Japan – ness in architecture, written by Arata Isozaki, a book review



Since I started to plunge into the history of Japanese architecture after my touristic trip to Nara last year during Golden week, I bought some books I will write about.

I have just finished the first. It has the title of the post, it has been published by MIT press, 2006 and in the paperback edition for the first time on 2011 , translated in English of course.

It was kindly suggested my by amazon.com to buy in addition with a more technical and comprehensive book, called

“What is Japanese Architecture – a survey of traditional Japanese architecture”, by Kazuo Nishi and Kazuo Hozomi, 1985, Kodansha.original japanese title was Nihon kenchiku no katachi: seikatsu to kenchiku-zoukei no rekishi, I will postpone this review since I have not finished yet.

The Japan-ness is composed by a series of essays written by the same author in a span of many years, mainly 25 years from 1960 to 1985.

The book is a must if you are interested in understanding the roots of the metabolism, the reason under Kenzo Tange works and so on. Overall the success of japanese contemporary architecture has its motivation in the struggle of many to during the postwar years which culminated, with the Yoyogi stadium in 1965 by the K. Tange hands.

While it is difficult assess if Isozaki kept his claims over the years it is possible to see an overall position on his stance in the commas. Before that,

let`s look at what is inside.

Firstly there is a persuading historical narrative of how stupid was the West (he does not write stupid, but is a natural consequence from any balanced mind) when he observed the oriental stuff coming from this new opened country. This was the birth of Japan-ness, the title of the book. A gaze from “outside”.

Then many essays are focusing in the years of modernism, how some japanese fertile minds, in particular Tange, Yamaguchi and Maruyama were addressing the problem of style. In those years the german architect – escaped from the brutal Nazis country – Bruno Taut played a paramount role in reading the Katsura Villa in Kyoto and the Ize  shrine with “new eyes” that the japanese would never had. Most of the essays address those two pivotal remnant buildings of the ancient times. How they were read by the contemporaries and how they became a paradigm for forging a national style.

This was part 1, to me a very interesting part since I did not know anything about it.

Part II is about Ise Shrine, famous even to the most mapless of the tourists as it is to rebuilt every 25 years till his foundation. Alone the essay of the description  – chapter 10 : the archetype of veiling – of the Ise shrine is worthy the price of the book!

Part three is dedicated to Chogen reconstruction of Todaiji in Nara and contains a personal apologetical admiration for the Nandaimon (southern Gate),

and an “adult” interpretation of Villa Katsura.

Luckily I visited at least the Todai-ji in Nara, and even the miwa shrine thus sometimes I had a direct experience to understand better what Isozaki was writing about. On the contrary many pivotal examples of this reasoning, like villa katsura and ise Shrine itself are to be visited. In that respect the second book that amazon suggested was very helpful.

This is a book for people who can read essays, who likes to go deep on things. It has also some precise historical references to western building, especially situated in Italy. Palladio, Vasari, Brunelleschi, Basilique in San Vitale (Ravenna) are among the others.

The pros are that gives you a fruitful look at what happened in Japan architecture and what was the prevalent attitude about style and details. On this matter, the last part of the book, where Isozaki compares the various misreadings of Katsura villa is enlightening.

I do not see outback on the book, but the fact I felt that Isozaki himself, despite his deep unraveling researches is still a Taut follower.

pg.242″  The design of the great gate is, one might say, as “compositional”  as Ise or katsura, yet Nandai-mon is unburdened by any superficial or excessive element. What is visualized is principally the load-bearing system that runs through the whole structure in order to make it stand. It is a constructive system that counters the force of gravity. It is this feature of exposed structure that has gained a hold on me”

This feeling, like Taut’s observations on Nikko, is something that could be questionable.



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