USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Modernism, Minimalism, Materiality

I sometimes hear people who have not studied architecture characterize modernist buildings as cold and sterile.  Some even go so far as to accuse them of soullessness.  As first and second year students we are taught in our history of architecture courses about how postmodernists and theorists fault modernist designers for their failure to communicate anything beyond enthusiasm for steel and glass as construction materials or the open floor plan as a spatial device.  These issues can seem esoteric in the lecture hall but they take on a new relevance in a place like Kyoto, home to dozens of examples of the historical Japanese architecture that is believed to have strongly influenced so many modernists in 20th century Europe and America.

Walking through Nijo Castle or the Ryoanji Temple, the minimal aesthetic so central to modernist architecture is immediately evident: planes meet at right angles with clean joints, rooms flow into each other and are sparsely furnished save simple tatami mats, great attention is paid to craft and small design details seen only up close, and cantilevered roofs cover verandas creating spatial ambiguity between inside and outside.  This is a minimalism, however, that is neither sterile nor soulless.  It does not seem too perfect for human occupation as some would contend of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, or too cold and uninviting as has been said of the concrete of Le Corbusier.  On the contrary the architecture of Japanese shrines is comforting in its asceticism of design, an experience of welcome tranquility that transcends emotion whether you are a student of architecture or simply a visiting tourist.

The difference lies, I believe, in materiality.  A historical Japanese reverence for nature means wood is central to nearly all aspects of Kyoto’s shrines.  Sliding rice paper shoji screens mediate inside and outside, thatched roofs such as that of the Ise Shrine provide cover, and straw tatami mats cover the floor in grid fashion.  Historical buildings are also likely to rise above a groomed rock bed and be surrounded by local trees and vegetation.  All of this coalesces in a controlled manner so as to make emptiness fulfilling, where a building facilitates connection between man and nature.

Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and others created immensely powerful works of architecture inspired in part by the Japanese approach to design, but  their passion for incorporating modern materials like glass, steel, and concrete into the minimal aesthetic at the expense of traditional local materials limited the ability of their work to truly connect with many people beyond an intellectual level.   Kyoto’s shrines and temples instruct us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that an ethereal architecture may be the most powerful architecture of all.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Japan, kyoto, Materiality

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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