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Career Case Study #11: Kunio Maekawa (前川 國男)

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The history of modern architecture in Japan is short and relatively well documented even though major protagonists such as Antonin Raymond and Bruno Taut neglected to mention each other in their respective histories.

Kunio Maekawa, Junzō Yoshimura and Junzo Sakakura were, along with Togō Murano, the first generation of modern Japanese architects. Togō Murano travelled but never worked outside Japan, and never aligned himself with any architect, movement, or style and this is probably why he is least known. Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura both spent time in Le Corbusier’s atelier, Maekawa 1928-1930 and Sakakura 1930-1937, eventually becoming studio chief. Kenzo Tange spent time in Maekawa’s studio. That fame breeds fame is not in doubt, but we always assume it’s the result of talent being somehow transmitted even though there’s no evidence for it. What’s probably learned is an attitude towards marketing and cashflow that, combined with an innate talent, means the three major preconditions for architectural fame are in place. Thus we have Le Corbusier – Maekawa – Tange – Isozaki …

Kunio Maekawa came from a privileged family with samurai background, and studied architecture at the the Tokyo Imperial University, today’s still prestigious University of Tokyo. There, he felt more affinity with Le Corbusier than what The Bauhaus stood for on Gropius’ watch. There’s nothing wrong with taking opportunities one is given so, immediately after graduation, Maekawa’s uncle who was a League of Nations diplomat, recommended him to Le Corbusier who let him work as an unpaid draftsman 1928-1929 and then mostly under Le Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanerret. This is no surprise because Le Corbusier wasn’t in the office much 1928–1929. [c.f. Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye] Maekawa worked on the Mundaneum proposal famously criticized in 1929 by Karel Tiege. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Tiege] and was there when Villa Savoye was being hastily redesigned. Oh to have been une mouche on the wall in Le Corbusier’s studio in 1928!

Whose idea was it to remove the top floor, shrink the basement and living room, route the sewage down through the hallway and madame’s bathwater down the column in the maid’s bedroom? Was It LC by telegram from Moscow or South America? Was it Jeanneret winging it? Or intern Maekawa doing the best he could? History is silent. LC’s indifference to the fate of the house in later years suggests it wasn’t him.

Anyway, Villa Savoye was completed the same year as the Mundaneum proposal. The former has been as actively remembered to the same degree as the Mundaneum has been actively forgotten. It’s a dog.

Perhaps Maekawa had seen too much. We don’t know why he returned to Japan in 1930 but, when people leave a company, they usually feel its not going to get any better and that’s always a combination of being overworked, underpaid and under-appreaciated. Back in Japan, he immediately started work at Antonin Raymond’s office where he was to stay for five years – an eternity in architect years. There, he was architect-in-charge of the Viscount Soma Residence (1932) and the Akaboshi Tetsuma House (1933), both of which busy especially the latter makes me suspect the degree of Raymond’s contribution.

Raymond no doubt paid Maekawa more than Le Corbusier but even so, I suspect Maekawa had financial help from his “privileged” family when, in 1935, he left Raymond to start his own office, Mayekawa Kunio Associates. TImes began to get hard. Japan had just invaded Manchuria. Non-Japanese were increasingly not welcome in Japan so Raymond and his wife left in 1939 to sit out the war in the US. All but the last two of the following projects were between Japan’s 1935 invasion of Manchuria and its 1945 surrender.

  • Hinomoto Hall (1936)
  • Memorial Hall to the Founding of the Nation (1937, competition)
Kishi Memorial Hall, 1940
  • Sato Residence, Tokyo (1937)
  • Sato Residence, Karuizwa (1937)

Since 1937, restrictions had been in place on the use of metal in buildings because of the war, effectively ruling out the use of concrete but, with Kishi Memorial Hall, Maekawa House and Kinokuniya Bookstore, Maekawa was making wood buildings and spaces that hadn’t been seen before in Japan. I can’t find any information on the Various military projects (1938-1941) but then I didn’t expect to. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in Manchuria but history is silent. However, as former boss Raymond discovered in the US, when it’s wartime and the military comes knocking and offering you a commission, it’s probably better to not refuse.

  • Various military projects (1938-1941)
  • Kao Commercial Bank Employee Housing (1939)
  • Kishi Memorial Hall (1940)
  • Maekawa House (1942)
  • Kinokuniya Bookstore (1947)
  • Keio University Hospital project (1947–1948)

On the basis of his own house, Maekawa had a comfortable war. The house he designed for himself is considered a treasure and, as is the way when talking about modern Japanese architecture, many saw it as combining “values borrowed from his European mentors with the vernacular building traditions of Japan”. Half close your eyes and you can see the living room pre-empt Unité d’Habitations (1952) by ten years.

Publishing and bookselling were high-growth businesses in post-war Japan. Maekawa’s next major building was the post-surrender Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjukju (1947). It was a two story wood building with much glass on the proportional street facade or what would have been the street facade if the space between it and the street hadn’t been crowded with post-war slum.

Maekawa focused on the mass production of prefabricated structures and wrote a lot on that topic, mistakenly believing like Gropius that assembly lines and mass production would make quality products more widely accessible. A side benefit of this would be the retooling of companies that had formerly engaged in wartime production and so it was at Maekawa’s suggestion that the Manchurian Aircraft Company reposition itself as a manufacturer of housing components after Japan’s defeat. (Buckminster Fuller had been thinking along the same lines in the US.) As ever, prefabrication came to nothing. Maekawa’s company produced perhaps 1,000 units in five years. Later, companies such as MUJI were to do it much much better.

Maekawa’s 1959 Harumi Flats apartment project in Tokyo was one of the earliest high-rise apartment buildings in Japan. If you want to, you can see a little bit of Le Corbusier in it. It was demolished in 1996. Maekawa is probably best remembered for his 1961 Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall, better known and loved by Japanese as Tokyo Bunka Kaikan venue. “Recognized as Maekawa’s grandest and best known work, the Festival Hall has been praised for the humanism that finds expression in Maekawa’s various choices of materials such as the dramatic use of marble sheeting on the interior walls. Overall the design pays tribute to rural Japan and draws inspiration from the classic minka (farm house) structure.” Maybe it does. Squint and you can see a bit of Chandigarh there too.

Maekawa is said to have “gone back” to the aesthetic of Le Corbusier in his later years but it must have been hard for him, always being remembered for having worked for Le Corbusier for two years, and Kenzo Tange having worked for him for four (1938–1942). It’s probably better to be remembered for one’s protegées than for being one. It was probably astute of Tange to go back to Tokyo Imperial University in 1942 just prior to Pearl Harbour and the US entering the Pacific War. There, Tange studied city planning and was made professor in 1947. His four years with Maekawa were the only time he worked for anyone else. Tange was soon to make his name as the architect who gave Japan symbols for its recovery, reconstruction and rejuvenation but Maekawa should at least be remembered as an architect who kept modern architecture in Japan alive from one side of the war to the other.

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  • His own house is adorable! Small, Japanese and yet so European. Still valid and looks totally fresh:) I see it incarnation with my local touch built straight on the plot in my heart!