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  • John Barr

Do|Co|Mo|Mo|Japan|08 Kasuien : Togo Murano

Do|Co|Mo|Mo is an international organisation dedicated to the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement. The Japanese branch has selected 100 works as representative of the development of the Modern Movement in Japan.

In a series of short posts I will feature some of the selected works that I have had the chance to visit and photograph. This post features the Kasuien Annexe to the Miyako Hotel, Kyoto, designed by Togo Murano and built in 1959. In passing, we will look at two other Murano buildings that also feature in the 100 selected works...


Togo Murano is certainly known by those outside Japan who have more than a passing interest in Japanese architecture, but not as well known as many other 20th century Japanese architects. The situation is different in Japan, where he enjoys a strong reputation, amongst both architects and the general public. His profile in Japan might be due to his prolific output (over three hundred built projects) and the length of his career, establishing his office in 1929 and continuing to work right up until his death in 1984. His work is difficult to categorise, displaying an eclectic mix of styles and influences both across projects and within projects. In 1919, when he was 28 years old, Murano published a manifesto that challenged architects to Be Above Style. It seems that this was a matter of principle for Murano, but the lack of a recognisable Murano ‘style’, coupled with the large number of projects that he produced, has led to charges of commercialism from some critics, and may also have affected his international reputation – there not being a single, clear and simple image of Murano with which to engage. Some might argue, as Graham Brenton McKay has, that the lack of international recognition stems from Murano’s refusal to accept Western Modernism as a model from which to develop a Japanese Modernism: For not putting himself in a position for us to discover him as one of us.1 There is probably some truth in this but Murano was not entirely immune to Western influences, its just that his choices were not the usual ones.

Murano’s first building as an independent architect was competed in 1931 and is the Tokyo branch of Morigo Shoten (now known as the Kinsan Building). It is a restrained, tile-clad box that is well-proportioned and beautifully detailed, especially the flush windows. In the same year he published an article titled Looking While Moving, in which he rejected the Modern Movement and the International Style. He was critical of both Corbusier and Gropius but admitted to an admiration for the Nordic modernists and the restrained detailing exhibited by architects like Ragnar Östberg.2 Murano’s use of materials, detailing and flush windows on the Morigo building carries echoes of Ösberg’s Villa Bonnier, completed around a year earlier.

Morigo Shoten, Tokyo : Togo Murano : 1931

Simple refined proprtion and detailing.

Flush windows are particularly well detailed.

The Morigo building described above, although not the main subject of this post, is also included in DoCoMoMo Japan’s selection of 100 buildings, as is Murano’s 1954 design for the Memorial Cathedral for World Peace in Hiroshima. The cathedral was built on the site of a church that was destroyed in the atomic bombing, and the bricks with which it is clad contain ash from the explosion. Kazuto Kasahara, writing for DoCoMoMo Japan, argues that the elevational treatment of exposed concrete frame with brick infill panels is a modern reference to traditional Japanese shin-kabe (timber frame in-filled with mud), whilst the windows follow the suhama-gata pattern (a term used to describe anything that is made in a kind of ‘wavy’ shape).3 The window shapes certainly recall traditional Japanese motifs, but a more likely influence for the frame-and-infill construction as well as the overall massing and arrangement of the building is Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, completed in 1942. Murano had visited the USA as a young man and, in the same article in which he criticised Corbusier, Gropius and the International Style coming out of Europe, he also praised the modernism of Manhattan, declaring New York to be the epitome of an architecture ‘based on progress’.4 Given his self-confessed admiration for the modern architecture of the USA and the Nordic modernists it seems likely that he would have been aware of Saarinen’s work.

Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Hiroshima : Togo Murano : 1954

Frame-and-Infill facade with traditional Japanese motif used for window shapes.

But where Saarinen’s design for the First Christian Church is consistent throughout, with the same cool minimalism used throughout the detailing and interior, Murano’s design for the Cathedral for World Peace soon swerves off-piste, adding flourishes that have been described as Byzantine and an interior that has been described as Romanesque.

Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Hiroshima : Togo Murano : 1954

'Byzantine' side chapel.

Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Hiroshima : Togo Murano : 1954

'Romanesque' Interior.

Murano separates the treatment of the exterior and interior in many of his projects, the most remarkable perhaps being the Nissei Theatre in Tokyo, which was completed in 1963. Here, a cool and restrained exterior that could have been designed by Eric Gunnar Asplund conceals an extraordinary cave-like auditorium with undulating walls and ceiling, where the walls are clad in multi-coloured glass mosaics and the ceiling is inlaid with 20,000 mother of pearl oyster shells, a design that could have come from the imagination of Antoni Gaudi.*

*Apart from visual resonances to be found in Gaudi’s work there is a more specific link through Kenji Imai, a Japanese architect and contemporary of Murano who had visited Spain in 1926 and who promoted Gaudi’s works on his return to Japan. Imai was four years younger than Murano but they had both studied at Waseda University and Murano invited Imai to design the sculptures that sit above the entrance doors to his Memorial Cathedral for World Peace in Hiroshima.

Nissei Theatre, Tokyo : Togo Murano : 1963

Street elevation displaying a refined coolness that could have come from Eric Gunnar Asplund.

Nissei Theatre, Tokyo : Togo Murano : 1963

Fantastical interior to auditorium that could have come from the imagination of Antoni Gaudi. (unknown photographer)

Nissei Theatre, Tokyo : Togo Murano : 1963

Detail of auditorium ceiling with 20,000 inlaid mother-of-pearl oyster shells.

(unknown photographer)

The eclecticism exhibited within individual projects is also present across projects, with Murano never subscribing to any particular style. Take for example two buildings that he designed within a few hundred meters of each other on Midosuji* in Osaka. The first, built in 1936, is the Sogo Department Store, and the second, built in 1958, is the Shin-Kabukiza (New Kabuki Theatre), both now demolished. The two are very different in character and the decisions driving these choices might appear random, but other explanations are possible.

* See earlier post dated 29 April 2019 on Osaka Gas Building for more information on Midosuji.

Sogo Department Store, Osaka : Togo Murano : 1936

The Sogo Department Store was built as part of the overall Midosuji development described in my earlier post and can be seen as reflecting Japan's optimistic embrace of the future in the 1930’s with an overtly futuristic design. (unknown photographer)

New Kabuki Theatre, Osaka : Togo Murano : 1958

The New Kabuki Theatre was built just after the end of the Allied occupation that followed WWII, a period during which certain traditional Japanese performances were censored. In particular, the American censor tried to suppress performances that contained the ‘feudal’ themes that are common in Kabuki and to promote new, democratic themes. Historians disagree about the success of this attempt at censorship, with James Brandon arguing that it was neither strict nor effective and that many myths have grown up around the idea of traditional Kabuki plays being suppressed during the occupation.5 Nonetheless, it is unarguable that there was censorship and, even if Brandon is correct about the myth of its effectiveness, myth is powerful, especially in the public imagination, and it is clear that a popular narrative developed amongst the public in which the occupying forces had attempted to take away ‘their’ traditions. It is possible that Murano was reacting to this narrative by proposing a ‘traditional’ design to house the perceived ‘resurrection’ of this traditional art form after the occupation. Ironically, the popularity of Kabuki was not sufficient to fill the theatre full-time and the management sought to increase ticket sales by scheduling more modern musical dramas that featured popular movie stars and singers. These proved more profitable than Kabuki performances and soon took over the schedule completely.

Aside from his general exhortation to Be Above Style, Murano’s motivation for his particular design choices in any given project is unclear but it may have been driven by a response to context. In the example of the Sogo Department Store and the New Kabuki Theatre it could be argued that he was responding to the social context of the times in which each project was built. In the example of the Nissei Theatre it could be argued that the exterior design was a response to the street and the immediate urban context whilst the interior design of the auditorium sought to create a magical space where reality could be suspended; an escape from the daily urban context in effect. However, even if true for those cases, response to context is not a sufficient explanation for all of Murano’s work. His motivation for the design of the Takarazuka Church in 1966, for example, is not at all clear and it is difficult even to guess at. The wavy timber ceiling is reminiscent of some of Aalto’s churches or, more specifically, the auditorium ceiling of his Municipal Library in Viipuri, Finland (now Vyborg, Russia), but that would not account for the external form of Murano’s church. He had long before denounced both Corbusier and Gropius, but is his design for the church influenced by Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, or by German Expressionism? If not these, then what? Did it simply spring from Murano’s imagination and, if so, what was his vision? The church is shaped rather like a whale with its tail raised; is it a visual joke based on the story of Jonah? Even more inexplicable is his 1963 design for the Umeda Ventilation Towers in Osaka, which seems to anticipate the work of Frank Gehry by 30 years, and without the benefit of computers. Our inability to decipher and easily categorise Murano may be at the heart of his relative obscurity outside Japan.

Takarazuka Church, Takarazuka, Hyogo prefecture : Togo Murano : 1966

The wavy timber ceiling is reminiscent of Aalto.

Takarazuka Church, Takarazuka, Hyogo prefecture : Togo Murano : 1966

The building form. Is it inspired by Ronchamp, by German Expressionism or is it an Old Testament whale from Murano's imagination?

Umeda Ventilation Towers, Osaka : Togo Murano : 1963

Umeda Ventilation Towers, Osaka : Togo Murano : 1963

An Oasis of Clarity Amongst the Confusion

The one area where we can feel on firmer ground with Murano is in his use of sukiya zukuri (sukiya style), which he employs on several projects, most notably in his design of the Kasuien, the main subject of this post. Sukiya zukuri originally emerged from the tea ceremony in the 16th century to become widely used in a variety of building types including ryokan, restaurants, etc, but predominantly in domestic architecture. There are a number of technical formulae to follow when designing in sukiya-style but, put simply, it is manifested in a refined elegance that eschews ornate detail, and the most famous example of it is Katsura Imperial Villa.** It is distinguished from Shoin Zukuri in allowing a certain amount of freedom in the arrangement of design elements and Murano used this freedom to create a modernised version that utilised modern materials or incorporated non-traditional elements.

** See earlier post dated 25 April 2018 for more on Katsura Imperial Villa.


Kasuien sits on a sloping site and is laid out to follow the contours of the slope and to enclose a garden that is based on the design of the 16th century garden at Daigo-ji Sambo-in temple in Kyoto. Examination of the plan immediately reveals several of the traditional elements of Japanese architecture that are described in previous posts: the relaxed horizontal planning, the interweaving of building and landscape, and even the flying geese formation as used at Katsura Imperial Villa and Nijo Castle. Murano uses all of these but also takes advantage of the flexibility allowed by the sukiya style to introduce modern materials. Surprisingly, when we see the expected traditional materials used for the building envelope and internal finishes, the underlying structure is steel and concrete, and this allows him to create a thin sharpness that would not have been possible using only traditional materials. This is especially apparent in the fine lines of the roof edges.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Plan exhibits elements of traditional Japanese architecture: relaxed horizontal planning; interweaving of landscape and building; flying geese formation where parallel elevations are stepped back. (unknown author)

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Garden design based on the 16th century Daigo-ji Sambo-in.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Traditional finishes on steel and concrete structure.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

A refined elegance that eschews ornate detail.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Based on Sukiya style but use of modern materials permits an extremely sharp thinness, especially in the fine lines of the roofs.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Domestic nature of design is apparent where the plan fragments around the perimeter.

Kasuien, Miyako Hotel, Kyoto : Togo Murano : 1959

Although the Miyako Hotel is a large, modern hotel, for those guests who can afford to stay in the Kasuien annexe the overwhelming effect is of elegant domesticity.


Perhaps the most significant and perplexing aspect of Togo Murano is that he is not much recognised outside Japan, even though he enjoys a high reputation within Japan and name recognition amongst the general public. The academics who put together the DoCoMoMo 100 selection chose to feature five of Murano’s buildings; at the same time the popular lifestyle magazine Casa Brutus (despite its name a Japanese magazine) named him as one of Japan’s modern masters. Other architects who enjoy similarly diverse domestic acclaim, such as Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando, are famous overseas.

Murano’s domestic popularity may be due to the sheer length of his career and the fact that many of his better-known buildings are typologies that are regularly used by the public: major department stores, major hotels, major theatres. Maybe his buildings are like the soundtrack to the lives of many Japanese; not the greatest musically, not the most original, but the one that inspires memories and affection. Many of the same factors that might account for his popularity in Japan may equally be responsible for his relative lack of recognition outside Japan. I had intended to go through these analytically: his prolific output and eclecticism have attracted accusations of commercialism; many of his more than 300 projects are unremarkable; amongst those that are remarkable there is no common ‘style’ with which to easily approach him; his eclecticism makes him difficult to categorise, etc... But then it struck me that the soundtrack to a life (or to a nation) is a very personal thing, not accessible to those who have not shared the same experiences. Perhaps that is enough to explain Murano’s failure to ‘crack the overseas market’, not that I think he ever wanted to.

  1. Architectural Misfits No.21 : Togo Murano : Graham Brenton Mckay :村野藤吾/

  2. The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture : 1868 to the Present : David B Stewart : Kodansha International (1987) pg.142

  3. Memorial Cathedral for World Peace : Kazuto Kasahara : do_co_mo_mo__japan : the 100 selections : Japan Architect 57 (Spring 2005) pg.74

  4. The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture : 1868 to the Present : David B Stewart : Kodansha International (1987) pg.142

  5. Myth and Reality : A Story of Kabuki During American Censorship : James R Brandon : Asian Theatre Journal, vol.25, no.1 (Spring 2006). University of Hawaii Press.

All images by John Barr unless otherwise noted

© John Barr 2019

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