Architect Antonin Raymond's Summer Villa for an Italian Diplomat

A 1927 East-West Design By Antonin Raymond

Visitors to today’s Japan are understandably captivated by the singular shrines and temples of its romantic, distant past. While all too few of its more modern buildings remain, a healthy handful of residential structures have been preserved, and some of them are even open to the public. One of these is the former Italian Embassy Villa on the shores of Lake Chuzenji, a one-of-a-kind design that gracefully fuses the flavors of East and West.

The area surrounding Lake Chuzenji, called Oku Nikko, became a popular summer resort for the international community in the late years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), winning favor for its cool climes, its stunning natural beauty and its proximity to Tokyo, about 110 miles south. 

A postcard of Lake Chuzenji in the early 20th century. Photo from the Nikko City Public Library

In 1890, a railroad link was completed between Tokyo’s Ueno area and the small town of Nikko, south of Chuzenji, shortening the trip to a couple of hours and helping to ignite a besso (vacation home) boom of sorts among foreign residents in the early years of the 20th century. 

During the Showa Period (1925-1989), about 40 lakefront villas were owned by foreign residents and embassies, and the international community flocked there to spend summers boating, fishing, hiking, picnicking, socializing and taking part in the local summer festivals.

En route to Chuzenji, visitors always stopped first in Nikko to view the exuberant Toshogu Shrine (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and to take in the impressively steep Kegon Falls. In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Nikko during his very first trip to Japan and stayed at the Kanaya Hotel, one of the area’s first Western-style lodgings.

A young Antonin Raymond. Photo from Koichi Kitazawa

Some 23 years later, his former colleague, Antonin Raymond, made his own journey to Nikko — and made a lasting impression. Raymond was a familiar figure in diplomatic circles because of his role as the honorary Czech consul to Japan and his designs for the French, Italian and U.S. embassies in Tokyo, and he was asked in 1927 by Italian Ambassador to Japan Giulio della Torre di Lavagna to design a villa on the shores of Lake Chuzenji. The embassy had rented an acre-size lakefront plot from the Japanese government to build the summer home for its ambassador and state guests. Italians are said to have been among the first admirers of the area, finding it redolent of Lake Como in northern Italy.

Italian Embassy Villa

Raymond (1888-1976) was a naturalized American of Czech birth who had first worked alongside Wright in 1916, along with his French-born wife, Noémi Pernessin, an artist. The couple accompanied Wright to Tokyo in 1919 to help build the Imperial Hotel, and would eventually spend over 40 years in Japan, creating more than 400 designs and greatly impacting modern Japanese architecture through Raymond’s own work and that of such significant figures as Junzo Yoshimura and Kunio Maekawa, whom he would employ.
Like his mentor, Raymond designed all the furnishings and lighting fixtures for his buildings with Noémi, and understood the importance of honoring local traditions and conditions. After establishing his own practice in 1921, he began moving out of Wright’s shadow, experimenting with in-situ reinforced concrete, which had been used for the Imperial Hotel, but detailing it in a way that recalled traditional Japanese wooden construction. He also designed several small wood homes in Tokyo after the devastating 1923 Kanto earthquake had leveled much of the city, including one for French Ambassador Paul Claudel. 



After Raymond accepted the commission for the Italian Embassy Villa, he set to work with his colleague Kumazo Uchiyama (who had also worked on the Imperial Hotel) and their collaborator, an impressive Nikko daiku (master carpenter) named Tokichi Akasaka, who was amenable to using both traditional and newer techniques. Akasaka applied a Japanese ken (a unit of length) modular system to the open plan, and after helping select the building’s materials, demonstrated astonishing skill with wood in its natural state. Managing to be modern but to echo architectural traditions at the same time, Raymond’s design fused so successfully with the choice of natural materials that the structure was forever united with its surroundings. He would later write: “Japan is a beautiful country where one should and can live healthy modern life in near contact with nature — allowing it to enter the dwelling and bestow its benefits on people.” 



At the time the villa was built, the arrangement of rooms and the flow of space between them was considered unusual. But it’s clear that Raymond’s intention was to encourage greater informality in the flow of social interactions. One enters the villa by stepping up into a traditional genkan entry hall, and then directly into the living room in the center of the building, which faces west.
 

 

On the north side, is a study with built-in bookshelves and a large desk for the ambassador.


 

 

 

Italian Embassy Villa

On the south side, is the dining room, adjoined by a small “retiring” room.
Italian Embassy Villa
 

 

 

 

 

Italian Embassy Villa

The striking fireplaces in the study and the dining room feature tamaishi (round) stones arranged in swirling patterns that contrast handsomely with the cedar bark, contributing to the villa’s overall rustic mien.

 

 

 

 

 



The most unusual feature of the villa, completed in 1928, was its extensive — some might say obsessive — exterior and interior use of the local Nikko sugi (cedar) tree. Although quite common wood for Japanese villas and homes, it was liberally applied as both shingles and siding, with the hip roof and eaves also encased in the bark.

 

 

Sand was used to shine the cedar pillars. Inside, the walls and ceilings were sheathed in a panoply of patterns, almost as if Akasaka and his craftsmen had been vying to discover just how many variations could be achieved. Held together by split bamboo strips, the infinite patterns included ichimatsu (checkerboard), wicker, kikko (tortoiseshell) and yabane (herringbone) arrangements, creating a dazzling patchwork throughout the structure.

 



All four of these first-floor rooms offer splendid views of the lake from expansive windows and a front veranda that runs 8⅞ by 55¾ feet (2.7 by 17 meters), nearly the entire length of the villa. The veranda is enclosed by sliding doors and shutters, but these slide back on warm days to allow a full embrace of the landscape. The effect of the view from within the building is extraordinary. The Japanese call this framing of nature shakkei, or borrowed scenery.



During the day, one looks out upon a stepped terrace above a rocky wall, sloping down to a small beach, with the placid waters of the crystalline lake and the mountains looming beyond — a perfect setting for dramatic sunsets. After darkness, moon viewing would have been equally breathtaking.

On the villa’s southeast corner, to the rear of the dining room, are the kitchen, pantry, bathroom and service areas, with a separate circulation system for servants that also provided back access to the bedrooms above.



The second floor is also accessible from a staircase in the entry hall.

 

 

 

 

 



There are four bedrooms, each facing the lake, as well as a sleeping porch on the east side, above the entry hall.

 

 

 



The ambassador’s bedroom, on the north, is the most spacious, but all the rooms contain ample built-in closets. The bedrooms were given color schemes in their furnishings and curtains, making it easy for everyone to refer to them by hue.
 

 

 



Italian ambassadors, their families and guests stayed in the main building, while embassy staff and attendants stayed in an annex to the back of the property on the east. Also designed by Raymond, this small building consisted of a living-dining room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and a small veranda with a view that celebrates the beauty of the forest surrounding the property on three sides. 

 

Despite its abundance of natural attractions, Lake Chuzenji gradually fell out of fashion with the diplomatic set. In 1997, ownership of the villa was transferred to Tochigi Prefecture, which undertook a two-year restoration of the buildings before opening them to the public as part of a memorial park.

 

 

The only major modifications were made in the kitchen, which now doubles as a small cafe and gift shop; the restrooms; and the annex, which was converted into an exhibition space. On the second floor, only the ambassador’s bedroom retains the original cedar-bark walls (the others have been redone in hinoki cypress), but every effort was made to maintain the signature spirit of the original structure.

 

 

The Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park is open from April 1 through Nov. 30 (closed Mondays except June 1 through Oct. 31). Visitors should not miss the permanent exhibit, in the former annex, about Nikko’s history as a summer resort for the international community; it includes a 1929 film showing foreign diplomats and their families frolicking on and in the lake.

 

 

From the villa’s pier, which extends many yards into Lake Chuzenji, the panoramic views — of the rippling water and majestic mountains on one side; of Raymond’s exquisite villa on the other — are unforgettable in any season. 

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