USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Grasping Zen

During our two weeks in Japan we were able to make many correlations between the highly disciplined nature of Japanese culture and the refined complexity of their urban planning and architecture.   It was obvious that the social ideology of the Japanese people manifested itself in the streets they walk down, the metros they ride and the buildings they inhabit.  Every element of the city works harmoniously to uphold this social system that has been embodied in its people for generations, long before the city itself existed.  However, in our quest to critically observe, analyze and draw conclusions from the urban conditions we experienced in Japan, there was one crucial element that was never comprehensively discussed – the concept of Zen.

Zen, as a metaphysical construct of Buddhism, is in fact the antithesis of Japan’s contemporary social condition.  The Japanese people are ritualistically self-conscious and live in a perpetual state of anxiety concerning self-image and objective status.  John Clammer in Aesthetics of the Self, reiterates this point when he states, “…it is in Tokyo that the consumer culture of modern Japan has reached its apotheosis, it has done so in the context of a society in which both conformity and aestheticism have reached high levels.”  Such high levels in cultural cohesiveness were achieved through a social system reliant on the individual consumer’s ability to maintain self-control.  From the mundane day-to-day tasks to the distinctive tea ceremony ritual, every act must be performed with the utmost discipline and self-awareness, resulting in a culture characterized by anxiety.  This can only be relieved by leveraging Zen as an outlet for this pressure to perform appropriately.

Architecture is then what allows Zen to transcend its metaphysical nature and offer a morphological answer to the Japanese consumer culture.  It enables one to release the egocentricity tied to their societal role and be comfortable in that moment in place and time. As observed in the temples of Kyoto and the traditional gardens of Ryaonji, Zen is the basis for which sequential layering of spaces can be determined in order to place the viewer in a “removed” state-of-mind.  Specific room adjacencies, connection of interior to exterior, and material palettes can all be physical instances of Zen. Most notable are instances of pure, uncluttered spaces.  By doing away with the emblems and symbolisms associated with a consumer-based culture, the viewer can focus simply on the self.  In this respect, Zen can be credited with many of the functionalist and minimalist undertones of the Japanese design aesthetic.

Being a somewhat close-minded westerner myself, I often turn to the teachings of Alan Watts, a philosopher who breaks down Eastern philosophy for western audiences.  Above is a video clip of his brief introduction to Buddhism in Japanese Culture along with scenes from our experiences of Tokyo and Kyoto. Scenes in black and white reflect the self-conscious exterior appearance of the city and it’s inhabitants.  When the scenes become saturated with color there are conditions of Zen influence, where symbolisms relating to self-image are removed.

Note: Japan has the 5th largest percentage of Buddhists, with 96% of the population practicing the religion.

Bryn Garrett

Video: Alan Watts – Buddhism as Dialogue #2

Filed under: Buddhism, Japan, japan, kyoto, Tokyo,


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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