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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

28 MAY, 2015

In Praise of Shadows: Ancient Japanese Aesthetics and Why Every Technology Is a Technology of Thought

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“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’ve seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light — palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.

The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows (public library) by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination — rare masterpieces like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s love letter to moss and Glenn Kurtz’s paean to the pleasures of playing guitar.

Tanizaki, translated here by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast — even starker today, almost a century later — with the value systems of the industrialized West. He writes:

We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity. Unlike the Western conception of beauty — a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection — the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past:

The quality that we call beauty … must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.

One of the most enchanting celebrations of shadows is manifested in the Japanese relationship with materials. Tanizaki writes:

Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose… Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.

Embedded in Tanizaki’s lament about how Western innovations have infiltrated Japan’s traditional use of materials is a reminder that every technology is essentially a technology of thought. He considers the broader implications of material progress based on assimilation and imitation:

Had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business.

He offers the example of the Japanese writing brush and the Western fountain pen, examining how the latter might differ had it been invented in his homeland:

It would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper — even under mass production, if you will — would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture.

Tanizaki’s point is both poetic and practical. Many decades later, it is now believed that another invention — glass — is what planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West.

He considers another facet of this perilous proclivity for what he calls “borrowed gadgets”:

Had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless.

Although Tanizaki is writing at a time when a new wave of polymers was sweeping the industrialized West, he paints a subtler and more important contrast than that between the Western cult of synthetics and the Japanese preference for organic materials. This elegant osmosis of art and shadow, he argues, is to be found not only in what materials are used, but in how they are being used:

Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and sooth.

This temporal continuity of beauty, a counterpoint to the West’s neophilia, is central to Japanese aesthetics. Rather than fetishizing the new and shiny, the Japanese sensibility embraces the living legacy embedded in objects that have been used and loved for generations, seeing the process of aging as something that amplifies rather than muting the material’s inherent splendor. Luster becomes not an attractive quality but a symbol of shallowness, a vacant lack of history:

We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice… We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.

[…]

We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Tanizaki speaks affectionately of “the glow of grime,” which “comes of being touched over and over” — a record of the tactile love an object has acquired through being caressed by human hands again and again.

But nowhere does Tanizaki’s ode to shadows flow more melodically than in his writing about Japanese lacquerware:

Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware… [Traditional lacquerware] was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.

But lacquerware, Tanizaki notes, isn’t merely a visual delight — its magic is multi-sensory, amplified by a sense of mystery:

I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soul bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby… With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly different from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment wen soup is served Western style, in a pal, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.

This mysterious mesmerism of well-placed darkness is especially vital in the culinary experience:

It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.

[…]

With Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.

[…]

Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.

Indeed, he argues that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West. A mere half-century after Edison’s electric light shocked American cities with its ghastly glare, Tanizaki contemplates this particularly lamentable manifestation of our pathological Western tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive. Decades before computer screens and Times Square billboards and the global light pollution epidemic, he writes:

So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.

[…]

In most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head… One of these balls of fire alone would suffice to light the place, yet three or four blaze down from the ceiling, and there are smaller versions on the walls and pillars, serving no function but to eradicate every trace of shadow. And so the room is devoid of shadows.

[…]

Light is used not for reading and writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs agains the basic idea of the Japanese room.

Nowhere, Tanizaki argues, is this vice of ravenous radiance more evident than in the most intimate of rooms. Wincing at “how crude and tasteless [it is] to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination,” he extols the virtues of the old-style Japanese toilet — a dimly lit outdoor bathroom typically located a short walk from the main house:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.

His inquiry into the origin of these cultural differences, paradoxically enough, calls to mind both Buddhism’s basic teaching of acceptance and the memorable words of one of the West’s greatest thinkers — Albert Camus’s observation that people often “refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Tanizaki writes:

We Orientals seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are, and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light — his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

But Tanizaki’s eulogy to this setting world of shadows transcends the realm of material aesthetics and touches on the conceptual sensibility of modern life in a way doubly relevant today, nearly a century later, as we struggle to maintain a sense of mystery in the age of knowledge. He remarks in the closing pages:

I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration… Perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Like its subject, In Praise of Shadows derives its splendor from smallness and subtlety, distilling centuries of wisdom and bridging thousands of miles of cultural divide in an essay-length miracle of a book. Complement it with the breathtaking Little Tree, a pop-up book celebrating the Japanese reverence for darkness and impermanence — one of the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids process loss and mourning — then revisit this rare look at Japan in hand-colored images from the 1920s.

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15 AUGUST, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Feisty Critique of Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Education, and the NYC Skyline

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“Taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.”

Frank Lloyd Wright may be one of history’s greatest architects, but he was also a source of endlessly quotable wit, timeless wisdom on education, and a lesser-known but exceptionally talented graphic artist. Above all, however, he was man of invariably strong opinions, always unapologetic in his convictions and unafraid to challenge even the most sacrosanct of dogmas.

In Conversations with Artists (public library) — writer and public intellectual Selden Rodman’s fantastic 1957 anthology, which also gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality shortly before the artist’s death — Wright unleashes the full force of his opinionation on some of his architectural elite peers, the disconnect between education and culture, and the trouble with the Manhattan skyline.

When asked about his opinion of Le Corbusier’s epoch-making church on the French-Swiss border, Wright scoffs:

An angel cake punched full of holes — or should I say a piece of Swiss Cheese?

Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House gets the even shorter end of the stick:

Is it Philip? … And is it architecture?

He later elaborates on his contempt:

Philip Johnson is a highbrow. A highbrow is a man educated beyond his capacity. His house is a box of glass — not shelter. The meaning of the word shelter includes privacy.

When Rodman admires a Chinese silk painting in Wright’s home, the architect offers, “almost apologetically,” a disclaimer shared by those who have found their purpose and attained fulfilling work:

It looks as though we live pretty soft here, doesn’t it? We don’t. You’d be surprised at the amount of work that goes on… It’s never work though, is it, when you’re doing anything organic?

Rodman visits with Wright again some weeks later and finds him, at the time in his late eighties, “very handsome,” dressed in a “pink shirt with a white collar and a striped tie, knotted at the throat, leaving the ends folded back artist-fashion fin de siècle.” The architect is in an especially feisty mood that day. His first target is Gotham’s skyline:

The New York skyline is a medieval atrocity. … Good architecture shouldn’t have to depend on distance or the dark for its effects.

He takes the same sword to the institutions of formal education, for which he famously eviscerated throughout his life:

The universities are medieval antiquities, too. They’ll never get culture through education. … The common man will never get it. He is the enemy of culture. Culture is made for him — but in spite of him, because he believes only what he sees, and he sees only what he can put his hands on. We’ve missed culture somewhere along the way.

On a subsequent visit, Rodman finds Wright in a much more amenable mood, possibly due to the company of a lady he was having tea with — and no average lady but the revered critic and champion of art Emily Genauer. Rodman, tickled by Wright’s good humor, decides to ask him whether there was any truth to the legend that he once absentmindedly went to see a client in his pajama bottoms. The answer bespeaks both the artifice of pop culture myths and the commanding diva-disposition that only creative geniuses can afford:

Not a word of truth. In the first place, whatever I am, I am always well dressed. In the second place, I don’t go to clients. They come to me.

Wright then returns to the subject of the disconnect between culture and education:

All culture is indigenous, as distinguished from education.

When Rodman asks him how America is to get an indigenous culture if it has failed to do so in two centuries, Wright responds with a beautiful metaphor from botany:

The same way the Dutch developed the delphinium. They started with the larkspur, and kept cultivating the roots until they had something better. They didn’t start from scratch. They were smart enough to start with something humble. Until they knew its nature they weren’t in a position to improve on it. It’s the same with culture. Until this lesson is learned we’ll get nowhere.

When Rodman suggests that perhaps we’re learning it since our taste appears to be improving, Wright retorts:

Taste [isn’t] enough … taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.

Frank Lloyd Wright with his model of the Guggenheim Museum (Photo: Associated Press via The New York Times)

The conversation concludes by circling back to New York. In 1943, Wright had been commissioned to design the new building for the city’s legendary Guggenheim Museum. He would die several weeks before the museum’s completion in 1959. Rodman asks him whether he would’ve taken a similar commission had the project been a skyscraper rather than a museum, and Wright responds in the negative with his characteristic clarity of conviction:

It would be immoral to add to the congestion of this already hopeless city. … The only way to save this city is to take buildings out of it, not to put more in, and of course the latter is what they are doing.”

He ends the conversation by citing an entertaining encounter with media mogul Henry Luce, in which he surprised Luce by referring to himself, in contrast to “the old professionals,” as “the oldest amateur.” (Coincidentally, the following year, Wright coined his famous aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.'”)

Conversations with Artists is priceless in its entirety, featuring revealing tête-à-têtes with such creative icons (alas, predominantly male) as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg. Complement it with Anaïs Nin’s lyrical account of meeting Wright’s son.

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16 OCTOBER, 2012

Happy Birthday, Chrysler Building Spire: The Story of an Epic Architectural Rivalry

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How an architect’s private rivalry resulted in one of New York City’s most iconic public images.

The story of New York’s iconic Chrysler Building is the story of one of history’s greatest, most ruthless architectural rivalries — one ultimately resolved when the building’s famous spear was surreptitiously erected to claim victory on October 16, 1929. This excerpt from the PBS documentary New York tells the riveting tale of the epic one-upmanship that precipitated the now-legendary structure:

In the spring of 1929, the race into the skies reached fever pitch when the automobile magnate Walter Chrysler unveiled plans for a massive new skyscraper on the corner of 42nd street and Lexington Avenue, with instruction to the architect, William van Alen, to make it the tallest in the world. Van Alen had scarcely broken ground when his one-time partner and now bitter enemy, H. Craig Severance, set to work on a rival structure eighty block to the south, for the Bank of Manhattan Company on Wall Street, and the race was on. Month after month, the two builders vied for preeminence, each altering his plans again and again in mid-construction to stay ahead of the other. On clear days, workers in each of the two tall towers could track the progress of their rivals four miles away.

[…]

On October 16, 1929, the 185-foot-long spire, assembled in secret in the building’s tower, emerged from its chrome cocoon and was bolted triumphantly into place. The gleaming silvery spike raised the Chrysler Building’s overall height to 1,048 feet, 121 feet taller than its downtown rival.

The Chrysler Building in 1932

Height comparison of buildings in New York City

Images via Wikimedia Commons

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04 OCTOBER, 2012

On Beauty, Quality, Poetry, and Integrity: Anaïs Nin Meets Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. (1947)

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“His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable.”

Among the richest and most rewarding parts of Anaïs Nin’s diaries are her encounters with and impressions of cultural icons, whether personalities like Gore Vidal or legendary cities like Paris vs. New York. Yesterday’s compendium of quotes, quips, and words of wisdom by famous architects reminded me of Nin’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., son of the great Frank Lloyd Wright, recounted in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin’s poignant reflections on why emotional excess is essential to creativity and how technology relates to the meaning of life. Though Lloyd Wright, as he was better known, remained in many ways in the inescapable shadow of his father’s legend, he was himself a highly accomplished and visionary architect.

In 1926, a group known as the Allied Architects was commissioned to rebuild the iconic Hollywood Bowl, originally constructed in 1922, but their improvements failed to accommodate sufficient seating or improve the acoustics. In 1927, Wright designed what’s commonly considered the best shell the Hollywood Bowl has ever had, acoustically speaking — a pyramidal structure that was, sadly, deemed too avant-garde by the powers that be and was subsequently demolished after just one season. The following year, Wright was granted a redo and he designed a collapsible, concentric fiberglass shell with movable panels inside for tuning the acoustics — but that, too, was buried for political reasons. The Allied Architects took over for the 1929 season and built the structure that endured, with cosmetic modifications (including, most famously, one by Frank Gehry in 1982), until 2003. It was that “monstrously ugly” version that stood when Nin met Wright in 1947.

Progression of the Hollywood Bowl shell, 1926-1929

While the Hollywood Bowl is but a passing mention in their encounter, Nin’s extraordinary insight into Wright’s ethos becomes, as so much of her writing does, a springboard for a larger meditation on architecture, the world of art and role of the artist, and the ideological underpinnings of mid-century American culture.

I saw his plans for Los Angeles. It could have been the most beautiful city in the world, for everyone to come to see, as people went to see Venice. But architecture had been taken over by businessmen, and Lloyd the artist was not allowed to carry out his incredibly rich, fecund concepts. The room was full of them. When he took a rolled-up drawing from the shelves and spread it over the table, I saw buildings which equaled the wonders of the past.

[…]

Strength was obvious in him, but sensitivity and imagination were in his drawings. Homes, churches, plans for entire cities. A universe of lyrical beauty in total opposition to the sterile, monotonous, unimaginative ‘box’-buildings now seen all over the world.

[…]

I expected Los Angeles to be filled with his buildings. This was not the case. Fame highlighted his father’s work, but not Lloyd’s—not as he deserved. If his plans had been carried out, the world would have been dazzled by them. His work was on a scale which should have appealed to the spirit of grandeur in the American character, a dramatic and striking expression of a new land. But instead, American architects chose to take the path of imitating Europe, of uniformity, monotony, dullness. In Lloyd’s work there was space, invention, poetry, a restrained and effective use of the romantic, surprises always in the forms, new and imaginative use of structural parts, rooms, windows, and materials. He has a gift for involvement in many-leveled lives, for the variations, caprices, and nuances necessary to the human spirit. Every stone, every roof-tile, every window, every texture or material was designed for the consistent development of his building, its environment, and designed to elevate the quality of people’s lives. Uniformity and monotony kill individuality, dull the senses. Lloyd designed his work to reinforce individuality with poetry, beauty, and integrity. It was planned to create a more beautiful and satisfying human environment. Architecture as poetry. … By contrast, the commonplace, shoddy, temporary movie-set houses around him were painful to see. He called them ‘cracker boxes,’ shabby, thin, motel-type homes for robots.

[…]

The Wright pride. Yes, pride in quality. He supervises his buildings, takes care of every detail: searches for masons who care about stonework, painters who can paint, metalworkers who are skillful. Today, in an age of amateurs, this is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

His struggle is against uniformity and wholesale design. He speaks out boldly, as Varèse did. If he sounds like a moralist, it is because beauty, quality, and ethics are inseparable. Beauty and integrity. And for them one has to be willing to make sacrifices.

[…]

This architect never falls off the high standards, the heights he established for himself. The mediocre and the deformed sprout around him, like weeds, ugly buildings which do not endure and which look shabby after a few months. He is offended, but he does not surrender. He finds it “futile, offensive, and all-pervasive, but not inevitable.

In one of her visits, Nin has a chance to look through Wright’s notes and comments on architecture, where she finds the following telling micro-manifesto:

I am concerned with our natural environment, how we can discover and utilize form, and perfect the endlessly varied, stimulating and beautiful services it provides for mankind. It is the architect’s opportunity and responsibility to understand and practice the art of creating with and out of them a suitable environment for mankind—advancing the art with every conceivable means, including, among others, poetic license and poetic prescience. And now, after billions of years of experience and preconditioning on this earth (from the development of the first one-celled amoeba to our present human complex) we have no valid excuse for not performing superbly.

Image adapted from Jason Rzucidlo

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