Japan House: Preserving an Historic Manhattan Bento Box With Garden

May 14, 2012 by

Tall bamboo extends to the second floor from the lobby below. Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

The five-story Japan Society building in Manhattan stands apart from its granite and limestone neighbors, a flat black modern reinforced concrete “bento box” filled with a delicious blend of creativity, culture and education–all existing above and below a serene interior Japanese style garden space.

Architectural drawing for 1996 renovations, including the addition of a fifth floor to the building. Copyright  Japan Society. 

Japan House, Japan Society’s building located on East 47th Street, was the first example of permanent modern Japanese architecture in New York City designed by a leading Japanese architect, Junzo Yoshimura. Japanese architecture has been considered a precursor to twentieth-century modernism and the building is a stunning example too of the Japanese practice of integrating interior and exterior space. (As I learned during my visit, some Japanese temples even display artworks outdoors, really bringing to the exterior what is traditionally experienced indoors.) The five-story building houses an indoor bamboo water garden, furnishings by George Nakashima, a 262-seat theater, gallery, language center, conference rooms and administrative facilities.

Looking up through the glass to surrounding skyscrapers. Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

Yoshimura’s design has been described as a modern rendition of an 18th-century elegant Kyoto inn. Known for infusing traditional Japanese elements into his modern works, the architect blended a Japanese sensibility with contemporary local materials.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

Yoshimura’s original design has been modified and extended twice since it was built in 1971, but in each case, subsequent designers respected and preserved the original design intentions. The open lobby’s slate floors abut a bamboo pond and waterfall beside open stairs that ascend to the second-floor gallery spaces. From above, one can gaze down at the typical Japanese-style garden space below and almost touch the tops of the tall bamboo.

Japan Society Public Space: 2nd floor bamboo water garden from Gallery. Photo: Peter Aaron/Estro.

As I approached the building from the street, I was struck by the vivid horizontal and vertical lines extending the entire width of the facade. The bold exterior leads surprisingly into a very quiet and serene interior space.

Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

Horizontal wooden slats on the second and third floors were apparently meant to evoke amado–the Japanese storm windows used during typhoons. Japanese cypress Hinoki louvers create design continuity, employed first in the exterior entry then continuing into the lobby ceiling where they diffuse the light and create warm shadows.

Public Space: Entrance to A-Level and Toyota Language Center. Photo: Peter Aaron/Estro.

I have a special connection to Japan: I was born there. Although my family returned to the United States when I was only fifteen months old, my parents brought back many objects acquired during their years in Tokyo. As a child, I spent many moments gazing at a large statue of Hotei, the fat-bellied Japanese god of happiness and contentment whom my mother displayed prominently in our burnt orange shag-carpeted living room. We had silk kimonos, prints, and various pieces of ceramics and glass–but it was the colorful Kabuki masks I loved most and mourned sadly when my mother sold the whole lot one day at a garage sale.

Deco Japan exhibition poster. Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

I could almost smell the musty scent of my family’s memento mori when, on the day of my Japan Society visit, I was treated to a personally guided tour of the current exhibit, Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture 1920-1945.

Tearoom, Saeki Shunkô (Japanese, 1909-1942). Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is worth a trip to Japan Society to see the building alone; however, if you go, I urge you to visit the exhibit, if not just to experience Saeki Shunkô’s Tearoom, above, a stunning circa 1936 ink and silver on paper panel depicting two modern women beside a vertical garden that would be right at home today in some high-end design store.

Japan Society exterior against the backdrop of Manhattan skyscrapers. Photo: Lone Pedestrian, Flickr.

Art Deco was the first truly global style. Viewing the exhibit’s assembled works–ceramics, lacquer ware, glass, metalwork, jewelry, textiles, painting, sculpture, and prints–offers great insight into the history and the cultural borrowing and sharing of the era, an intimate glimpse into how art shapes culture and culture shapes art.

Blooms on the walls of Japan Society: paper cherry blossoms crafted with simple origami folds and cuts. After writing a wish, haiku or message to Japan, Japan Society guests add their flowers to the growing sakura tree.  Photo: Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens.

Japan Society Public Space: Foreground: Staircase leading through bamboo water garden from the foyer to the second-floor gallery; Background lower level: Murase Room; Background Second Level: Japan Society Gallery. Photo: Peter Aaron/Estro.

Japan Society Up For Partners in Preservation Grant
Which brings me full circle back to why historic preservation is important. It enables us to preserve, not just our neighborhoods, but our culture and heritage. The Japan Society is one of the 40 New York City places in the running to receive a portion of the $3 million in grants to be distributed by Partners in Preservation, a program in which American Express, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, awards preservation grants to historic places across the country. And although I am not showcasing this site to promote it above any other, it is one good example of an important New York City building whose preservation will benefit the city by attracting visitors and stimulating the local economy.

From now until May 21, 2012, anyone 13 years of age and older, anywhere in the world can vote for Japan Society or any other of the 40 candidates–either from a web-enabled mobile device, online or on Facebook. Local residents and others across the globe are encouraged to vote once a day (but can vote every day) for the same site or for a different site.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the top four sites receiving the most votes will be announced on May 22 then each winner will receive their full grant request–up to $250,000–with the balance of the $3 million distributed among the remaining sites.

The Japan Society
333 East 47th Street

Next we’ll be crossing Manhattan into another New York City borough, Queens, to feature The Queens County Farm Museum. And don’t forget to vote  for New York City here!


  1. Nicole Brait said:

    Wow. Amazingly beautiful and thought provoking.

    — May 15, 2012 @ 11:11

  2. Nicole Brait said:

    Wow. Absolutely beautiful.

    — May 15, 2012 @ 11:12

  3. Agen Bola said:

    Wow. Amazingly beautiful and thought provoking.

    — August 16, 2012 @ 22:42

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