Togo Murano, a relatively obscure architect, successfully navigated a sixty-year career in designing buildings based on a deep faith in Japanese tradition, history, and an interest in experimenting with more modernist approaches to architecture and design. His spectacular output radiates creative energy through decorative accents, historical references, and glamorous monumentality.
Murano founded his own studio in Osaka in 1929, where he also built his first buildings. Inspired by European modernism, his early works during the 1930s—such as the Morigami offices and Sogo department store—featured elements drawn from German modernism. Similarly, the brickwork facade of Murano’s Public Hall in Ube reflects the influence of Scandinavian modern classicism. These early works from Murano offer a glimpse of the growing sense of detail and decorative style that would accompany much of his later work. In the years that followed, Murano seemed less concerned with structural and technological innovations than he was with a structure‘s surfaces. His projects appeared as structurally traditional skeletons transformed into richly decorated shrines as though they were elemental figures wearing ornate dresses.
Believing that the architect should first master the principles of traditional architecture before pursuing modern and innovative features, Murano also never cast aside the traditions of ancient Japanese architecture, whose elements appear across his rich oeuvre. For this reason, among Murano’s works are a collection of entirely traditional buildings. The New Kabuki Theater in Osaka (1958), the Kasuien of the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto (1959), and the Shojuso guest house in Tokyo (1979) are deeply rooted in Japanese architectural traditions and philosophy regarding space, craft techniques, and natural materials. However, Murano’s appreciation for traditional techniques and styles didn’t preclude him from touching on modernism with his Hiroshima World Peace Memorial Cathedral (1953), brutalism with his Nishinomiya Trappist convent (1969), and organic architecture with his Takarazuka Catholic Church (1967). Indeed, Murano’s output during the 1950s and 1960s varied so much in style and appearance that it seems shocking that his works during this period can be attributed to a single architect.
Yet, during the 1960s and 1970s, Murano also designed a series of buildings with a relatively compact creative vision. In the design of Nissei Theatre (1963), built near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Murano masterfully worked with the historical references and character of decorative materials. The interior of the theater seems to explode under the architect's invention. Futuristic ceilings illuminated in the foyer meet twisted brass railings on stairways and other delicate details. Creative energy culminates in the main auditorium, which is organically shaped like a cave, its surface covered with glistening mother-of-pearl.
The decorative and architectural style that Murano originally proposed for the Nissei Theatre was further realized in a series of hotels for the Prince Hotels chain. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Murano built several new hotels around Japan, three of which I was fortunate enough to have visited in person. My first visit was to the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa in Tokyo (1982), a massive hotel complex with an elaborate performance and conference center. The huge multistory block of the hotel’s main wing features a pure-white facade decorated with hundreds of small lace balconies. The complex as a whole is composed of circular buildings woven together by open garden passageways.
While the hotel’s interior has been largely renovated, some spaces featuring Murano’s original designs have been preserved. Of these are the hotel’s performance and conference center, which features in its foyer a waterfall, curved footbridge, and large transparent acrylic sculptures. A traditional Japanese restaurant of his design is also preserved within the hotel, resonating with Murano’s commitment to and appreciation for traditional materials and strict philosophical standards of the Japanese social ceremonies. Between the restaurant’s tea rooms and communal spaces, Murano created efficient and dramatic spaces in which bamboo and tatami convene with constructivist spatial logic.
Murano’s Takaragaike Prince Hotel in Kyoto, the site of my next visit, stands across from the brutalist Kyoto International Conference Center on the outskirts of the city and is one Murano‘s last works. Completed in 1986, the hotel’s main wing is an oval-shaped building with an atrium at its center. While the interior has been largely modified, you can still see some of Murano‘s typical details and creative elements dotted around the hotel. Richly decorated carpets, wicker staircase railings, and copper decorative screens convey Murano‘s eclectic aesthetic.
Perhaps the most impressive Murano building I visited is the Hakone Prince Hotel in Hakone. Designed in 1978, the hotel sits on the shore of Lake Hakone and features a view of Mount Fuji. The elegance of the architecture blends into the magical landscape as though it were a backdrop to one of the iconic animated films of Studio Ghibli. The hotel consists of three circular pavilions, the exterior and interior of which are preserved almost completely. After passing through the reception area, you enter into a long hall lined on both sides by windows, intimate seating, and Murano‘s original acrylic objects.
For a true spatial and glamorous experience, you can visit one of the hotel‘s two restaurants. Their interiors present bizarre and dramatic combinations of materials and architectural details: Art Nouveau paired with medieval masonry or iron fittings and paper chandeliers in the form of horses and carnival masks float above the restaurant's dining tables. Architectural surrealism blends seamlessly with the atmosphere of magical Japanese stores in a view of Lake Hakone, where, in the distance, an old wooden sailboat can be seen gliding along the quiet horizon. Miracles can happen in architecture. I am lucky to have experienced more than one through the fascinating buildings of Togo Murano.
Adam Štěch is a Prague-based curator, editor, and a co-founder of OKOLO. He dedicates this story to Nobel, with thanks.
Images: Photography by Adam Štěch