Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Zen Spaces and Neon Places - Reflections on Japanese Architecture and Urbanism

Zen Spaces and Neon Places Reflections on Japanese Architecture and Urbanism
By Vinayak Bharne (Novato, Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2014)


Vinayak Bharne is a distinguished scholar, educator and practicing urban planner (and contributor to Kyoto Journal among other prestigious venues) whose extensive CV would suggest that he has little time to step beyond the borders of his professional life to engage in intimate relations with the objects of his inquiries. Yet, since his youth, his heart and mind have been deeply smitten by Japan. This compilation of essays is proof: at once a “labor of love” and “a love letter to Japan”. Provocatively titled Zen Spaces and Neon Places, the text reveals his “reflections and intuitions” about “what is Japanese about Japan’s built environment”.

It is curious to this reviewer why lovers try to explain their infatuations and share them with others. Japan  has been the subject of so many literary suitors— from Edward Silvester Morse, Lafcadio Hearn and Ruth Benedict to Bernard Rudofsky and Harold Williams, to name a few writing in English alone. Kyoto Journal itself is a record of such romances. Does beauty, like misery, love company?

Each of us who has fallen hachimaki over zori for Japanese culture knows this feeling well, but Bharne’s professional expertise enables him to provide readers with some fresh perspectives. The book explores in depth the link between cultural attributes and architectural and urban planning considerations, historical as well as contemporary.

For example, in an early section on temple architecture, he takes us beneath the eaves of temple roofs to show how functional and aesthetic aspects of the joinery mirror Japan’s long-standing, sophisticated relationship with the source of wood. Bharne quotes Gunter Nitschke  who wrote in these pages:  “It has clearly been a cultural choice of the Japanese to make dwellings from living rather than dead materials, from trees rather than stones, and to rely on structures which because of their impermanent materials will have to be replaced every 50 to 100 years.”  In addition detailing building design and construction processes, Bharne comments on how Japanese styles adapt to the activities contained within them. He also explores in depth how Japanese aesthetics reflects a skillfully employs a broad palette of light and darkness, with glint and shadows shaping space and tracking time.

An expert in the 20 year sengu (cyclical rebuilding, of Ise Jingu) Bharne wonders about the event’s sustainability due to woodland management practice and land use planning. “While the two shrine complexes, the Ise Geku and the Ise Naiku, are meticulously preserved, the original five kilometer pilgrimage path that connects them and their surrounding towns, have been compromised by rapacious sprawl over the past few decades. Additionally, the sengu itself faces many economic and environmental dilemmas such as timber paucity, soil pollution and forest depletion, raising complex questions on its future.” Bharne writes more about this on the website of his private practice.

A prominent feature of Bharne’s book is his explanation of how public and private spaces, interiors and exteriors, collectively influence and are shaped by human activities within them. The “street is the fundamental element of Japanese urbanism,” he states, contrasting it with Western European cities developed around central public squares, usually with houses of worship. “It is as if traditional Western architecture used time to experience space, while traditional Japanese architecture created space to celebrate time,” He concludes.

His chapter comparing life in Kyoto and Rome, each the historic epicenter of its respective culture, is an attempt to discuss ruin and resurrection. Here he explores cartographic depictions of social and geographic features, such as gardens (Kyoto) and piazzas (Rome) and situates each in relationship to and impact of hills (Rome) and mountains (Kyoto).

Lastly, Bharne jumps to the ongoing evolution of Tokyo as the “modern” international capital and how, along with the restoration of the imperial government, Japan‘s economic and cultural leaders suffered bouts of bipolar identity from the Meiji period. On one hand, Japan was learning to know itself anew after a long period of isolation, and at the same time it sought to explain itself to the West. Renowned European and American architects were invited to create the new seats of commercial and eventual civic power, despite the efforts of local architects – some of whom studied in the West – to win commissions. Simultaneously, each of the gaijin (foreign) architects projected what they thought would be pleasing and practical along Japanese standards, not the least of which is to survive fires and earthquakes. Despite good intentions, sometimes they missed the mark, like the designer of the book cover who felt it would be attractive to link the word “Zen” with a graphic of a Shinto torii gate.

At the same time, Japanese architectural and artistic “genomes” (Bharne’s term) were making their way Westward figuring prominently in the work of such American luminaries as the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the craftsman style of the Greene brothers. Bharne also surveys the internationally acclaimed work of Japan’s contemporary master architects, such as Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando, Keno Tange, Fumikiko Maki and Shigeru Ban.

The flow of people’s ordinary lives—from work to festival when concentrated in urban environments is always at the core of his inquiry. While Bharne does mention contemporary capsule and love hotels, what’s definitely missing in this book is a discussion of the characteristics of the shitamachi, the “lower city”, as one might observe, for example, south of Kyoto Eki. Here one sees “discarded”, the impoverished, and the disabled. A mention of the challenges facing burakumin, and the relation between social class and geography, would also be welcome.

But this is, after all, a love story.