John D. Rockefeller 3rd later donated the 47th street site to Japan Society in 1968.

“From the start, Japan Society was characterized as ‘the first building of contemporary Japanese design to be built in New York City’”, notes the report. Designed by Junzō Yoshimura in partnership with George G. Shimamoto during 1967-68, Japan Society, earlier called Japan House, opened in 1971.

Gabrielle Birkner in an article in The Real Deal refers to Japan Society as one of the notable exceptions to have been designed by a Japanese architect as it was not until much later that the architectural community in New York was receptive of design talent from abroad. According to the landmark's report, Yoshimura was “likely the first Japanese citizen to design a permanent structure in New York City.”

Shortly before the opening, Leah Gordon, an arts columnist for The New York Times on September 5, 1971 wrote:
In an area replete with UN Missions and consulates, this building has no seals, no mottos and is distinguished only by a slanted, 3-foot iron fence . . . It is soon apparent that this is no customary New York architectural atrocity but a sedate, jewel-like structure that, in its quiet way, commands attention.
Similarly, The Architectural Record in 1973 commented that the building:
...adds quite a dollop of civility to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Its exterior is quiet, nicely scaled and guardedly transparent: fleeting glimpses of the interior are afforded through bronze anodized aluminum screens, and the glass entrance doors.
In Yoshimura’s own words:
People the world over used to build their houses with local and traditional materials. Today, however, contemporary buildings all over the world use the same basic materials – concrete, steel and glass – yet different characters and nationalities can still be perceived amongst them. In designing Japan House I have tried to express in contemporary architecture the spirit of Japan.
 --Anu Tulachan and Shannon Jowett

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