by Zohra KhanMay 28, 2022
On receiving a commission to renovate a derelict building at the heart of Maebashi city within Japan's Gunma Prefecture, Sou Fujimoto Architects surveyed the site at the foremost opportunity and found a prosaic four-storey concrete structure. Closed and abandoned in 2008, it had once functioned as Shiroiya Ryokan - a type of traditional Japanese inn - over a duration stretching back three centuries to the Edo period. The project is part of an initiative to rejuvenate Maebashi, a former silk-manufacturing city that was once a significant player in Japan's modernisation. Hitoshi Tanaka, President of the JINS Eyewear Company and a Maebashi native, initiated the revitalisation process by purchasing the building and enlisting the Tokyo-based architects to realise his vision.
Drawing from the grassy banks of Tone River and Maebashi's 2016 revitalisation campaign to become a place 'where good things grow', the architects devised an innovative, hybrid solution that conserved parts of the old building's shell while incorporating biophilic design elements to a new, adjacent structure. "Our brief was to renovate the four-storey reinforced concrete main building into which the inn had moved some 40 years ago. This would be called the Heritage Tower. The second task was to construct a new building, to be called the Green Tower,” explains the firm. "We felt that something drastic was needed to realise any potentiality, and at the start of the design process, we decided to dismantle the walls and floors across all four storeys to create a gigantic central atrium".
For them, this initial action was the spark that influenced all subsequent design concepts within the Heritage Tower. "Once the floors were stripped out, the structure’s powerful presence came to light, revealed after many years. This offered a taste of how the atrium could look, as a plaza for locals and international visitors to mingle. The space seemed capable of holding all kinds of objects and events," remarks Sou Fujimoto, the founder of the firm.
As a massive void at the heart of the old structure crisscrossed by large columns, exposed beams and weaving staircases, the atrium functions like a 'city-level piazza' bathed in sunlight filtering from skylights at upper levels. The lounge space on the ground floor welcomes visitors while extending into the adjoining street and serves as a 'living room for the city'. It is populated by plants that frame a space for people to meet and gather. A dark wood-finished reception desk sits against a backdrop of raw, worn concrete walls featuring a photograph from Hiroshi Sugimoto's Seascapes collection.
On scaling the atrium's staircases, visitors encounter a shifting panorama of views with spatial distortions that elongate, contract, and overlap with variations in sightlines and bodily orientation. This dynamic internal circulation system recreates the three-dimensional experience of moving through a city with bustling streets and flyovers. The atrium's cavity forms a continuous urban district, connected to the pathways outside. Simultaneously, it serves to exhibit elegant interior design elements that include planters, curtains, furniture, and most notably, artwork.
Inside the atrium, Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich's Lighting Pipes installation swerves and intertwines with the overhead grid of beams and columns to form a striking visual spectacle. Outside, the Heritage Tower's renovated facade overlooking Route 50, is adorned with Lawrence Weiner's distinctive artwork and signages.
Previously a terrace facing the Tone River above the old structure's ground level, the new 'Green Tower' sits adjacent to the Heritage Tower and is composed of a raised green bank that creates a lush, verdant landscape. Earlier, a pedestrian path cut through this section of the site from the main road at its front end to Babakkawa-dori Street in the rear.
Presently, this green bank resolves the height difference conundrum while acting as a winding, three-dimensional expansion of its predecessor. Its curved surfaces form a new urban space, featuring punctured fenestrations and overhead structures containing rooms. Coupled with the main building edifice, it forges an intriguing dichotomy that highlights opposing themes of old and new, urban and architectural, as well as interior and exterior.
In addition to a Joshu cuisine restaurant, the hotel accommodates 25 rooms in total, with 17 in the Heritage Tower and eight in the Green Tower. All of these feature unique artworks with curtains by Yoko Ando and furnishings selected by Tomomi Nagayama. Four exclusive rooms have been uniquely designed by Italian architect Michele de Lucchi, British designer Jasper Morrison, Leandro Erlich, and Fujimoto himself. Each space has been conceived on a specific theme with a distinctive palette.
While describing his design, Lucchi shares, "We wanted to bridge the gaps between sculpture and interior design to have a room that is also an art installation. To do so, we employed 2725 wooden shingles. We applied them only on edges and corners, coating a small room with these shingles, made curtains that in their entirety, look light and soft".
Morrison on the other hand wanted his room to contrast the old, derelict structure he initially encountered preceding renovations. He says, "I started to think of wooden panelling for the walls and that led me to the idea of the room being a wooden box. There’s a big window which looks on to the hotel foyer so you can enjoy the atmosphere of the public space."
While Erlich's room plays with his Lighting Pipes installation, Fujimoto's design is a delicate, white, airy space contrasted by a textured concrete floor.
As per Sou Fujimoto Architects, Shiroiya Hotel's renovation has been executed with the intent to create a destination for art, culinary delights, and social interaction at the heart of Maebashi. "We hope this new space, born from a mixture of city, architecture, and landscape, will contribute to the remaking of a future city, growing and resonating throughout Maebashi,” concludes the design team.
Name: Shiroiya Hotel
Location: Maebashi, Japan
Architect: Sou Fujimoto Architects
Guest Room Design: Michele De Lucchi, Jasper Morrison, Leandro Erlich, Sou Fujimoto
Lighting Design: Hiroyasu Shoji
Textile Design: Yoko Ando
Interior Coordination: Tomomi Nagayama
Restaurant Design: Shinsuke Kai (Esquisse, inc.)
Planting Supervisor: Taichi Saito (Solso)
Area: 2,565.46 sqm (Heritage Tower: 1,744.52 sqm , Green Tower: 820.94 sqm）
Year of Completion: 2020
(Text by Jerry Joe Elengical, intern at STIRworld.com)