NOA building

Though his was hardly a household name, ask nearly any practicing architect of any age in Japan about Seiichi Shirai (1905-83), and the response is consistently one of admiration, if not reverence. An ardent philosopher, poet, and calligraphist whose life spanned an age of ever-increasing industrialization, Shirai the architect holds a special place in the hearts of designers today for the markedly individual and spiritual stance that informed his many works.

Susan Rogers Chikuba, taken from here

Just up the road from the Reiyukai temple is the NOA building, another architectural gem in Tokyo’s Azabu district, built in 1974. The 15-storey building consists of a red-brick pedestal of about 8 meters height and a steel-covered and sculpture-like upper part that is dotted with very few windows (although the 8th or 9th floor has a full-length one). The building’s architect, Seiichi Shirai, studied architecture and philosophy in the Berlin of the Weimar years. His most famous design has never been built.

Unfortunately I missed a major exhibition about this man that took place in Tokyo last year. The text on the website highlights why Shirai’s legacy remains important:

Shirai disassociated himself from prevailing theories and philosophies of modernism, which is perhaps one reason why his name did not share the high-profile limelight of many of his contemporaries during Japan’s great post-World War II push to modernize.

His architecture appears to be inspired by his time spent in Europe – if only for the extensive use of brick stones and large iconic entrances so evident in the captivating NOA building. (The impact it must have had on the skyline of this part of Tokyo in the 1970s is perhaps best seen on the historic photos on the building’s website.)

It is difficult to find a lot of details about Shirai’s life. What we know is that he studied in Heidelberg and Berlin from 1928-1931 (I wish I knew why and how he went). In Heidelberg, he studied under famous existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. In Berlin, he took classes on architectural history and studied Gothic architecture.

He started designing houses upon his return to Japan. After the war, one of his main works was to become the (unrealised) design proposal for the Genbakudo (Temple Atomic Catastrophes).

This self-taught man was apparently very meticulous in his approach to work. He built relatively few buildings, perhaps also owing to his obsession for details. Tokyo residents can see three examples of his work: the Zenshoji temple, the Shoto Museum of Art in Shibuya, and the NOA building.

9 thoughts on “NOA building

  1. I used to have check ups at a medical centre opposite Tokyo Tower. One day I arrived early and decided to continue walking up the street. I came to a largish intersection and there before me on the other side was this horrible, horrible building. I full-on stared at it. I had never before had such an instant reaction — it felt like the building was repellent, evil even. (I’ve never had this experience with any building again.)

    I was taken back by my own reaction — I don’t believe in auras, energy flows, psychic powers, etc. I didn’t stick around to visit the building, but I remembered where it was and checked it out on Google Streetview. Before I saw pictures of it again. I think I described it to friends as a brown brick funnel building with no windows.

    It amuses me when I think about it — and it amuses me to discover the building has its place in architectural history. I put my reaction down to encountering something that I found quite confronting (all that unrelenting dark brick, no windows, etc).

    • Wow. You are spot on. But considering that a building could have that powerful effect only illustrates how specifically talented mr Shirai was.
      The building feels as if it is holding a dark secret. very fascinating…

  2. You have quoted liberally from the artscape story I authored on Seiichi Shirai. I am glad that you provided a link to the original text, however I think you should be careful about citing your sources accurately when republishing them. Susan Rogers Chikuba

    • Apologies Susan, you are absolutely right that I could have quoted this section better and not only link to the source after the second quote! I have fixed this and hope this is OK with you now. Thanks, Ben

  3. I’m writing a graduate thesis about Shirai, and appreciate you are looking for information about his time in Europe – if you need any ideas about where to go (in Japanese), let me know. Great article!

    • Thanks Anne for your comment. I would love to find out more about Shirai’s time in Berlin especially, given that’s where I am from. I’ll contact you via email. Ben

  4. I used to go to MOBILIA interior store inside this building three times a week, to order furniture for expats in the area.Certainly was the strangest and darkest looking building in the area.

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