The Neutral City: Architecture of Pre-war Hiroshima

The Neutral City: Architecture of Pre-war Hiroshima

The Neutral City: Architecture of Pre-war Hiroshima

Modernization as an aesthetics is problematic: modernization should addresses the present context, the historic past and the potential future, which are sometimes coherent and more often conflicting and contradictory. Our central thesis has much about comparing the modernity and modernization of pre-war and post-war Hiroshima. The article would first look into examples of architecture of pre-war Hiroshima as a symbol, and then discuss the characters of pre-war modernization in Hiroshima context.


The Imperial Crown in Hiroshima

The Imperial Crown Style (帝冠様式, Teikanyoshiki) was developed in the early twentieth century in Japan. They style features Japanese roof on top of the neoclassical buildings. The Government House of Hong Kong was reconstructed into have an Imperial Crown during the Japanese occupation in 1940s.


Sanyo Buntokuden (山陽文徳殿) is an example of application of Japanese roof over a neoclassical building, with traces of influence from Imperial Crown Style.



The struggle of the Japanese Identity is evident as it oscillates between traditional Japanese and the neoclassical Western. This begins to reveal the character of modernization in pre-war Hiroshima or even in Japan.


The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (広島平和記念碑), also referred as the A-bomb Dome (原爆ドーム) today was formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall (広島県産業奨励館).




Designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel, who appreciated much the traditional Japanese culture, the Industrial Promotion Hall was much influenced by both Japanese and Western architecture. From the photograph, the Hall has a neoclassical facade, a pitched roof paved with Japanese tiles and the dome. Only the structure of the dome and part of the facade survived, as a symbol of peace today. But at that time, it was an exhibition hall which celebrated industrial and agricultural development and advancement.


The pre-war architecture was not always focused on strong Japanese vernacularity. There are also examples of utilitarian architecture and the “international style” architecture suggested by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson (1932), having “plane surfaces bounding a volume” (as cited in Larkham, 2013). The cross influence of Japan and the West could be traced with the visits of Richard Neutra, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius; and Japanese architects Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura worked for Le Corbusier, Bunzo Yamaguchi worked for Gropius; Japanese students studied in Bauhaus (Larkham, 2013).


Sutemi Horiguchi (堀口捨己) had a strong criticism on Imperial Crown Style that “reinforced concrete affairs topped with temple roofs or made up to look like old castles.” (“Short History”, 1960, p. 90-91). Kunio Maekawa (前川國男) also criticized the poo integration of Japanese and Western style as a “sham traditional style which insults the glories of the past three thousand years and attempts to deceive the people” (“Short History”, 1960, p.92).


Pre-war Modern architecture in Hiroshima

There are still some surviving pre-war International style and utilitarian architecture in Hiroshima.[1] The following would be examples:


1. Former Chugoku Electric Power South Substation


E.R.E. Ujinamiyuki Building (E.R.E宇品御幸ビル) (1943)

Former Chugoku Electric Power South Substation (旧中国配電南部変電所)



The Chugoku Electric Power South Substation was recovered on the 7thAugust 1945, next day of atomic bomb explosion. It is utilitarian in a way that the form follows the function, and has little ornamentation and decoration.  



Pulley defining the form/ Utilitarian




2. Former Hiroshima Prefecutal Meteorological Observatory


Hiroshima City Ebayama Museum of Meteorology (江波山気象館) (1934)

Former Hiroshima Prefecutal Meteorological Observatory (広島測候所)



The Observatory had documented many important data about the effect of the atomic bomb, including the air current caused by explosion, area affected by fire, distribution and duration of the “black rain” (radioactive rain). [2]


The Observatory was influenced by modernism and expressionism architecture. It has a very simple geometry, plaster finish facade, with a little touch of expressionist architectural elements. The entrances features a thin eaves supported by only one column.


The staircase for the Observaroy



3. Former Hiroshima Central Telephone Office Western Division


NTT Hiroshima West Sales Office  (NTT広島西営業所) (1937)

Former Hiroshima Central Telephone Office Western Division (旧広島中央電話局西分局)



Plan for Hiroshima Central Telephone Office Western Division



4. Former Hiroshima Post Hospital Clinic


Hiroshima Post Hospital Explosion Information Room (広島逓信病院旧外来棟被爆資料室)

Former Hiroshima Post Hospital Clinic (旧広島逓信診療所) (1935)



Frontal Elevation of Post Hospital (李明, & 石丸紀興, 2001)


The Hospital is registered in Docomomo Japan. It also shows an utilitarian design, which emphasizes on geometry and zoning according to function.


Pre-war Modernization in Hiroshima

From the above examples, pre-war modernization in architecture was driven by two main streams: Imperial Crown Style and the modernist design, which focused on functionalist form and minimal ornamentation. They give us a clue of pre-war conception of modernization in Hiroshima context. The Japanese was struggling between the Western modernist aesthetics and vernacular Japanese culture. Even in the so-called international style architecture or utilitarian architecture in Hiroshima, most of them could not escape from the insistence of the vernacular Japanese elements or original Japanese innovation.


The conflicting aspiration of Hiroshima could also be inferred from the architecture. On one hand the Hiroshima citizens aspired to be modernized, industrialized and perhaps westernized like European countries; on the other hand they also hoped to outperform and stand out among western countries. They pursue efficiency, rationality and health, following the genealogy of modernism. These are characters of pre-war modernization in Hiroshima.




[1]  There is a web blog listing pre-war Hiroshima architecture. The chosen examples in this passage are officially validated, but this blog provides a rich content of resources which might be interesting:


[2]  Their document was later widely used by the Government and later research. Their official website had shown some of the documents:



Clapson, M., & Larkham, P. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Blitz and Its Legacy: Wartime Destruction to Post-war Reconstruction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Hitchcock, H. R., & Johnson, P. (1932). The international style: Architecture since 1922. WW Norton, Incorporated.

Anonymous. (1960). “A Short History of Contemporary Japanese Architecture”. Japan Architect. September Issue.

李明, & 石丸紀興. (2001). 広島逓信診療所の建築について. 日本建築学会計画系論文集, 66(540), 307-314.

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