MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION: FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S BUILDINGS AND LEGACY IN JAPAN (DVD) Image

Karen Serverns and Koichi Mori’s engaging documentary follows the rise and ruin of Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which opened in 1923 amid immediate international attention as being among the few major structures to remain standing after the 7.9 earthquake that devastated the Japanese capital.

But the earthquake’s wreckage and ruin ironically proved to be a glorious circumstance for Wright, who fell into irrelevancy in the U.S. when a highly publicized adulterous scandal wrecked his reputation. The commission for the Imperial Hotel saved his fraying career, offering a prestigious opportunity to show off his iconoclastic talents in the parvenu setting of 1920s Tokyo. As the dust was swept from the earthquake-shaken hotel, it was also swept from Wright’s reputation and he was able to continue as the 20th century’s most innovative and daring architect.

Although the hotel’s design was wildly out of place in Tokyo (it only stood three stories and was a bizarre mix of Mayan motif and American art deco), it was the most sought-after destination among luxury travelers in Asia. It also withstood American bombing during World War II, and the damage brought during wartime was quickly (if sloppily) restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the American postwar occupation. But the low and wide hotel was an anachronism during Tokyo’s postwar skyscraper-friendly building boom, and in 1967 the wrecking ball came calling. All that survives of Wright’s structure is the front facade (preserved at an architecture museum) and the original bar (which is part of the larger, impersonal hotel that replaced Wright’s creation).

While the film provides ample dissection of Wright’s mindframe and design strategies, it also offers a fascinating glimpse into his influence on Japanese architects, most notably Arata Endo, who created a series of quasi-Wright structures that provide a distinctive personality to the otherwise dull face of modern Japan. Wright, as framed in this film, comes across as a bit of a bore: his talent was unmistakable, but his personality was too mercurial and self-indulgent to inspire genuine worship. It is easy to admire the man’s genius, but difficult to overlook his feet of clay.

Nonetheless, architecture students, Japan scholars and anyone interested in a nifty non-fiction feature will gain much from this entertaining production.

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