Architect Tsuyoshi Tane Rises to the Challenge of the Imperial Hotel's New Main Building

In 2021, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo announced plans for a new main building for completion in 2036. Appointed to design the new building is Paris-based architect Tsuyoshi Tane.
Perspective image of the new main building of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo to be designed by Tsuyoshi Tane. Image: ©️Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects

Passing on the Hotel's History and Dignity to the Future

The Imperial Hotel opened in 1890 in Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda City, Tokyo, as a guest house for entertaining foreign guests. Its first main building was designed by Yuzuru Watanabe in the Western style, while its second main building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923. It was rebuilt once more in 1970 with a design by Teitaro Takahashi, followed by the construction of the Imperial Hotel Tower skyscraper on the Ginza side in 1983.

Entrusted with the important task of designing the fourth-generation building is architect Tsuyoshi Tane, born in Tokyo in 1979. He became widely known at the age of 26 after winning an international competition with Dan Dorell and Lina Ghotmeh to design the Estonian National Museum. In 2017, ATTA—his Atelier Tsuyoshi Tane Architects, which undertakes projects all around the globe, opened in Paris. But what will the new Imperial Hotel Tokyo main building, scheduled for completion in 2036, be like? Tane gives us his insight.

The first main building of the Imperial Hotel was built next to the renowned Rokumeikan building. The designer, Yuzuru Watanabe, was a disciple of Josiah Conder, who designed the Rokumeikan. Photo: Courtesy of Imperial Hotel
The second main building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened on September 1, 1923—the day of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Damage to the building was minimized due to its unique method of construction. Photo: Courtesy of Imperial Hotel
The current Imperial Hotel premises include the main building, rebuilt in 1970, and the Imperial Hotel Tower skyscraper, which was built in 1983. Photo: Courtesy of Imperial Hotel

— How did you feel when you heard the Imperial Hotel's announcement at the press conference that they had researched 500 architects?

Prior to the contest, the Imperial Hotel spent 10 years considering this rebuilding project. They wanted to create a future together with an architect, so they researched as many as 500 architects working in Japan and abroad. Frankly, I was impressed by their attitude.

Apparently, there were certain requirements for selecting architects. The rebuilding period, which starts with the design, is scheduled for 15 years, so they wanted an internationally active architect of the younger generation, able to deliver work that would become a masterpiece. They were looking for ideas unconstrained by existing assumptions about hotels, and therefore weren't concerned about the architect's past performance in hotel design.

Tane was surprised to receive a call from the Imperial Hotel in Paris. He was involved in a pavilion called FUROSHIKI PARIS in Paris in 2018, organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to convey the appeal of the Japanese furoshiki wrapping cloth. Hideya Sadayasu, CEO of the Imperial Hotel, reading about the exhibition in the newspaper, saw Tane's name for the first time. Photo: Yuji Ono

— How did you interpret the three elements of dignity, inheritance, and challenge that the Imperial Hotel sought after for the new main building?

I thought that the new main building would inherit the hotel's dignity and history while representing a new challenge. The first main building was a guest house built for Western guests after Japan's opening to the West. The second, the Wright building, established the hotel's international identity as a jewel of the Orient. This is a reputation befitting only such a grand hotel, and one that has grown with the times and continues to grow to the present day. In full awareness of the significance of each of these buildings, I searched for my own way forward. I have consistently held the view that it is best to continue what has existed in the past and connect it to the future, in order to create a long-term vision.

— When you design, you often conduct research to unearth the memories of a place, like an archaeologist. What kind of research did you carry out this time?

I focused not only on its prestigious nature as a grand hotel, but also on the fact that it would be a place where distinguished guests from abroad would visit and where ceremonies and events would be held. I designed the lower-level foundation in consideration of the ideal form and composition of space. I studied theaters, including the opera houses, temples, and palaces of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Orient, as well as European court culture.

The higher-level section that stands behind the foundation symbolizes the progress of humanity, in endless pursuit of tall towers. Firstly, I returned to the architecture of the Chicago School of the 19th century, including Wright's mentor, Louis Sullivan. They designed the first steel-framed skyscrapers, constructed using stone and brick, and they're really amazing. The New York School of steel and glass skyscrapers that followed swept the world. However, to create a vision of the future for the Imperial Hotel, I decided to look back to the Chicago School, basing the design on this primordial principle of building towers.

— Why did you choose the concept of the "Jewel of the Orient," a phrase used to describe the Wright building?

This notion of the Orient, or Oriental wisdom, offers a different kind of richness from that of technological progress. It's the wisdom of memory, in which knowledge and experience are accumulated by human beings. It's my hope that the hospitality offered by the Imperial Hotel will continue to express human wisdom and culture into the future. I hope to make this a building that represents the glorious wisdom connecting East with West.

— These days, sustainability is a priority. As an architect, what are you conscious of?

I want to create architecture that has a long lifespan. Architecture and culture used to have enduring permanence, but now the human lifespan is longer, so buildings are being torn down one after another and urban spaces are changing. I have misgivings about the short lifespan of these buildings. If we go on like this, we will have no wealth of culture to leave to the next generation. I think this is a significant issue.

Estonian National Museum. Tsuyoshi Tane designed this facility, previously a Soviet Union runway, with the hope of communicating the human history that connects past and future. Since its opening in 2016, the museum has already welcomed over 1 million visitors. Photo: ©Propaganda / image courtesy of DGT.Tane
Interview and Composition by Yui Ide(CCC Media House)
Translation by Amitt