Historical Background

History of Japanese Architecture

Prior to the first century bc, Japanese architecture looked like any other building across the world, consisting of mainly wood construction and thatched roofs with earth floors. Early shrines looked like store rooms or houses. It was not until the seventh century that architecture in Japan started to develop its own distinctive style, especially in terms of temple designs, which were some of the most important buildings within the villages and communities. Japanese architectural history can be identified and differentiated when addressing specific periods in the timeline of Japan’s history. Click the tabs down bellow to learn about significant time periods in Japans Architectural History

Moorish Architecture

Although the Ambassador’s Residence is located in Japan the architects were highly influenced by Moorish Architecture.  

Moorish Architecture originated as a variation of Islamic Architecture. It developed as a group of people of the Islamic faith spread from the Middle East to the Maghreb, an area which included parts of today’s North Africa and Spain. These people later became known as the Moors, and the architecture of the Moors was noted for its unique intervention of culture and religion.

In the Gallery on the right shows images representing several important characteristic of Moorish Architecture 

History of Site

During the early Edo period, the neighborhood where the embassy now resides was home to many Buddhist temples. Later, many of these temples were forced out by daimyos claiming the land to build their residences in the area. Daimyo Ushiku Yamaguchi Chojiro placed his estate on the land that is now the US Embassy. Where the Ambassador’s Residence currently stands was once the residence of the Chief of the Edo fire department.

The current site of the Ambassador’s Residence wasn’t always located in the Akasaka district of Tokyo. From 1856-1862 the US embassy and ambassadors moved to three different locations in Japan. The first embassy was established in 1856 by Townshed Harris in Shimoda present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. The embassy then moved to the Zenpukuji Temple in the Azabu District of Edo, Japan’s Then-capital in 1859. Then the embassy moved once more to Yokohama in 1862 where it stayed for the next 67 years. 

The US didn’t gain the current site until 1925 after the Great Kanto Earthquake.  The Great Kanto Earthquake was trailed by a 40-foot high tsunami just minutes after and was marked as the strongest recorded earthquake in Japanese history, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale. The earthquake and tsunami were followed by a fire that rampaged throughout the city. This natural disaster demolished Prince Hirokuni Ito Estate. Two years later in 1925, the land was collected by the U.S. government from the Japanese government costing $115,000.  Four Years later in 1929 construction on the residence begins. 

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History of Architects

H. Van Buren Magonigle

Antonin Raymond

Harold Van Buren Magonigle was a designer, painter, and writer. He began his career in the offices of Vaux and Radford. In 1928 he was brought on as an architect for the Ambassador’s Residence Project.

Antonin Raymond was a Chzec born American architect. Before working on the Ambassador’s Residence Raymond worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the imperial hotel project in Tokyo. In 1922 he set up his own architectural firm in Japan. Six years later he was commissioned to work on the Ambassador’s Residence.