Kunio Maekawa

Prominent among modern Japanese architects, Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986) served an apprenticeship in France during the 1930s. Well-known for his use of architectural concrete, his post-World War II contributions included designs for prefabricated structures and high-rise apartments.

Kunio Maekawa was born in May 14, 1905, in Niigata on Northwest Honshu Island. The eldest of three children, he was well bred; the families of both of his parents were descended from the Samurai. His father, Kan'ichi Maekawa, was descended from the Ii clan of Omi. A civil engineer by profession, Kan'ichi worked in the Japanese Home Ministry, eventually becoming a high-ranking official, called chokuninkan, (imperial appointee). His mother, of the Tsugaru clan of Hirosaki, was a daughter of Konroku Tanaka. The family lived in a wooden house in the snow country of Niigata before moving to Tokyo's Hongo district.


Student Years

Maekawa attended elite schools and completed Tokyo First Middle School in 1918, after skipping the fifth year. In 1922 he enrolled at the First Higher School, graduating in 1925. Clearly talented, Maekawa studied architecture at Tokyo Imperial University from 1925 to 1928. There he developed into an avid reader of French architectural publications. In March 1928 Maekawa wrote his university graduation paper on the Swiss modernist architect, Charles Edouard Jeanneret, most commonly known as Le Corbusier. For his final project Maekawa submitted a futuristic design for a ten-kilowatt radio station. It was a new concept in Tokyo, where radio was a new technology that had been introduced only three years prior in 1925. This academic design of Maekawa remains in the collection of Tokyo Imperial University Architecture Department.

Immediately after his graduation ceremony on March 31, 1928, Maekawa left for Paris under an arrangement orchestrated by his mother's brother, Naotake Sato, who was a member of the Japanese foreign service. Sato was stationed in Paris at that time and opened his home to Maekawa who arrived in the city on April 17. Under the arrangement, Maekawa went to work for Le Corbusier in Paris, entering the architectural office as an unpaid draftsman, as was customary for newcomers to the prestigious firm. Already infatuated with the European modernist movement, Maekawa's association with Le Corbusier proved to be an unparalleled opportunity to work with many prominent avant-garde designers. In Paris he worked with Alfred Roth, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand who was Le Corbusier's premiere interior designer at that time. Maekawa held his own intrinsic affection for many aspects of the modernist movement in his native Japanese, and this two-year sojourn in Paris fueled his interest.

As an entry-level volunteer, Maekawa learned to conform to the rigorous standards espoused at Le Corbusier's office, and in June 1928 he assisted Le Corbusier with Cité Mondiale (Mundaneum) in Geneva, a structure intended for the League of Nations. Apart from his obligations to Le Corbusier, Maekawa entered various design competitions independently. Individually he submitted a design for the Nagoya City Hall, but it was not one of his strongest works.

Some said that the entry resembled a parking garage because of the structure's prominent side wings, which indeed served as covered parking areas. Additionally he joined with two of his Paris colleagues, Ernest Weissmann and Norman Rice, in entering a competition for the design of a public office building in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1929. After his return to Japan, in the fall of 1930 four of Maekawa's independent designs were included in a Tokyo exhibition, and in December of that year, three of Maekawa's designs were featured in the Japanese publication Kokusai kenchiku.

Maekawa departed Paris on April 6, 1930, traveling through Moscow and arriving in Tokyo on April 16, coincidental with Le Corbusier's emergence among the architectural community of Japan. Japan during the years following World War I remained in a period known as Meiji Restoration that was characterized by a revival of traditional architectural styles. These traditional styles were tempered however by the use of updated, alternate building materials. After his arrival in Tokyo, Maekawa began to work with Bohemian architect Antonin Raymond in August 1930, according to an arrangement by Professor Riki San. This intervention by San was especially fortuitous for Maekawa because architectural commissions at that time were in great scarcity. Antonin, however, was involved in the design of the Imperial Hotel.

As a member of Raymond's firm, Maekawa served as architect-in-charge for the Viscount Soma residence. In this instance he applied an oblong, horizontal design reminiscent of a residential villa design by Le Corbusier from the 1920s. Maekawa's design for the Tokyo City Hall competition of 1932 displayed the influence of the Frenchman August Perret. From 1932 to 1934 Maekawa worked in his first independent design, for a Kimura Manufacturing research facility in Hirosaki. This research structure has since been altered and re-adapted to other uses, and the oblong housing design of Viscount Soma, enhanced by a roof garden, was seen again in the design of the Akaboshi Tetsuma housing project in 1934.


Independent Architectural Firm

Still working as a project team member for Raymond in the early 1930s, Maekawa in 1935 left that firm and established his own company out of a home office; he later moved the operation to the Ginza in Tokyo. Makoto Tanaka, Terashima Kotaro, and Kosaburo Sakitani joined Maekawa in this venture. Among their earliest projects were Hinomoto Hall of 1936 and Maekawa's 1937 design for the Memorial Hall to the Founding of the Nation competition. The use of architectural concrete, extremely large panes of glass, and cast-in-place ceramic tiles characterized much of Maekawa's work during this period. Having learned the use of these new construction materials from Raymond, Maekawa by the 1960s had matured in his use of ceramic tile work, and it had become a signature characteristic of his designs. Although a dearth of commissions characterized the decade of the 1930s, Maekawa maintained solvency, in part with the release by his father of a trust fund that was earmarked for Maekawa to purchase his first residence.

In 1937 he designed two houses for Sato, including a main residence in Tokyo and a vacation house in Karuizawa. These structures, along with a third residential design for another member of the Foreign Ministry, aspire to the modern style through the use of overlapping roof segments that create an interplay between planes, while maintaining an overall appearance in the traditional style.

Maekawa's largest single project during this pre-war period was the employee dormitories for Kako Commercial Bank in 1939. For this he opened a satellite office near the project site in Shanghai. Also ongoing from 1938 to 1941 was a project to build three technical schools for mining and manufacturing in the state of Manchuria. It was common practice that contract awards were driven largely through political clout, and designs were subject to the whims of politicians accordingly. Despite his distaste for the design limitations inherent in this system, Maekawa was nevertheless fortunate to be well connected and able to secure contracts as a result. With the expansion of World War II during the 1940s Maekawa's ability to procure contracts was limited largely to military projects. Functionality and cost constraints were the main consideration for these projects, with uninspired aesthetics that deferred to technical expertise.

After nine years of operating from an office at his home he opened an office in Yotsuda in Tokyo in 1944 and named the establishment Maekawa Institute of Design (MID) Sekkei Kenkyujo. The company was known alternately as MIDO Dojin or the MIDO colleagues. When this first Tokyo office was destroyed during an air raid in May 1945, he moved again to a headquarters in his home in Meguro. There he operated with a skeleton staff because many of his associates by that time had left for the military.

Also associated with his operation Maekawa founded the MIDO Research Institute in 1947. Under the auspices of MIDO he published Maekawa Kunio Kenchiku Jimusho sakuhin shu (the Collected Works of the Maekawa Kunio Architecture Office) that year. In the wake of losing his office, this publication had the effect for Maekawa of providing closure to the wartime and postwar eras.


Postwar Maekawa

In 1946-1947 Maekawa designed the first branch of the Kinokuniya Bookstore. Built in Shinjuku, Tokyo, it was the first of 30 projects that he would complete for that vendor. A Keio University Hospital project in Tokyo lasted from 1947 to 1948, and in 1948 he began publication of a new magazine called Plan. Two issues were published in all.

Having survived the difficult war years, Maekawa focused on the mass production of prefabricated structures and did considerable writing on that topic. He took his inspiration in part from Henry Ford's assembly line theories of mass production for making products accessible to the less wealthy working class. This project was spurred when a major military provider, Manchurian Aircraft Company, ceased operation after Japan's defeat in World War II. At Maekawa's suggestion the Manchurian plant at Kayama in Tottori—called San'in Manufacturing—was converted by its parent company, Nissan Heavy Industries, to a construction facility for housing components.

A new company was formed, called Prefabricated Maekawa Ono Kaoru San'in Manufacturing (PREMOS); it was named in part for Kaoru Ono, a professor at Tokyo University and a colleague of Maekawa. In 1946 under the guise of the new company the first two PREMOS units were completed. A small model was manufactured, called # 7, which afforded 52 square meters of floor space, with living, dining/kitchen area, and one bedroom and toilet. The first units became a club for the soldiers in occupied Tottori. Other PREMOS units were adapted as housing for railroad workers in Shimonoseki, and one became a coffeehouse in the Ginza; some were used as private homes. Eventually an entire community was planned for the miners at Kokkaido, the site of the Kayanuma mine. The community was to be comprised of 400 PREMOS # 73 structures, of which 200 were ultimately constructed.

After five years, 1,000 units had been manufactured, but the PREMOS project came to an end for lack of cost effectiveness. It was nonetheless the prototype for Japan's great third millennium prefab industry, the largest and most sophisticated industry of its type in the world.


Later Career

Among Maekawa's more significant structures, the Harumi Flats apartment project in Tokyo in 1959 represents on of the earliest high-rise apartment buildings in Japan. Harumi Flats, with its strong use of vertical lines, receding and projecting planes, and sculpted units on the roof, is based closely in a Le Corbusier design. More notable still is Maekawa's 1961 design for the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall. 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.

The influence of Le Corbusier on Maekawa was seen again in the roof sculptures, ramping, and pyramid forms of his design for the Gakushuin University Library building in 1964, the second of two buildings that he designed at that school, beginning in 1960. Maekawa's designs were seen in the Japanese pavilion at the World's Fair at Brussels in 1958 and again in New York City in 1954 to 1965. He contributed a number of articles to literary journals in French, English, and German during the 1960s and 1970s.

His numerous projects of the early 1980s included the Kumamoto Prefectural Concert Hall and Theater (1982), the Kunitachi College of Music Concert Hall (1983), and the Niigata Municipal museum (1985). Many of the later designs that are attributed to Maekawa were overseen largely by the younger associates of his firm.

Kunio Maekawa died on June 27, 1986, in Tokyo.



Altherr, Alfred, Three Japanese Architects: Mayekawa, Tange, Sakakura, Arthur Niggli Ltd., 1968.

International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, St. James Press, 1993.

Reynolds, Johanthan M., Maekawa Kunio and the Emergence of Japanese Modernist Architectue, Universtiy of California Press, 2001.