Japan-ness in Architecture

Fredric Jameson writes:

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?

(LRB 5 April 2007)