The Characteristics & Perception of Space in Japan

Sanford Kwinter, design theorist and Associate Professor of Architecture, Rice University, Texas
Waro Kishi, Architect, Waro Kishi + K. Associates

Ken Tadashi Oshima, architectural historian, Sainsbury Institute Fellow, London

Moderator Ken Tadashi Oshima examined perceptions of “Japanese space” in four dimensions: craft, location, the character of the architect and cultural patterns. Illuminating conventional Western perceptions, he pointed to the ideas in common between the Japanese house built in the MoMA sculpture garden in 1954 and contemporary examples found in Japan: the elevation of the house from the ground; the wall as a continuous interface between interior and exterior space, albeit rendered in different materials.

As the two primary conceptual modes used to describe Japanese space, Dr. Oshima introduced and problematized the notions of ma and oku. The concept of space-time or ma, as presented through Arata Isozaki’s legendary 1978 exhibition, is represented calligraphically as the space between two gates, the repetition of which evokes spatiality as an open and perceptual experience. Japanese gardens such as Ryoanji are characterized by “space interacting with the environment,” becoming animated by rain, wind and other natural forces. Time here is not linear but cyclical as an inherent component of ma. He illustrated techniques of enhancing spatio-temporal perception, such as shakkei or “borrowed space,” in which elements of the landscape are composed to hide or highlight areas to create the perception of an infinitely expansive visual field. By contrast, the notion of oku emphasizes spatial depth through a center that is perceived but closed or not entered, such as the castle town of Edo. As famously explained by Professor Maki in his 1979 essay, this could also be understood by the experience of visiting the depths of a mountain shrine or the metaphor of penetrating the many layers of an onion. However, Dr. Oshima noted, it was harder to specifically define Japanese sensibilities today based on place because the modern city has changed so often and so drastically.

Recalling a recent trip to Japan, Sanford Kwinter contrasted the deeply Buddhist world of Kyoto, where he shared green tea with monks, to Tokyo, a “brutal awakening to what had become of the traditions.” Working with Dr. Oshima’s theme of space-time, Prof. Kwinter intepreted ma as “dynamism in repose, an interval or gap between two things that does not separate but binds and relates.” He finds that the “poisedness” of Japanese design has echoes in many Japanese cultural forms: rituals of tea, martial arts, geomancy and even the posture of the ancient Zen masters, who “inhabit their space perfectly.”

But poisedness is not quiescence: Japanese composition “eschews stasis, as the Japanese city reveals its savage informalism,” Prof. Kwinter commented. He described one-dimensional Shin classicism as a false path: “The more radical, the more I feel it has returned to the aesthetic roots of the Japanese metaphysical tradition.”

Although the concept of productive space came to Japan from China through Buddhism, Prof. Kwinter sees it as pervasively modern and Japanese. He identified “syncopation” as a central aesthetic tendency and “layering” as a quality imbuing space-time. Prof. Kwinter expounded rapturously on the “unfathomable mystery of kimono art.” He said, “I enjoy observing the rituals of selection and composition, draping, tying, wrapping and overlapping... investing objects with this tension is like investing anima in objects.”

Waro Kishi said being from Kyoto defines him architecturally. “His” Kyoto is “not such a beautiful” city, rather it is a place where famous temples coexist with “ugly buildings”. Mr. Kishi profiled three homes for individuals and a special boutique selling robes and ritualistic paraphernalia to clergy, each built on a unique theme. In Fukaya, situated on the outskirts of Tokyo in a factory and warehouse zone, he designed a “little bit beautiful warehouse” with traces of 1960s American home design to cater to the client’s taste. Mr. Kishi manipulated open and closed spaces to exaggerate spatial expansiveness. Because the swimming pool was of central importance to the client, he placed it at the entrance hall.

The house he built in Wakayama emphasized diagonality in its construction of vertical spaces. Most remarkably, it featured an inaccessible water-garden. A “garden is where humans can enter and enjoy; but not here,” explained Mr. Kishi. Around the water, he laid pavement for the gardener, who does not exist. Mr. Kishi also broke the convention of placing the courtyard to the right of the home, and endowed the façade in surroundings with a “very deep meaning,” which he left unexplained.

For a painter, Mr. Kishi built a hutong (traditional Beijing-style home-in-an-alley) to be too wide for a passageway and too narrow for a courtyard. Three separate pavilions were built for living and dining, sleeping and working. One of the houses is black, and a too-wide wall was erected. “Some people say this is not Japanese, but I am not so straight a person, so I wanted the outside space similar to the inside space: when you walk inside you cannot see diagonally into the interiors, but when you are on the diagonal, you can see.”

In Kyoto, Mr. Kishi explored themes of light and shadow in a design for a by-appointment-only boutique (where nothing is on display) in a Zen monastery for monks and other clergy. Black, rusty steel and chestnut material of a “delicate rough” finish are mainly used. The design inside consists of vertical planes: an L-shape with an Indian textile finish and a wall with panels hanging by steel from the ceiling, finished with roof tiles. Spotlights create a pattern of shadows and shine on the walls and panels.

Question & Answer Period

In looking at Kishi’s work and the city of Kyoto, how would you reconcile the idealized world within the more vernacular one—the sacred with the profane? How do you incorporate old Kyoto into your new design?

Mr. Kishi responded by describing the challenges of creating architecture in the context of Kyoto’s diverse architectural landscape, which epitomizes the meeting of the ancient and the modern. After moving from Tokyo to Kyoto, he initially tried to escape from the traditional “Japaneseness” of Kyoto’s architecture. “You cannot understand what it means for Japanese architects to live in Kyoto. I can imagine the situation of architects who work in Rome—they are surrounded by ancient masterpieces. It’s hard work to make masterpieces of contemporary architecture in a place like Rome! It’s the same situation for me. So I wondered: what is the meaning of making my own work, and what is the meaning of making contemporary architecture itself?” He concluded by saying that he has moved away from ignoring Kyoto’s rich architectural history, and has begun to “care about it.”

Prof. Kwinter added that Mr. Kishi’s work “strikes me as belonging in many ways to an international Japanese idiom.” He opined that Mr. Kishi’s architecture did not appear to be dedicated to the preservation of the old, traditional Kyoto style, but rather seemed to “extend” some aspects of that idiom, while embracing more fully other universal, modernist approaches.

You discussed integrating spaces and not creating hard, frozen boundaries. But especially in the houses Mr. Kishi showed, the boundaries between public and private are very strict and impenetrable. Where does that boundary occur?

Prof. Kwinter remarked that, indeed, the question of space and boundaries is relevant. The use of walls in Kyoto is very fascinating—despite the high density of buildings, each structure stands entirely alone, however narrow the space between the structures might be. He said: “There is a continual reflex in Japanese history, which is the withdrawal reflex—the withdrawal into purity, the withdrawal from the rest of the world, the building of walls around the culture in order to seal itself off in order to cultivate completely internal development. It seems to me this tendency to seal off—to enclose and to withdraw—is highly abusable, but it nonetheless remains part of a vocabulary—a repertory—of moves, which can be used quite creatively. What its ultimate meanings are in any particular context—socially, urbanistically, historically—I leave these completely open. I recognize them as being also particularly Japanese.”

Presented as part of the symposium, "Technology & Tradition in Contemporary Japanese Architecture"
on February 26, 2004.
Topics:  Design

Calendar of Events

October 2020

S M T W Th F S
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31
All content © 2020, Japan Society, unless otherwise noted. |
333 East 47th Street New York, NY 10017 Phone: 212.832.1155 |
Credits | Press | Contact Us | Privacy Policy