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.