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Exquisite designs for better living

by Stephen Mansfield

TRADITIONAL JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE: An Exploration of Elements and Forms, by Mira Locher. Photography by Ben Simmons. Tuttle Publishing, 2010, 223 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

In Zen Buddhism there is a ceremony called “The Transmission.” The ritual, both mystic and arcane, is little known in lay circles. Conducted in a temple’s main hall, it marks the transference of teachings from a master of esoteric practices to a student judged ready to receive such wisdom. Knowledge is thereby, simultaneously transmitted and refined. Japanese garden manuals were once like this, with “secret teachings” passed among a handful of selected practitioners. Though no longer communicated covertly, traditional skills in Japan, among both artists and artisans, continue in the time-honored manner to be passed from master to acolyte.

Mira Locher makes the observation that tradition only exists as an idea when it is challenged or superseded by the new. In her first-rate resource book on traditional design you will learn a great deal about construction methods, in which the use of natural materials encouraged a responsible attitude toward conservation.

As long as nature remained the prime source of building materials, and demand kept at a level commensurate with the needs of a much lower population, consumption would not overtake natural replacement. To subsist, you had to replace what you used, an attitude to resources that is almost entirely absent today.

The use of building materials and the form they eventually take are, like everywhere, a response to the plenitude or deficiency of environmental conditions, climate, the needs, traditions and design preferences of individual districts. This connection, essentially one of nature to structures, is best seen in rural settings.

The book’s comprehensive coverage of architectural styles helps explode the myth of a Japanese monoculture. Architectural diversity, from the thatched, minka farmhouses of Hida to the red-tiled, one-story timber homes of Okinawa, reflects the country’s many micro-cultures.

In exacting detail, building designs and materials are described in relation to their ownership and function: an aristocrat’s shinden residence, a Shinto shrine, a tea ceremony room, the merchant owned machiya. The writer shows how the subdued interior lighting of buildings influenced the creative process, how “arts developed within this context of shadows,” making the extraordinary reversal of taste, from graduated shadows to the blinding strip lighting of today’s homes, all the more starker.

Nagging questions are answered. If you have ever wondered what that fibrous roofing material on cottages and tea houses was, you will learn that it is hiwada-uki, made by layering cypress bark; and that pine and cedar are not the sole woods used in construction, with ash, camphor, zelkova, crape myrtle, Indian ironwood and many other varieties of lumber playing their part.

The craftsmanship of such structures is in the tools, so there is a chapter dedicated to this subject, with explanations of the function in the traditional context of mallets, chisels, clamps, bamboo nails, metal trowels, and a host of other essential equipment.

Chapters are dedicated to specific areas of construction, such as ceilings, entrance gates, foundations and roofs. Walls may not strike the casual reader as worthy of an entire chapter, but Japanese enclosures, as Locher explains, are another example of Japanese aesthetics and methodology highlighting differences in functionality.

A section on land formations and gardens provides insights into the Japanese sense of contouring and how architectural lines developed from nature and the interpretation of natural forms. Highly detailed images provide a companion to the well-crafted text.

In Japan, natural disasters, an erosive climate and a weak preservation ethic mitigate against architectural heritage. When was the last time you heard of a national campaign or petition to save a building? While people may be fond of individual structures, the notion of non-attachment runs deep. “Buildings were understood” Locher comments, “to be part of the changing environment rather than as permanent fixtures.”

While this culture of replacement no doubt has its merits, comparing the structural magnificence of a building such as Gokoku-ji, an original, gloriously extant Edo Period temple in Tokyo, with the utilitarian ferro-concrete of Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, we can only wonder at the lapse of aesthetic sensibility in the recent age. Although it is not the intention of this work, the book confirms how far the Japanese have fallen from a reverence for nature, to a post-war assault on it.

It would be unfair to lay the blame solely on Japan’s construction industry. Householders bear some responsibility for the contemporary lapses. The pity of it is that the undigested Western decorative trappings, cluttered homes and cheap utility furniture that characterize so many Japanese residences today, are such a poor trade off for the traditional restraint and exquisite taste of the past.