In Praise of the Japanese Imagination

Looking East

Our hearts go out to the Japanese people in this tragic time. Scenes of incalculable destruction by earthquake and tsunami make me want to articulate my unshakable faith in Japan as an extraordinarily creative and resilient and influential force in the world of architecture and design. So here is a brief toast to the Japanese imagination.

Look at this new library for Musashino Art University, 25 miles west of central Tokyo, where bookshelves become floor-to-ceiling frames for every room (image courtesy Architectural Record). The building, by Sou Fugimoto, is “a single large spiral-shaped bookshelf encased in a glass box,” as Record writer Naomi Pollock aptly describes it. I love this image of the grand staircase — showing all the ways one can read, from books to I-Pads — because it expresses the very foundations of possibility. The metaphors are resonant: building on the book and a staircase for the mind.

Japanese design has always stimulated creative thought. Remember the great Zen Buddhist Ryoan-ji Dry Garden at Kyoto. When I visited many years ago it was early in the morning and for a few minutes there was only one other person on the wooden steps overlooking the raked gravel sea with its 15 stones-as-islands. For that brief moment the garden was the world and the world was the garden (photo by Marcus Trimble through Creative Commons). The cold light outlined gravel furrows and the grain of the wood and time suspended. At the Imperial Villa of Katsura (17th century) not far away, which I also toured, the experience is very different: an orchestrated promenade where the control of sights and spatial experience is everything, from the structurally expressive bamboo fence at the entrance to the painterly Nut Pine tree flanked by hedges.  Every step and view appears planned: you look down to pay attention to the stone path you are treading and then look up to see another special tree or view across the lake (previous three photos courtesy Gardening Grandpa website). The villa buildings are equally eloquent in their forms, functions, and seamless connections to the landscape. The journey through the complex makes you perceive more sharply the constituent parts of the composition and ultimately its wholeness (photo by Wiiii through Creative Commons). But this is only my amateur reaction. In his fascinating book Japan-ness in Architecture (MIT Press, 2006, 2011), the eminent architect Arata Isozaki explains that the buildings and garden of Katsura form an ambiguous composition of overlapping styles, spatial arrangements, and literary allusions: “the equivalent of an extensive machine for arousing all our imaginative facilities.” Such monuments have been rediscovered and reinterpreted by successive generations of architects and designers (not to mention scholars).

The influence of Japanese design in the US began most forcefully with the Japanese Pavilion or Ho-o-den at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

which Pasadena architect brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene saw in the year they opened their practice, absorbing ideas like expressed joinery and garden connections that would ultimately flower in their Craftsman bungalows of the early 20th century (image courtesy Gibbs Smith publishers). Frank Lloyd Wright was another early devotee and famously became both collector and seller of graphically powerful, almost abstract Japanese prints like this view of Mt. Fuji

by Hokusai from 1831-33 (courtesy Hammer Museum), where the gable echoes the slope of the mountain. And of course he designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in the early 1920s and which survived the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, when much of Tokyo was heavily damaged (photo of the reconstructed facade, preserved at Meiji-Mura Museum, Nagoya courtesy Wikipedia). Toward the middle of the 20th century architects saw compelling parallels between the open plan tenets of Modernism and the way tatami mats and  shoji screens defined space without walls. In furniture the influence is equally strong, with a stairstep tansu, (this is a Meiji-era cabinet, courtesy Shibui) for example, contributing important DNA to work by architects like Steve Ehrlich in this contemporary Los Angeles house; note the abstracted tansu- -as-stairway bordering the living room (photo courtesy Ehrlich Architects). Or consider such icons as George Nakashima’s Conoid Dining Table (image from galere.net) building upon the organic properties of the wood, and Isamu Noguchi’s coffee table

expressing a “there-and-not-there,” abstract, bio-morphic sensibility  (courtesy Room & Board). When you start looking, the influence of Japanese esthetics on contemporary design is everywhere. I see a Japanesque/modern abstraction in our own Plan 491-11 by Braxton Werner and Paul Field: the reduction to essentials — gable, window wall, breezeway, and engawa (a skirt-like deck) complementing a rural landscape.

The plan sits lightly on the land.

And finally, the 2010 Pritzker Prize — the Nobel of architecture — went to Japanese architects Kazuo Sejima and Riyue Nishizawa of SANAA, known for structures of understated elegance. They designed the temporary Serpentine pavilion  in London shown here (courtesy Jumpstart.11). The aluminum skin floats through the trees like an undulating mirage. The building is nature itself, uplifted and uplifting. Japanese design helps us see the world anew and I shall always be inspired by it.

Back to Basics

Choices in kitchen sinks are always expanding. I like the look and functionality of Kohler’s new under-mount Lawnfield cast iron kitchen sink(made from 93% recycled and reclaimed material) which was introduced at the Home Builder Show, where I saw it. The 9-inch deep double basin and wave-like outline complement different kitchen styles. It also comes in an over-mount version.

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