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Career Case Study #12: Antonin Raymond

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1888 – 1976

Antonin Raymond is important enough to be called “The father of Modern Architecture in Japan” but he’s not so well known. He’s not “taught”. At first I thought he might be a misfit but this is a career case study. I’ll explain why. First some facts I’ve pieced together from the sources at end.

Raymond was born in 1888 in Bohemia which is now part of the Czech Republic and, in 1906, entered the Czech Polytechnic Institute where, sometime around 1908 he saw a small monograph of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and, in 1910, a copy of Wrights Wasmuth Portfolio just after it was published. On the back of that, he promptly emigrated to the US as soon as he completed his studies. He would have been 22. He worked with Cass Gilbert for three years, doing external architecture details for the Woolworth Building which, when it was completed in 1913, was the world’s tallest skyscraper. He also worked on the Austin, Nichols and Company Warehouse in Brooklyn which, in the way of architectural biographies, is said to have given him “an insight into the structural and textural properties of concrete.[5] It was completed in 1915 so Raymond’s three years with Gilbert began 1910 at the earliest and ended 1915 at the latest. He is now 27.

One source says Raymond began studying painting at New York’s Independent School of Art in 1912 “because he was bored” [which suggests to me that either he or Cass were difficult to work with]. With multiple sources, dates don’t always agree, so he could have still been working for Cass while studying painting, but probably not when he met his future wife on the way back from a painting trip to Italy, marrying her in 1914. He became an American citizen in early 1916 and changed his surname from Reimann to Raymond. Now, his wife was born in France but raised in New York, was introduced to Japanese art and design at Columbia University and studied painting at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Returning to New York, she positioned herself in New York’s avant-garde art circle and ran a successful graphic and illustration studio. I mention this because it was his wife’s New York art connections that, in 1916, led to Raymond working for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin WI.

Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel was constructed 1919-1923 so Raymond was involved with its design in the US sometime after 1916 but, after a spell in the army, he and his wife relocated to Japan in 1920 to oversee its design and construction. He did this for one year before he was dismissed by Wright. Raymond is said to have been

  1. Bored with the work [for the second time?]
  2. Concerned that Wright’s Mayan-lite “design had nothing in common with Japan, its climate, its traditions, its people and its culture”[8] and
  3. Disagreed with Wright’s preference for encasing concrete in brickwork .

Perhaps they just didn’t get on. It didn’t matter for, one month after his dismissal, Raymond, his wife and Leon Whittaker Slack (?) set up the American Architectural and Engineering Company in Tokyo and their career in Japan began. Their first major building was the Tokyo Women’s Christian College.

It’s a Woolworth Building/Prairie House mashup that, in the way of architecture wikis, is said “to demonstrate Raymond’s interest in Czech cubism and the work of Auguste Perret” and presumably Japan, it’s climate, its traditions, … Construction began in 1924, one year after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that destroyed Raymond’s own house so, in 1924, he designed and built himself a new one out of concrete in Tokyo’s Azabu district. This is it.

Cashflow is always a mystery with architects’ careers. Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t known for paying high salaries but, three years after Wright dismissed him, Raymond builds his own house on land in a central part of Tokyo. Perhaps he arrived in Japan with a big bag of family cash like Serge Chermayeff, or perhaps his wife was the main breadwinner 1921-24 with design and decoration work.

Almost entirely in concrete and with metal windows and steel railings, it’s clearly not inspired by Wright. It’s said the interior had tubular furniture but I can’t see any in this next screenshotted photogtraph. Raymond buildings are very under-photographed.

Mention of tubular furniture inside madesme think of Breuer chairs but they weren’t designed until 1925 so whose could it have been?

Architectural Digest tells me that, since 1919, Milanese company Columbus had been making and marketing a complete range of tubular furniture. It might have been theirs or copies of.

Courtesy of the Columbus Historical Archive, via Architectural Digest

Antonin Raymond is said to have been a very prolific designer with over 300 projects in 50 years of practice. This is selection of his buildings 1924–1932 omits the Hoshi University Building (1924). There are probably others.

Italian Embassy, Nikko (1922)

Raymond had been a member of the Tokyo Golf Club in 1922, two years after his arrival. He designed their new 1932 clubhouse in the new style fashionable from Moscow to London at the time but there was no time to appreciate it because Japan had invaded Manchuria the year before. The building and grounds were almost immediaftely requisitioned by the Imperial Japanese Army as part of Japan’s war drive. Leon Whittacker Slack wasn’t around anymore and the practice was renamed Antonin Raymond, Architect.

Tokyo Golf Club, Saitama (1932)

This next paragraph has been copied and pasted around the internet. [In the years 1924-38] “…,

their practice flourished; they built residences, embassies, clubs, universities, churches, schools, and factories. During these years, their work quickly evolved from its Wrightian origins through a period of abstraction and material experimentation in concrete, paralleling the European modernists’ work of August Perret and Robert Mallet-Stevens. By the late 1920s and early 1930s they had perhaps the most avant grade practice in Asia as proponents of the then just emerging International Style. However, they quickly understood the limits of strict Modernist Functionalism as evangelized by Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus and the Purism of Le Corbusier. By the late 1930’s, they evolved their own unique fusion of modernism and vernacular architecture that would portent the Regional Modernism in America and Scandinavia of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. “

There must be more because this list of presumably the major works lists only three houses (one of which – Summer House – was another house for themselves) and an extension for a former client for the period 1933-34 and nothing between 1935 and 1939 when they left for the US because war with the US was imminent. The Sino-Japan war of 1931-32, the occupation of Manchuria and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre had all happened and widely reported in the Japanese press. With increasing friction between the US and Japan, foreign clients and good-paying commissions were almost certainly drying up for non-Japanese civilian architects. Time to leave.

Viscount Soma Residence (1932)
Akeboshi Tetsuma House, Tokyo (1933)
St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Karuizawa (1934)
Raymond Farm remodelling, New Hope, 1939

Back in the US, Raymond took Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship as a model and started the New Hope Experiment for apprentices to do studio and farm work but, in 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the US immediately declared war.

Research had already been underway to develop new types of napalm-based firebombs for carpet-bombing Japanese and German cities and, in 1943, work began on constructing model villages to field test these new bombs. A German village and a Japanese village were built and rebuilt several times on land at Dugway, near Salt Lake City. Erich Mendelson was responsible for the design of German Village and Antonin Raymond was responsible for the design of Japanese Village. Raymond was chosen because he was in the US, had good knowledge of Japan and its buildings, and had designed the New York headquarters and staff housing in Yokohama for one of the project’s stakeholders, the Standard Oil Company. With the US now at war, saying no probably wasn’t an option. Raymonds task was to ensure the houses were made as authentically as possible.

“The Japanese Village at Dugway Proving Ground: An Unexamined Context to the Firebombing of Japan”, Dylan J. Plung, The Asia-Pacific Journal, April 15, 2018 Volume 16 | Issue 8 | Number 3, Article ID 5136

Some 600 tons of firebombs had already been dropped on Japan prior to March 9-10, 1945 when 2,000 tons were dropped on Tokyo. 100,000 deaths. The testing and subsequent firebombing were considered a success. Nobody comes out of this looking good.

Whether out of remorse or for business opportunity, Raymond obtained special permission from General MacArthur for he and his wife to return to Japan and reopen an office to help with “the rebuilding” of Japan. It was a good move but this list makes no mention of embassies, embassy housing, factories or mass housing.

[US embassy employee housing: Perry Apartments (left, 1952) and Harris Apartments (right, 1953)

The 1951 Reader’s Digest Tokyo Office Building is regarded as an important building in the history of modern Japanese architecture.

https://www.oldtokyo.com/readers-digest-building-tokyo-c-1955/

The use of concrete, the size, the proportions, the slight cantilever, and the implied pilotis remind me of Kenzo Tange’s 1955 Hiroshima Peace Center, commissioned the same year and, by association, the house he designed for himself in 1953.

Kenzo Tange, own house, 1953

Tange and Raymond are both said to have reconciled Western modernism with the Japanese tradition.

St. Anselm’s Church, Tokyo, 1961
Gunma Music Center (1961)
https://journal.rikumo.com/journal/the-work-of-antonin-raymond

What to make of all this? Is Antonin Raymond the Father of Modernism in Japan? He could be. Is he a misfit architect? I don’t think so, although being relatively unknown and not taught is something he shares with most other misfit architects. Not having a single classifiable style isn’t going to build a brand or make an architect a representative of a style or an era but still that’s not enough. The Japanese architect Tōgō Murano is also little known outside Japan. He was born two years before Raymond, died eight years after and also had a career of over 50 years in which he also designed over 300 buildings but Murano designed every building as if he was designing something for the first time. None are similar but amongst them is a very high proportion of truly wonderful buildings. With Murano, I sense a consistent passion across the diverse buildings. With Raymond each one seems like an exercise, especially the post-war ones 1955–1968. They don’t feel like they were designed in the midst of a period of enormous artistic renewal across every field of art in Japan. Raymond was competent and ambitious but I just don’t think he cared that much about buildings.

If people claim that Antonin Raymond is Father of Modern Architecture in Japan it might be less because of his actual output but by his influence on other architects. Raymond was the pre-eminent foreign architecture working in Japan so it was natural for Kunio Maekawa to work for him when he returned from France after a stint in Le Corbusier’s atelier. There was also Junzō Yoshimura who worked in Le Corbusier’s atelier and Antonin’s offices in both Japan and the US. The era of the foreign architect blending Western sensibilities with Japanese traditions was about to end.


Further reading:

  • “The Making of Modern Japanese Architecture: From 1868 to the present”, David B. Stewart, 1987
  • Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond“, Mari Sakamoto Nakahara and Ken Tadashi Oshima

Comments

  • Hi Graham!

    Really enjoyed learning more about Raymond’s ideals and history. I actually had heard of him before but only from a particular project which you didn’t mention here. Antonin Raymond was the primary architect on a religious dormitory called Golconde, in Pondicherry, India. He was assisted in this by George Nakashima as well, and beat Corbu to the punch on introducing Modernism to India. It’s a fascinating study as Raymond not only developed a Modern language with detail to suit the harsh environment, but also needed to do so in a way that the group’s own members could build it all with very limited experience. They did all the concrete and stone work, and even had a brass smelting and machining shop to do all the hardware.

    Here’s an arch digest article on the building (I hope a link might be allowed, sorry if not)
    https://www.architecturaldigest.in/story/a-look-at-indias-first-modernist-building-golconde-in-pondicherry/

    It’s a fun building! Hope you enjoy.
    ~Trevor

    • Thanks for that Trevor. I did see mention of it and remember wondering how he could have received that commission. I imagine it must have been some religious connection as he did design several churches. I didn’t include it because I didn’t want the introduction to be too much of a chronology but this building is in an unexpected place and, as you say, it was a first for India. I will check it out and may have to add a postscript to that post. Thanks again Trevor.

  • Graham,

    Yet another interesting article — demonstrating, once again, that Misfit Architecture is the only architecture blog worth reading.

    However, I am nevertheless perplexed by your seemingly out-of-the-blue/unsupported statement:

    “…but I just don’t think he cared that much about buildings.”

    Certainly, his — and Noemi’s — combined design output is pretty high quality and the result of caring effort.

    Furthermore, given their obviously long-lasting and very close personal, professional and artistic relationship (certainly unique and pioneering for the time**), perhaps it is more appropriate to think of Antonin and Noemi as a pair of “Architectural Misfits”?

    **Sometimes the talented emigre/outsider, as an “exotic”, is given more leeway and is not expected/compelled to conform to the restrictive cultural norms of their adopted countries….and it is within this “disconnect” that a lot of beneficial insight and creativity can happen.

    Examples abound….yourself included?

    Best,

    Mark

    • says:

      Thanks for writing Mark – I remember you! I had a feeling I should have expanded on that last line. I was wondering why Antonin Raymond (specifically) wasn’t better known but I couldn’t help comparing him with Tōgō Murano who was active over the same period and who also had about 300 projects. To me Raymond seems to change with the times whereas with Murano (almost) every building seems effortlessly unique. I’m also suspicious of the influence of Kunio Maekaya, fresh back from Corbusier’s office, on two of Raymon’s houses. Raymond was probably a proto-modern architect with an eye on cashflow and business opportunities and relying on interns for ideas. I also read he was quite a prickly character and his co-partner (or Raymond and Rado) helped out with customer relations. And then there’s Noémi. I’d like to find out more about her before I wonder whether they were a Venturi–Scott-Brown, a Charles & Ray Eames, or something else. I guess it’s a difference between collaboration and division of labour. It might be impossible to know now. But thanks again for asking Mark. Your point about the talented outsider is valid, tho’ probably not with respect to me. I hope all’s good in SF. Cheers, Graham.