The current United States Embassy office building in Tokyo was built in 1976 to fulfil the increasing demand of operation space. It replaced the former white Embassy building which was built in 1931. The Ambassador’s Residence, also completed in 1931, however, was retained on its original position in the same site. Cesar Pelli with Gruen Associates was chosen as the architect for this new U.S. Embassy building. The State Department of the United States provided the architects with a very specific program which set strict limits on the amount of glass that could be used and on the office space. It required the adoption of an office module of 4.5 feet, or its approximation in metric, and specified that the glass surface area be no more than 50 percent of the total wall area. The specifications resulted in shallow office spaces served by double-loaded corridors.
The United States Embassy in Tokyo is located on a 13,115.22-square-meter site at 1-10-5 Akasaka Minato-ku, Tokyo. The main entrance is on the north-east side of the site while the office building is located on the northernmost point of the site. The building, occupying 3,204.79-square-meter building area and 23,347.44-square-meter total floor area, is placed on a north-south axis, arranged at an oblique angle to the main approach. The sitting of the building allows for a large amount of open space and the preservation of a magnificent old ginkgo tree. A hillside planted with well grown specimen trees is also taken advantage of to form a natural backdrop for the building.
The building consists of an 11-story east tower and a 3-story west wing, sitting on top of two basement floors. A central court with gardens, terraces and an auditorium separates these two blocks. The main façade of the tower faces to the east. The north part of the tower is 11-story while the south part of it is 12-story, which makes the building’s shape more changeful.
The tall block is built of steel-frame, the short block is reinforced concrete and the basement is steel-frame reinforced concrete.
The modular plan of the interior office space, adopting an office module of 4.5 feet, results in the regular modular grid of the exterior wall. The walls on the long sides of the building enclose the building frame with a continuous curtain wall of beige opaque panels and half-mirror windows in a module of 650mm by 350mm. The opaque panels are made of pre-cast concrete and the windows are made of bronze-tinted reflective glass with anodized aluminium frames. This composition also makes the gridded wall looks like a giant Shoji screen. The short end walls of the building are totally enclosed by beige pre-cast concrete panels in different size from those of the long sides. The opaque panels of the long sides are flat, modular and interchangeable with the operable windows while those of the short end walls are modelled with horizontal ridges and fit between the greyish brown structural elements of the end walls. On the east side of the tall block, a five-bay wide and three-story portico is created by cutting away the curtain wall and exposing the columns and beams of the structural frame.
The approach to the building is led by a series of well-defined exterior and interior spaces. The motor court, which is a roughly circular platform surrounded by a semicircle of trees, is attached with the east side of the building. The platform is on the same level as the second floor. The two of the exterior stairways to the second floor are under the portico and one is along the foundation of the platform. Therefore, the entrance to the main lobby is at the end of the stairways for pedestrians and in front of the motor court under a canopy for those driving a car. The lobby space is formal and symmetrical with a large granite reception desk facing the entrance.
The interior of the three-bay-wide building is composed of a serious of shallow standard offices along double-loaded corridors. Functionalism is emphasized in the interior spaces. American products are used in all things, including partition walls, system ceilings, lighting fixtures and paint. The Japanese garden planted with bamboo in the central court adds a note of lyricism to the generally plain and rigid spaces of the building.
The current building of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo was built with a combination of steel frame, reinforced concrete frame, precast concrete curtain wall panels and bronze-tinted glass windows with anodized aluminum frames. The construction was carried out by Obayashi Corporation, which is one of five major Japanese construction companies along with Shimizu Corporation, Takenaka Corporation, Kajima Corporation and Taisei Corporation. The construction consumed 20,000 tons of concrete, 400 kilometers of electrical and telephone wiring, 13 kilometers of walls and partitions and 40,000 square meters of carpets. All of these materials, except for the concrete, were imported form America. The inadequate capacity of the chilled-water air-conditioning system was a noted problem in the construction. It seemed to be a result of last-minute cost-cutting.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo is located in Akasaka Minato-ku. Akasaka is the residential and commercial district of Minato. It is also a place where a lot of antique stores and hotels are located. The Okura Hotel is to the east of the U.S. Embassy, on the other side of a very narrow street. The U.S. Embassy is about one kilometre to the south-west of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, 500 meters to the south of the National Diet Building of Japan and two kilometres to the north of the Roppongi night-life district. In Akasaka, there are Embassies of Canada, Mexico, Spain Cambodia, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and San Marino as well.
The structural frame of the building was built of reinforced concrete and steel frame. Originally, the entire building was designed to be reinforced concrete structure. However, the architects adopted suggestions from Japanese specialists who urged the use of steel frame because of frequent earthquakes in Japan. The special seismic conditions in Japan also mandated that the wall be separate from the structure and supported by it. The Embassy office building was designed to meet the requirements of earthquake codes of both Tokyo and California. To emphasize the function of this building, all construction and decoration materials were American products, except concrete.
The current U.S. Embassy office building is a replacement of the original three-story white Embassy building built in 1931 on the same site. The Japanese army attacked on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 8, 1941. Shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo remained closed during the Allied occupation when the U.S. was the occupying power in Japan. It reopened on April 28, 1952. The current Embassy building was designed in 1972 and the construction of it was completed in 1976. The new modern building was built not only to provide sufficient space for various embassy services and internal communications, but also as a symbol of continuous, new and friendly relationship between the United States and Japan. After 1952, though Japan was set free from the occupation by the United States, it continued relying on the U.S. to develop its economy. Around 1972, the political situation of the world experienced some changes. Japan had always been America’s logistic supply depot during the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975). However, as Japan became the second largest economic power in the world at the end of the 1960s, it began to get rid of America’s control and turn into a competitive force against America. Japan and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relationship on September 29, 1972. Besides, during the 1973 Oil Crisis, Japan sought to disassociate itself from the U.S. policy in the Middle East. Under these circumstances, the U.S. had to maintain Japan’s support by diplomacy and building this new Embassy office building might be one of the approaches. At the main entrance, a flowering tree is planted on the platform as a symbol of welcome and friendship.
Enveloped by metal-like concrete wall and operable-window curtain wall, the office building of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo is generally in corporate modernism style, while the design approach for it is less obvious, less clear and less didactic. The building expresses its limited ceremonial purpose very well. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, along with the Pacific Design Centre in Los Angeles, the San Bernardino City Hall, and the World Financial Centre and Winter Garden at Battery Park, are Cesar Pelli’s award-winning projects. Pelli is one of the architects, whose worlds are always open-ended and who believe that new experiences are essential to the continuing evolution of their work. His structures have been praised by Douglas Davis in a 1986 Newsweek article as “lyrical, technically sophisticated buildings that are neither ‘modern’ nor ‘ post-modern.’ Each attempts to please on many levels at once, captivating clients and public but frustrating critics.” Pelli was acclaimed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the ten most influential living American architects in 1991. This building is big, sleek, light and meticulously assembled, just as Cesar Pelli’s other buildings. It is also evolved from its client, its place and construction tradition. The State Department of the United States set strict limits on the amount of glass that could be used (the glass surface area should be no more than 50 percent of the wall area) and required the adoption of an office module of 4.5 feet, which resulted in shallow office spaces served by double-loaded corridors. Strict earthquake codes and exceptional local building techniques enabled a bold structure with a high refined skin in which concrete took on the visual lightness of Shoji screen. The building is also less obvious, less clear and less didactic than Pelli’s other building. According to Cesar Pelli, “The building expresses its limited ceremonial purpose very well. It is not the Embassy of the United States; that is where the ambassador lives. It is only the Embassy Office Building. The building had to be an American building, but one that would be sympathetic to the country and site where it was built.” Besides, a basic consideration in the design is that the building must connect and respect the best aspects of the architectural tradition of the place where it will be built. But Pelli also said that “although the building was designed for Japan, it was not meant to be a Japanese building but an American building representing America on a piece of soil that was technically American. According to an article on New York Times in 1976, “the structure was also an architectural disappointment to many Americans and Japanese. ‘I think it looks like a chocolate bar with antennas,’ said one American.”
The history of the U.S. Embassies in Japan began in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry and his “black ships” arrived in Japan. In 1854, Perry and Japanese shogunate government signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the U.S. and Japan (Treaty of Kanagawa).
In 1856, Townsend Harris arrived in Japan as the first U.S. Consul General. He opened a temporary consulate general in Gyokusenji Temple in Kakizaki, Shimoda. He was appointed Minister Resident on January 19, 1859. In July, Harris moved from Shimoda to Edo and opens a legation in Zempukuji Temple in Azabu, which was loaned from the Japanese government. In 1863, Zempukuji Temple was burned down, so the legation was moved to the foreign settlement in Kannai, Yokohama. The U.S. Consulate was also moved to the Yokohama foreign settlement from Hongakuji Temple, Yokohama, in the same year.
In 1868, the Meiji Era began and Edo was renamed as Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration. In 1874, Minister John A. Bingham moved the legation from foreign settlement in Yokohama to the foreign settlement in Tsukiji, Tokyo.
In 1890, the Japanese government and Minister John F. Swift came to an agreement that leasing the buildings and land at the Embassy’s current location (Old address: 1 Tameike Enokizaka-cho, Akasaka-ku, Tokyo) to the U.S. government. Therefore, the U.S. Legation was relocated from Tsukiji to Akasaka. In 1906, the American Legation was upgraded to the American Embassy during the term of U.S. Ambassador Luke E. Wright. In 1923, the old wooden buildings used as the American Legation/ Embassy from 1890 were destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the subsequent fire. In 1931, a new three-story white Embassy building, Ambassador’s residence and two adjacent apartments were rebuilt at the same location as the old Embassy buildings.
In time, the operation outgrew the building. In 1972, Cesar Pelli, along with Norma Merrick Sklarek of Gruen Associates, designed a new modern building for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. In 1973, the Consulate in Yokohama was merged with the U.S. Embassy Consular Section in Tokyo. The old three-story Embassy building and the two employees housing units, which had become unsuitable for the excessive embassy operations, were demolished in May, 1974. The ground-purifying ceremony for the new Embassy building (the current building) was held on July 30, 1974. The construction of the new Embassy building was completed by Obayashi Corporation in August, 1976. The new eleven-story, 245,000-square-foot building, which cost 12,200,000 dollars, was the largest United States Embassy in the world when it was built. On Labor Day (September 6), the new building was opened and the Embassy staff moved into it. On the evening of September 22, a time capsule for the new building was buried during a ceremony. The copper time capsule box, contained Japanese coins, a list of foreign diplomats and newspapers from its time, was originally buried in the ground when the old Embassy was completed in 1931. U.S. bicentennial commemorative coins, Japanese coins, the day’s newspapers and other objects were added to the time capsule box to commemorate the new Embassy building. The time capsule was buried under the cornerstone at the base of the American flag at the main entrance to the Embassy. The formal dedication ceremony was held on September 24, 1976. The ceremony was participated by James D. Hodgson, U.S. Ambassador to Japan; U. Alexis Johnson, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan (1966 – 1969); Embassy staff; and a number of guests from the Japanese government, news media and academia.This building is sympathetic to the Japanese architecture character. Impressed by this building, the Daehan Kyoyuk Insurance Company’s executives asked for a very similar building in Seoul, and received one.
Although the building was criticized for its simplicity, it is a symbolic expression of America in Tokyo, designed under limitations set by State Department and earthquake safety codes of both Tokyo and California. Pelli’s approach to design also involved do-ability. The straightforward and simple design avoided struggling during construction and resulted in an economical building. While trying to integrate Japanese architecture features into the building and infuse the building into local environment, the building was still designed to stand as an impressive American representative in Tokyo.
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Watanabe, Hiroshi. The Architecture of Tokyo: an architectural history of 571 individual presentations. Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges, 2001.
“Cheers and Boos.” New York Times, September 25, 1976. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.