Japan-ness in Architecture 
by Arata Isozaki, translated by Sabu Kohso.
MIT, 349 pp., £19.95, July 2006, 0 262 09038 4
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The three-stage process [of the building of the Katsura Imperial Villa] is perfectly discernible in the layout of the buildings as they survive. Beginning from the Ko-shoin with its celebrated Moon-Viewing Platform (tsukimi-dai) of bamboo, the Chu¯ -shoin and the Gakki-no-ma were added, and finally the Shin-goten. All rooms face the pond at a uniform angle, whilst successively set back from right to left (as viewed from the pond). This layout is known as a flying geese formation (gan-ko¯ ). Taken as a whole, the extension scheme produces an irregular and asymmetrical rhythm, likewise affording requisite light and ventilation.

But more importantly for our context, such a layout recalls the positioning of tea utensils during the tea ceremony, called sumi-kake (corner arrangement) or suji-chigai (shifting streaks). It was perfected by such tea masters as Oribe and Enshu¯ . Originally the latter expression denoted a way of placing certain utensils (for example, chopsticks) side by side at a uniform angle. Later on, it came to indicate a way of placing multiple objects in parallel on the diagonal.

The dynamism of the flying geese formation allows for a complex of buildings that might easily be aligned according to a more rigid formula to shift off axis by increments, to the eventual point of renouncing all symmetry and centrality. This was the way in which Katsura’s varied façade was created. It is also the unique configuration that traditional Japanese builders evolved to express depth – by means of layered planes.

The description is as arresting as the space itself, for it includes an account of the corporeal training (the tea ceremony) necessary to perceive the space in the first place, as well as to construct it. The writer will later on propose a whole programme for using this remarkable construction – the Katsura Imperial Villa – but at this stage we need only ask ourselves the culturalist question: is this phenomenology to be considered an exotic curiosity for practitioners of Western space, or can it mean something closer to home, such as a spatial habitus we can adopt, or even one we can recognise and incorporate into our own now greatly enlarged eclectic canon of world spatial scenarios? And if so, what would be our motive for doing so, save as a source of market variety?

Culturalism is bound to remain one of the crucial philosophical issues in the age of globalisation: its debate with universalism cannot be completely subsumed under the polemics that continue to swirl around the human rights agenda that turns currently on the status of women and on capital punishment. But even those juridical issues, which involve physical existence and suffering, imperceptibly find themselves diverted into the questions of religion and of freedom, which are by no means so immediate or so existential. Meanwhile, the character of the oppositions at war here changes dramatically as one moves from one level or context to another: the natural law universalism of Habermas and his followers, which can embody an Enlightenment stance against superstition and tyranny, suddenly looks rather different when it is realised that it is the United States, a wealthy commercial and non-national society without any indigenous culture of its own, which seeks to embody the new global universalism, identifying its own parochial values and institutions (such as the constitution and ‘democracy’) with universal human nature on a world scale. At that point, people who felt that culturalism remained an alibi for exoticising and marginalising Third World cultures and societies as such might be tempted to recommend a healthy dose of it as therapy for what is either hypocritical or brutally cynical, if not simply blind and self-absorbed, in American thinking about the great outside world beyond those apparently dismally protected US borders.

At which point, the philosophical problem of relativism rears its ugly head and another round of polemics, in a somewhat different spirit and terminology, sets in. How can the Absolute be relative? How can it be historicised? Maybe it doesn’t even exist. Cultural relativism is always a little easier to profess and to defend, particularly in our current anti-Enlightenment, multicultural and post-national situation, in which it seems to let the various cultures simply ‘be in their being’, as Heidegger liked to say. But this is to reckon without that ‘giant sucking sound’ with which all these formerly authentic cultures are in the process of disappearing into the global standardisation of late capitalism, of commercialisation, commodification and consumerism – the three ‘c’s of that Disneyfication which is the hallmark of the new world system. This, however, is when the polemics and the oppositions on which they are based suddenly vanish, since this new global standardisation has no opposite number any longer: the days of the struggle between the Westernisers and the Traditionalists are long gone, no one believes in Modernism or its high culture any longer, all the formerly authentic sub-group cultures have become postmodern simulacra, even when they kill people. At this point, the idea of religion is resuscitated, as though it had not died long ago; yet only Islam remains as a possible example of it, even though 80 per cent of the American population claim to be believers (unfortunately for this claim, they are also consumers). Indeed, one suspects that even the prestige of Islam, now taken to be the embodiment of religion as such, is based on some fundamental misunderstanding about ‘belief’, a category of otherness always projected onto other people.

Such portentous reflections are pre-eminently relevant to the reception of what may otherwise seem a modest or even a specialised book about the Japanese architectural tradition. Indeed, the West has always been willing to acknowledge that Japanese architecture, whether the traditional kind or its extraordinary modernist production, was unique: an acknowledgment which allows it to be left out of the usual surveys and to be segregated on an expensive and high-quality reservation of its own somewhere, along with Japanese literature, film, technology, industry and even military history. Yet is such an acknowledgment not simply the sign of the West’s current willingness to add yet another exotic culture to its current multicultural smorgasbord? Or does it reflect something more uniquely unique about Japan’s tradition itself, until recently the only successful non-Western path to modernisation (and capitalism), as well as a rare example of the successful coexistence between traditional and modern cultures, between Westernisers and nationalist/traditionalists? Add to this interesting problem the fact that such a coexistence, compromise or synthesis was only yesterday identified as fascism, and you have the makings of real mixed feelings and the source of a Western recognition of Japan’s universality which also carries with it a hidden second thought about its exceptionality.

Arata Isozaki is not normally associated with nationalism or nativism in architecture. That his buildings project an international public is testified by their geographical range: from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to the Tsukuba Science Centre in Japan, from the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona to the Volksbank Centre in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, from the Administrative Building at Disneyworld in Florida to the Domus in La Coruña. These buildings, with a variety of programmes, are often described in popular language as ‘elegant’, ‘ironic’ or ‘cool’, words that register their play of basic geometrical figures – triangle, cube, barrel vault and the like – and also react, perhaps, to a joyous process of construction which is also an engagement with history, itself inhabited by the serene melancholy of the decay and death of such forms (and more insistently haunted by the fate of Hiroshima). So it is that, for Isozaki, ruins also express the same stark and simple forms as they emerge from chaos; ruins are elemental building blocks, the architect scarcely knows whether he is constructing a building or the ruins of a building:

By ruminating on the images of Japanese cities bombarded in 1945, I believed I might be able to construct a point of view with which to confront world history. It was only from the springboard stance of a return to that point where all human constructs were nullified that future construction would again be possible, I thought. Ruins to me were a source of imagination and in the 1960s it turned out that the image of the future city was itself ruins. Professing faith in ruins was equal to planning the future.

Isozaki adds that ‘other times in history when the image of ruins was cherished had to be recalled.’ Thus, on 1945 follows the great Kobe earthquake of 1995, itself recalling the Tokyo disaster of 1923, and so forth. Characteristically, Isozaki will in one of his earliest works compose a photomontage entitled Hiroshima Ruined Again in the Future, at the same time that he will participate in the 1960s excitement of new technology, whose ‘face … enabled us to perceive the existence of another space at the heart of electronic media, and, strangely, many of the images of the future city that appeared in cyberspace were equally of ruins. The future city now reappeared as a virtual image from within the ruins.’

Yet this fascination of Isozaki’s with ruins goes hand in hand with installations like his Electric Labyrinth of 1968 and the evanescent ‘festival plaza’ form, along with innumerable other experiments in technological futurity. My own favourite, the so-called ‘Responsive House’ of 1969, offers a cube with two flexible weather-resistant walls, alongside a third face into which a mobile camper can be introduced (the truck thus momentarily becoming part of the house), ‘playing the temporary living space against the permanent’ and allowing ‘residents to take off to the country and stop overnight wherever they like with their own instant environment’, while robots and an electronic media environment permit inner spaces to be remodelled virtually at will. This is as utopian as anything you can imagine, at the same time that its energies seem to stand at the antipodes of a melancholy contemplation of ruins.

Indeed, the proposal to grasp ruins in terms of ancient Japanese space-time concepts adds a fourth co-ordinate to the complex conjunctures of this work. Is it merely a restless alternation, as Isozaki sometimes seems to suggest?

For Japanese modernists – and I include myself – it is impossible not to begin with Western concepts. That is to say, we all begin with a modicum of alienation, but derive a curious satisfaction – as if things were finally set in order – when Western logic is dismantled and returned to ancient Japanese phonemes. After this we stop questioning.

Or perhaps it is this very conjuncture – pure geometrical shapes, ruins, the electronic future, ancient Japanese ‘phonemes’ – which contains the secret of Japanese modernity, of a modern Japanese culture, both non-national and national, an alternative modernity or an alternative path to modernity.

Yet although it is here very much a question of modernity, Japanese or Western, the ostensible topic of Isozaki’s exciting book, Japan-ness in Architecture, is rather three monuments from Japan’s traditional past, three ‘landmark events in Japanese architectural history’, to which the fourth, the great movement of Japanese architectural modernism from Kenzo¯ Tange onwards, is added. These monuments or events are the seventh-century shrine at Ise, the Southern Gatehouse built in 1199 at To¯ dai-ji by the monk Cho¯ gen, and the Katsura Imperial Villa, whose present form dates from the 17th century. The pines at Ise murmur from the pages of Pound’s Cantos, while Katsura has been adopted into Western Modernism ever since Bruno Taut’s visit in 1933. As for the monk Cho¯ gen, whose unexpected personal emergence from the Japanese middle ages is as astonishing as that of the Abbé Suger in our own (or Andrei Rublyov from the anonymity of the Russian iconostasis), he seems to have brought the language of the Sung Dynasty to Japan in one of those interventions that ‘blasts open the continuum of history’ (in Benjamin’s expression), and about which Isozaki’s narrative simply states: ‘This was how a frightful apparition of pure form suddenly reached the island nation.’

All three buildings have been taken to represent the originality of the Japanese experience of space at its most intense and at its purest; and indeed, purity and simplicity have played a part in their seduction of Western Modernism, for which such ‘ancient Japanese phonemes’ were able to be adopted as forebears and as unexpected precursors. But their spatial originality also encouraged their assimilation into a more national rhetoric, that of ‘Japan-ness’ (the awkward rendering of Isozaki’s title) as it has been invoked as an ideological reinforcement of the emperor system and the other political ‘originalities’ of the island’s nationalism.

Isozaki wishes to separate that undoubted spatial originality (which he locates in the ma, or ‘interstice’) from the ideological interpretations with which it has become identified. But this is easier said than done: inasmuch as even some cleansed and denationalised phenomenological experience of this space remains an interpretation, while the other interpretations, whether national or Western-Modernist, are necessarily part and parcel of the thing itself, and not some garment that can simply be removed or replaced by a better one. The text is the history of all its readings; the latter must be powerfully assumed, appropriated and somehow themselves dissolved in a stronger one. Or to put it another way, the buildings are themselves also responsible for the ways in which they have encouraged their own abuse and misreading; if they can be so misread, it is because they are themselves ambiguous in their very being and structure. Meanwhile, the intent to strip away these ideological constructions and interpretations – in order to go back to the original in all its pristine being – is itself an ideological operation which produces a new ideological text in the form of the alleged original, a restoration which is in fact not an old or ur-text, but rather a new one (Malraux spoke of those newly constructed artificial artworks produced by photographic enlargements of originals, such as immense sculptures projected from out of minute jewellery).

In this way, the nativist and Modernist readings of Isozaki’s three spatial texts are the result of similar operations which produce analogous results. The Ise shrine – ‘the original style of shrine architecture in heaven and on earth’ – rebuilt every twenty years since the seventh century, enacts what Isozaki calls a ‘veiling of the origin’ which is itself a kind of seduction and a production of an authenticity which has never, and could not exist. Such a shrine need not originally have been a building at all, but rather that empty space – niwa – which the god is invited to visit. The building is thus itself spatial and performative – to use the terms in which an important modernist theorist (Hamaguchi) characterised ‘the Japanese architectonic will – rather than the material and constructive characteristics of the Western architectonic will’. It is symptomatic that it is in terms of the latter that Bruno Taut will make his famous comparison: the Parthenon ‘is the greatest and most aesthetically sublime building in stone as the Ise shrine is in wood’. The ‘Japanese’ correction of Taut’s emphasis on materiality by an attention to the spatial – just as the performative principle of the visitation of the gods displaces the Western will to construction and replaces building by the empty space of waiting – can perhaps also be taken as a signal of the transformation of Western perceptions by postmodernity and its dominance of the spatial generally: that shift may at least in part be what certifies a more general universality of Isozaki’s judgments than that of the ideological content of the older nativist one, as well as that of the modernist one. For Isozaki is insistent on the way in which the ideology of modernism – whether that of Taut, seeking asylum from the Nazis, or Kenzo¯ Tange, seeking to smuggle Western Modernist values into the dominant emperor system with its far more overt and bombastic ‘imperial crown style’ – must also be identified as such and as having its own project and inner rationale. The new postmodern appeal to space as such then seems to offer a synthesis or compromise in which performativity and construction can meet on some new level: whether that level is not itself ideological remains to be seen.

At any rate, the Ise shrine – however pure and extraordinary a spatial experience it may be – is also to be understood as an ideological ritual in which the primordial origin of Japan-ness (the tenno¯ , or ‘emperor’) is affirmed by its very concealment, and in which, incidentally, this mystification finds its historical context in the ‘Jinshin disturbance’ or rebellion of 672 ad, in which the very existence of the emperor system was threatened.

The analysis of the eruption of the monk Cho¯ gen into the spatial continuum – Isozaki compares him to Brunelleschi in the West – stages it rather as a punctual event like a lightning flash that reveals the gradual formation of an ideological space all around it, before again disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared (we have already seen that the To¯ dai-ji owes its language to Sung China rather than to the local tradition). Katsura, however, far from seeming to enable our fleeting glimpse of primordiality and the simplicity of ‘the ancient Japanese phoneme’, is already virtually postmodern in its temporal composition (which its inhabitants and visitors re-enact in their tour of the space) as well as in its virtual collage as a series of literary allusions and ‘a complex tissue of quotations’, something Western Modernism presumably also sensed, as when Taut evoked the villa’s ‘disharmonious elements’ and its ‘excesses’. Indeed, the great photographs of Ishimoto which have made Katsura accessible to the West, published in two collections (black and white in 1960, colour in 1987), also translate the villa into the very idiom of Modernism by emphasising the play of materials and the stark isolation of its geometric forms, thereby obscuring the intricacy of the place itself and the discontinuities of its experience in time. But this is a new as well as an old experience, and it serves to underscore the limits of an older ideology of modernism: ‘The old Modernist canon appears increasingly stifled by its tacit laws of exclusion as well as by its laws of composition based on mechanical repetition.’

The celebration of Katsura by Kenzo¯ Tange, the prototypical figure of Japanese modernism, is here shown to be responsive to history in ways only too accessible to ideological critique: in its prewar attempt to assimilate the Japanese and the modern, in its postwar omission of the nationalist and its navigation of that class struggle in architectural space which Tange himself theorised as an opposition between the Yayoi-style – Dionysian and populist – and the Jo¯ mon-style, Apollonian and elitist. But Tange thereby makes class struggle itself (and its stylistic embodiment) into something profoundly traditional and Japanese. Isozaki’s unmasking of these ideologies reflects a historical situation in which globalisation seems to allow one to find a position outside the older national discourses; and in which the now rich tradition of ideological analysis itself serves as a kind of theoretical accumulation for some newer heightened or reflexive consciousness of the way in which history and form intersect. He cannot, of course, be outside those intersections any more than we can: but his book testifies to the way in which a discourse on the specificity of these Japanese situations belongs to our own culture and theoretical and formal preoccupations, and not to some exotic margin or linguistic footnote.

With the ma we reach the theoretical heart of Isozaki’s historical and architectural investigation. It is a category in which he has had a lifelong interest, having designed a Paris exhibition on the topic in 1978. It was an exhibition he was characteristically unwilling to repeat in Japan itself for some twenty-five years in the apprehension that it would give aid and comfort to a nativism or Japan-ness to which he was opposed and against which this whole book is an argument. Still, the ma is clearly enough itself (literally) one of those ‘ancient Japanese phonemes’ which has no Western equivalent and which must therefore argue for the existence of precisely that East/West gap on which the various culturalisms thrive. Indeed, we can ourselves only convey it negatively: thus, it is not nothingness, but it is not something either. Can the notion of relationality which has everywhere in the West begun to supplant the old Aristotelian conceptions of substance be of any use here? Yet relationality scarcely conveys the negative or destructive component of the ma, for Isozaki at least partly associated with ruins and rubble.* The ma also designates for him a primordial unity of time and space which we can only mystically approximate. He himself borrows a dictionary entry: ma ‘originally means the space in between things that exist next to each other; then comes to mean an interstice between things – chasm; later, a room as a space physically defined by columns and/or byobu screens; in a temporal context, the time of rest or pause in phenomena occurring one after another’.

The category of the ma then echoes an archaic or sacred concept, namely that of the niwa or empty bounded space which awaits the visitation of the gods: a profoundly ambiguous place which can either mean Entzauberung – the death or disappearance of the divine or of meaning – or the promise of its reappearance (a promise never invalidated by its turning out to be a broken one). In this, the ma would not so much fall into that range of contemporary appeals to the mythic (from Beuys and Pasolini on down), nor betray a filiation with some Heideggerian or etymological return to primordial social experience. Rather, it could also count as one of those moments in which the groping for new concepts and new categories of a historically original experience of spatiality in late capitalism, in globalisation and postmodernity, intersects with a form from the past and recognises in it a possible response to its own new needs and urgencies. The new category must still be marked with otherness, since we do not really have it yet concretely; it remains part of a utopian language of which we glimpse only the external face of its articulations and expressiveness. But that otherness is no longer national, cultural, racial or ethnic; for in globalisation Japan no longer exists in the old national or culturalist way.

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