About this time two years ago, my wife and I were sitting in a concert hall in Kansas City listening to author and humorist David Sedaris read excerpts from his latest book. As he read snippets from the book and commiserated with the audience, Sedaris stopped on a chapter about his experience learning Japanese while trying to quit smoking in Japan. While describing the idiosyncratic and absurd process of using Pimsleur phrase books, he remarked that despite all he had learned, the most useful phrases he found were “hello” and “I’m sorry”. As we listened and laughed, we knew that all too soon, we would also be faced with the same dilemma of feeling awkward in Japan.
It was at that time that my wife accepted a job that required us to relocate to Japan, and I would start working for Gould Evans remotely. As we started to settle in, I quickly realized how useful it was to know those words – especially “I’m sorry”. We are no strangers to international travel, and understand the challenges required in adapting to any foreign culture, but Japan is a mystifying and magical place. It really is. Just when you think you understand it, you realize you really don’t. There are deeply rooted history and traditions here and cultural differences that you don’t find anywhere else in the world. I am constantly apologizing for being a dumb westerner; completely unaware of all the obvious faux-paus I make. But despite all that, the country never fails to surprise, delight, and amaze.
Japan is both charming and befuddling at the same time. It is completely different from anywhere I’ve ever been. Sometimes I liken it to living in the future, only now. For example, Japan has the fastest, most efficient trains on earth. Fiber-optic internet is everywhere. You will find LED lighting on all roads, parks, and in most stores. And as for the food – there are more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita here than anywhere else. To an observer, it is a nation fixated on being modern while honoring its past – and perfecting everything. Not the least of which is the built environment.
The built environment here is fascinating. It’s an endless source of visual intrigue for an architect. In the few years that I’ve spent in Japan, I have realized quickly the inadequate education I received in eastern architecture. In the time we have been here I have toured numerous temples, shrines, and palaces, in addition to more modern works. Much of what I’ve seen of Japanese building is impressive on many levels: from the sequence of environments, to views created, to the way details are executed – all are done with remarkable care and craftsmanship. But as I have traveled around, what I have been most surprised with is my shift in focus towards the landscape. Of the great works I’ve seen during my time here in Japan, I continue to be impressed with how well buildings integrate nature. Nature is almost designed as an extended room beyond the confines of the building. It is done so well that many times when we travel I just want to spend time in parks, and not in buildings. That’s weird for an architect. But good!
Most interesting, I find, is how this tradition of integrating landscape with architecture is evolving in Japanese design. The best examples strike a delicate balance, giving equal prominence to buildings and landscape. And “design” is kept to a minimum. The result is often a striking abstraction of that continued tradition where clear intent and impeccable execution remain paramount, while physical barriers are increasingly dissolved.
One cannot argue that design intent is evident, but a rigor is upheld to make simple all that is complicated. And in my experience, in the best examples of modern Japanese design, the viewer does not feel as if he or she is in a designed space at all. One is simply in between worlds of interior/exterior. It is an almost magical space where one doesn’t feel the presence of design or construction. As an architect, it often makes my brain hurt. Because as an architect, my training forces me to analyze as well as appreciate built environments – knowing that magic takes a lot of effort. I am constantly scratching my head trying to figure out the details behind the proverbial curtain.
While seemingly simple to the eye, the complexities behind this kind of architecture are astounding. For example, take the column grid at the Junya Ishigami’s project at Kanagawa Institute of Technology. To the casual observer, it is a playful arrangement of columns inspired by nature; where 305 columns occupy the space, making a visitor feel as if they are among a forest of trees. Yet, when looked at closely, each one is a different size, profile and at a different angle. Like trees, no two are the same.
It’s hard to imagine the craft and almost insane level of detail that goes into this architecture. And while this is just one example, there are several other examples from other modern Japanese projects. It’s just a taste of what makes for a very rich building environment, even if the casual observer doesn’t necessarily notice – because you feel the difference within the space even if you don’t initially observe any difference. It’s a strange sensation one can’t adequately describe in words. You have to experience it.
So come to Japan, if you get a chance! You’ll be surprised and delighted with the magic that abounds.