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,


In Tokyo, the unfamiliarity of such extreme cultural organization and efficiency allowed me to observe the Japanese from a very removed perspective.  Because of the language barrier, my observations were limited to sights, sounds, and smells.  While this limitation made it difficult to communicate at times, it also provided a more focused lens with which to observe the efficiency of movement, space, and time that the Japanese seemed to have mastered.  The people moved with intention, the streets were immaculately clean despite the peculiar lack of trashcans, and the subway cars were never a second late.

Transitioning from Tokyo to Kyoto, I expected a slower pace, more rural scenery, and a sense of history within the architecture.  That is what I got.

Intrigued by temples I had only studied in school and by a culture so foreign to my Hawaii-born, LA educated eyes, I began to film everything that caught my attention, even if I wasn’t sure quite why.  The clouds billowing behind a stoic roofline, the cicadas relentlessly chirping their songs, a monk chanting words that have been pasted down for generations.  Our Kyoto visit concluded with the Heian Temple, which provided a perfect opportunity to let the mind synthesize, draw conclusions, and absorb the serene surroundings.  Unfortunately, my mind and body were too exhausted and decided to take a nap.

Dropped back into Tokyo for one night, I had the chance to upload all the video clips from Japan.  Flipping from clip to clip, I again expected to see a calm, historic Kyoto.  However, within this temple-filled city, I found hints of the organized and clockwork culture that I thought was native to Tokyo. Just as the red torii gates in Kyoto provided a set path of movement up the mountain, the bright yellow pathways in Tokyo outlined the most efficient line of circulation through the subway station.  Perhaps the repetitive and ritualized culture of ancient Kyoto has translated into the metropolis of Tokyo.  Zen gardens are replaced by pachinko parlors, while the act of beating a gong has become the ritual of swiping a subway pasmo card.  Tokyo is not simply an urban metropolis, just as Kyoto is not simply a historic city of Zen.  Rather, the organized nature Tokyo is a result of the ritual culture that originated in Kyoto.


Filed under: kyoto, Machine, Movement, Ritualization, Subway, Tokyo, Torii Gates, Video

All Wrapped Up

John Clammer brought up an interesting point in our most recently assigned reading entitled, Aesthetics of the Self:  Shopping and social being in contemporary urban Japan.  “A Japanese is as likely to give as much attention to the wrapping – the material, the way it is folded, the ribbons used to secure it – as to the contents of the package.”  This cultural attribute became crystal clear to me on our last night in Kyoto, after we stopped at a carryout burger joint for dinner.  This place did not have anywhere to sit, so you had to place your order through a window and wait on the sidewalk until it was ready.  We watched through the glass as the burgers were delicately prepared, all of us salivating with hunger.  As soon as the final bun was placed atop the last burger, we were all ready to bust through the window and devour them instantly.  But to our disappointment and confusion, we had to wait another ten minutes.  Each burger was then wrapped in tin foil, followed by a label-bearing paper wrap, then stickered shut, and finally placed neatly in a bag, before being presented to us.  During this entire process, we kept on asking, “Why can’t they just give us the food, I don’t care about the wrapper, I just want to eat.”

I thought more about this concept of the packaging being “intimately linked… and part of the same philosophy as the service”, and began to understand how it elicits a fundamental cultural difference between Americans and Japanese.  We as Americans are often only concerned with the product, and not the process or the wrapper.  We are a culture of instant gratification.  We are only focused on the burger, and could care less about how it is presented to us.  The Japanese are religious about their presentation.  Even the smallest and most trifling details of everyday life are thought about; the packaging of shaving kits and soaps in the bathrooms of our hotels, the wrapping of rice pockets from a convenience store.  They care as much about how you arrive at a product, as the product itself.

Thinking architecturally, I feel the same cultural attribute can be applied to Japanese design philosophies and histories.  While many architects, and especially students of architecture, are more concerned with the “aha” moment of their design, the Japanese take great care in the wrapping of their projects.  This is especially applicable to many of the gardens and shrines we have recently visited in Kyoto.  Walking through the winding garden of Heian for nearly an hour, the garden culminated at a bridge overlooking a small lake, arguably the group’s favorite moment of the Kyoto leg.  But it was the process by which we arrived at this point that made it so special.  The sequencing, the compression and expansion of spaces, the careful and deliberate procession to finally arrive at the “burger”.  Without this wrapping, the end wouldn’t have had the same affect.


Filed under: America, Clammer, Japan, kyoto, Shopping, Wrapping

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


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