Kamakura: the human, the natural, the symbolic

“The fact that we are living here, now, in the present– this is the true meaning of the existence of the Buddha. Nothing is more precious than this. How marvelous this is! How important this is to realize from the bottom of one’s heart! This is the way in which all of us, each in our own fashion, will awaken to the truth and each live, in our own way, a cheerful and happy life.” – Zen Master Mugaku Sogen, Founder of Engaku-ji.

30 May 2013
Author: Pebel Rodriguez – Urban Environmental Systems Management

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Shop in Kamakura. The relationship between man and nature is palpable in the Japanese architecture and everyday living – natural and built environment co-existing. Pebel Rodriguez, 30 May 2013.

Today was a day full of reflection, full on meaning. Walking through the streets of Kamakura, seeing its traditional architecture, a portrait of the Japanese pure essence, was a remarkable experience. As we were walking the streets the humid breeze seemed to be welcoming and embracing us… a response to our marveled overwhelmed minds. I felt so thankful to just be there today, alive! As we unraveled its beauty all this significance comes into play. You can see it in the scale, you can see it in the relationship with nature – you can see it in the now, the temporality of the now.

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Engaku-ji Temple. Pebel Rodriguez, 30 May 2013.

As one enters the Engaku-ji Temple (1282), – also known as “The Temple of Spirit” due to its lovely meditation halls and sessions – the energy starts changing, one can feel the embrace of the Zen, as if opening into it. The overall impression is the marked co-existence with earth. We are part of it since the beginning of times and that is how the entire site develops. The integration of the elements -water and earth- and the fluidity of the layout, it feels as though is floating through the site.

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Kamakura Daibutsu (c. 1252-1262). Pebel Rodriguez, 30 May 2013.

“This is the Temple of Buddha and the gate of the Eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence.” [Kotoku-in Monastery, Kamakura].

The Kamakura Daibutsu, Great Buddha of Kamarura, is the principal deity of Kotoku-in temple and a national treasure, as meaningful Japanese traditions are reflected in this space. This becomes palpable in the symbolic cleanse of the body before approaching to the holiness, in the conceptual content of gates as entryways to eternity and, again, in the intrinsic relationship with  nature that is always present in these sacred spaces. Each part of the monument is full of symbolism. This is the case of the hands of the Buddha: “The position of the fingers signifies meditation. The circle made by the thumbs and the index-finger is smaller in proportions than normal one, because there is a kind if web between the fingers of the Buddha to symbolize fulfillment of the vows.” [Kamakura, Hase Kotokuin, Chief Priest]. There is a serenity feeling that comes from contemplation of the monumental and harmonious proportions of the Buddha. The posture and nobility of this representation in open air looking down to us is one more sign of Japanese symbolism.

After our contemplative and reflexive day it is inevitable to be embraced by the Zen, as if by osmosis. If one can experience this state no words are needed to explain this magnificent culture full of content and meaning.

Today is the most meaningful day of all. Tomorrow, when the Nippon Sun touches our faces after dawn, again, it will be today.

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Tokyo: Architecture As Performance

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Nagakin Capsule Tower. James Lloyd, 28 May 2013.

28 May 2013
Author: Hande Oney – Architecture

Today we had a very interesting lecture by Dr. Julian Worrall, of Waseda University, in Tokyo. Julian-sensei’s main focus was how the city of Tokyo could be perceived through the study of Japanese culture. In order to understand how the city of Tokyo works, it is essential to look at the cultural division between private and public space. The division between the private and public is a reflection of the Japanese lifestyle where family life and work life are separated. Julian-sensei presented reflections on Tokyo by world known architects from different cultural backgrounds: Le Corbusier, Toyo Ito, and Rem Koolhaas. The European perspective views Japanese architecture as an artwork presented on a pedestal, as a perfected object. The local Japanese view from Toyo Ito compares Western and Japanese architecture – while Western cities are designed as open-air museums, Japanese cities are like a theater stage with a constantly changing performance.

To look more into the idea of performance, Julian-sensei divides his approach into three: ‘art of transience,’ ‘reign of standards,’ and ‘embodiment of the social.’  The ‘art of transience’ is the notion of temporal art – art that changes, adapts and transforms over time like a living organism. One of the examples that Julian-sensei presented is the Ise Shrine; the shrine is one of the most important shrines in Japan. While Ise still carries its importance and identity, every twenty years it is burned down and rebuilt on a neighboring site. The physical materiality of the shrine is much less important then its performative quality. The religious practices and tradition stays the same while the physicality changes.

Also, the Metabolists viewed architecture as an ephemeral, temporal, phenomenon; they designed buildings that were intended to adapt to their changing cities. A few examples might be given: the Marine City, Tokyo Bay Project, and Nagakin Capsule Tower. While presenting elements from Japanese traditions, these projects could also be adapted to urban growth and change.

The adapting nature of buildings in Tokyo could also be linked to clothing and fashion. The buildings in the high commercial district are mostly represented by their façades.  Buildings become the clothing piece that in time become worn out, lose their popularity, and are obliged to change. This element of design according to fashion and popularity could also be seen in the planning of the Omotesando district with the division and spread of high-end firms and low commercial firms.

The second aspect is the ‘reign of standards’ according to fulfillment and requirements; this included the hidden part of the city’s infrastructure.  These elements are the ones that go through change the most often, but there are some like the overpasses that have also created a certain emotional attachment to people and have become a part of their generation. One important example is the ubiquitous 7/11 convenience store; these stores are vital socially and also adapt to their society. Beyond their social role, they are also corporate recording stations for all sorts of information, include age and gender.

The third aspect is the ‘embodiment of the social.’ Performance is also an expressed as social behavior. Definition of public space changes from culture to culture. Public space is commonly defined as a space that is shaped for the users to define and perform in it. For Westerners the ‘public’ is a combination of personal and common whereas for Japanese it is political and communal. These two different approaches can largely explain the uses and designs of public spaces in Tokyo.

Impermanence and Contradiction

Date: 24 May 20123
Author: Alejandra Chacra – Urban Environmental Systems Management

After several weeks of studying, reading, and researching Japanese history, culture, and architecture, we are ready to let ourselves be surprised with the magic of this city and country. Everything we’ve studied so far has opened our minds to a completely new and different culture, and has given us a wide understanding of it; but I believe it is not until we live and experience the city space that we are going to be able to capture its essence. As Roland Barthes says, it is only by walking, sight, habit, and experience that we will get to orient ourselves in the city: “It can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you” (Barthes, 1982).

I am really interested in observing and understanding the process of change in Tokyo, the feeling of timeless impermanence and temporal consideration. Japanese architecture has a short life cycle, based on a social system that guarantees change. Houses in Japan have a 26 year life expectancy as they are constantly demolished and rebuilt; this is not only seen in architecture, but it is also expressed in Japan’s social context. “Impermanence is built into the Japanese psyche and is bolstered by the confidence that something better will come along soon. That the Japanese are exhilarated by the new and driven by a need of continuous improvement is shown in matters ranging from custom play of teenage girls to rampant manufacturing successes” (Greco, 2007). The temporal consideration is the result of a history of constant reconstruction due to different disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and war; there is a capacity for regeneration when damaged and this capacity has permeated many areas of Japanese culture.

Another aspect of Japanese culture that has captured my attention is the phenomenon of opposites and contradictions. From what we have been studying I feel that this city and its culture is full of contradictions: between simplicity and complexity; order and disorder; structure and chaos; sacred and profane; old and new. This can be seen in fashion, architecture, lifestyle, and city space. Simple and elegant kimonos vs exaggerated custom play, traditional architecture vs Western architecture, Zen center vs amorphous sprawl, peaceful interior spaces vs chaotic streets, Japanese-ness vs Westernization. I feel completely fascinated by the way these opposites influence so many aspects of Japanese life.

I speak for myself, but I believe the whole group is very excited about getting to know this amazing culture, to try to decipher the “labyrinthine city of Tokyo, apparently built without order, hierarchy or form” (Sacchi, 2004). Understanding a completely different culture from our Western perspective will open our eyes and our mind to another way of doing things.

Barthes, R. (1982) Empire of Signs. London: Reaktion Press.
Greco, J. (2007, July). Building a New Tokyo. Urban Land.
Sacchi, L. (2004). Tokyo: City and Architecture. New York: Universe (Rizzoli).

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New apartment blocks looming above a roji. James Lloyd, 25 May 13.