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  • John Barr

Light and Transparency in Japanese Architecture (In Praise of Fuzziness)

In my previous post I examined the presence and perception of darkness in Japanese space and, in particular, the ideas developed by the novelist Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki in his essay, In’ei Raisan (Published in English as In Praise of Shadows). Japanese colleagues have observed that dark spaces are not unique to Japan and that, historically, they must also have existed in the West. This is demonstrably true, but the salient point is the difference in Japanese and Western responses to that historic necessity…

Differences exist, and are rooted in fundamentally different approaches to nature. The Japanese approach, pre-Modernism, was to accept nature and its inconsistencies and inconveniencies, even to celebrate them. This is evident in every area of life, from carpentry to ceramics to cuisine to garden design. In traditional Japanese arts, nature is generally altered as little as possible, whilst natural imperfection and accumulated patina are seen as features to be valued rather than eradicated. Consider the Japanese carpenter’s preference for maintaining the natural shape and appearance of the source material, or the simplicity of ingredients used in Japanese kaiseki ryori compared to those of French haute cuisine, or the natural appearance of Japanese temple gardens compared to the formal gardens of European grand houses or palaces. Of course the human hand is present, sometimes intensively, such as in the creation of bonsai, where nature is highly controlled and contrived but, even here, the aim is to reproduce the infinitely variable forms of nature rather than to represent the universal abstract forms of Pythagoras and Plato.

The Pond Garden at Tenjuan Temple, Kyoto. Designed to appear as if it occurred naturally.

The different resposes to the historic reality of dark spaces in Japan and the West fall within the general differences in the approach to nature. The Japanese approach was to accept the world as they found it, to work with it, even to celebrate it. As Tanizaki puts it: We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.1

Westerners, by comparison, have traditionally sought to dominate nature. Modernism, in particular, promoted natural light as a force that possessed social and health benefits, and sought to introduce as much of it as possible into almost every building through the use of its close companion, transparency, a term that became loaded with meaning in the West and to which I will return.

Before looking at that, it is interesting to consider the continuing effect of the Modernist preoccupation with light through a comparison of two buildings that I have photographed extensively and that bookend the 20th century: the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and its new neighbour, the Reid Building, designed by Steven Holl Architects. Interesting because these are two buildings with ostensibly the same programme, located adjacent to each other, sharing the same climatic conditions. Neither building sits within the Modernist period and so they are useful in examining Modernism's legacy on the use of natural light, the former building being designed on the cusp of Modernism, whilst the latter has the whole weight of Modernism behind it. Also interesting because the new building takes, as one of its major design drivers, the strategies employed to provide natural light in the older building :

Those sketches I made were all sketches which were derived from the homage (to the Mackintosh Building). I mean this is the central concept of our project. They are all derived from the way light comes into this building and that is it.2

(Steven Holl)

Mackintosh brings daylight into the spaces of his building in more than 20 ways…we set out to make a deep connection with the ‘Mack’…by using a new language of light, inspired by that of our predecessor…The Reid Building’s form is initiated by the varying ways light enters the interior spaces.3

(Chris McVoy, Partner, Steven Holl Architects)

The Mackintosh building may, as McVoy says, incorporate 20 different ways of bringing in light and the Reid building may make similar provision (I haven’t counted either of them) but, if so, they are used to very different effect. The variety of light sources in the Mackintosh building creates a range of experiences, from dark to light, from intimate to open, from hidden to revealed. The Reid building has only one mode, white on white, and one intensity of light. It is literally monotonous. The different effects created in each building are the result of a number of factors but the use of light can serve as a useful signifier for a wider design philosophy. Where the older building has depth and complexity the newer one feels more like a one-liner, a condition shared by much recent architecture, where the authors appear to propose only one way of living. This latter tendency has existed since the early days of Modernism, particularly in the maximisation of daylight provision through the use of transparency.

The Glasgow School of Art : Mackintosh Building

The following images trace one potential route through the Mackintosh building.

The Glasgow School of Art : Reid Building

The following images trace one potential route through the Reid building.

Light and Transparency

The Modernist preoccupation with maximising daylight inevitably led to the maximisation of transparency, a term that became loaded with meaning in the West, where it took on powerful connotations in politics, business and human relationships. Physical transparency in architecture became a 20th century metaphor for equality, democracy and openness. As early as 1914 the German poet, artist and author Paul Scheerbart published two fantasy works, Glass Architecture and The Gray Cloth, in both of which he proposed a future utopia where the built environment would be constructed entirely of glass. Scheerbart was a close associate of the architect Bruno Taut who, in 1914, designed The Glass Pavilion at the Cologne Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition and went on to publish Alpine Architecture in 1917, which covered similar ground to Scheerbart’s publications.

The line of thought promoted by these publications, a line of thought that became widespread, suggested not only an equivalency between physical transparency and the qualities of openness, equality and democracy, but also that it was globally applicable. In The Gray Cloth, for example, Scheerbart’s architect-protagonist travels the world creating masterpieces in coloured glass in locations as diverse as Chicago, Fiji, India and the Kuria Muria Islands off the coast of Oman.

Whilst we have not realised built environments constructed entirely of glass we can find glass facades on every type of building, in every part of the world, and this can be problematic both physically and culturally. The physical use of transparency can be inappropriate, both for reasons of climate and programme, and often requires an array of applied technology in order to make the buildings habitable. And the metaphor is too readily co-opted by institutions that are far from open, equal and democratic, as if the use of physical transparency in their buildings will somehow imbue the owners with these qualities, the metaphor having become so firmly embedded in our culture that they can often succeed in persuading us of this.

This is precisely the type of misappropriation of technology and ideas to which Tanizaki objected but which Japan has not escaped. Transparent buildings have become common there too, and increasingly so, but have no cultural resonance. Japanese politics, business, human relationships and, indeed, language do not value transparency, in fact go a long way to avoid it. The Japanese prefer what nowadays they might call ‘fuzziness’*, meaning a lack of clarity and certainty. This is not to be confused with dishonesty or an attempt to deceive; its purpose is to allow for flexibility, for a variety of views to be accommodated. In an earlier post, Zenecon: The Japanese Construction Phenomenon, I noted that one of the major distinctions between the construction industries in Japan and the UK was the collaborative nature of the industry in Japan. It is precisely the use of ‘fuzziness’ in negotiation that allows this to happen. In a wider context, if fuzziness were to be applied to architectural thought it might allow for a variety of lifestyles to be accommodated.

*The term 'fuzzy logic', first used in the USA in the 1960's, became popularised in Japan in the 1990's, after Japanese engineers incorporated fuzzy logic in many household electrical goods. Fuzzy logic (or fuzzy sets) is a logic system based on degrees of truth and allows the inclusion of vague or flexible categories or partial truths.

Transparency in Japanese Architecture

If anything the trend towards transparency is growing in Japanese architecture, both in the work of acclaimed ‘studio’ practices like Toyo Ito, SANAA, Junya Ishigami, and in the work of the more commercial practices and the design departments of the Zenecon (General Contractors). Since the turn of the century clusters of Miesian glass towers have appeared in every major Japanese city, and continue to multiply. The Modernist philosophy may be dead but this part of its physical manifestation continues to be unthinkingly applied. Transparency has its place but, before automatically reaching for it, architects everywhere might do well to consider the advice of the Mexican architect, Luis Barragan when he said has been an error to replace the protection of walls with today's intemperate use of enormous glass windows.

The idea of dark space seems to have almost disappeared from Japanese thought and, based on the current trajectory, it is difficult to see it making a comeback. But a fuzziness that allows for uncertainty and lack of clarity is still intrinsic to Japanese thought and perhaps its introduction into architecture might begin to challenge the current, and increasingly widespread, application and acceptance of transparency.

Kanazawa : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art : SANAA.

Kanazawa : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art : SANAA.

Recent redevelopment around Tokyo Station. Similar clusters of glass towers are appearing in every major Japanese city.

Fuzziness in Japanese Architecture

We could say that traditional Japanese architecture has always understood and employed the concept of fuzziness in at least one area: the ambiguity or lack of clarity introduced by the use of Japanese paper (washi) in external sliding screens (shoji). Once again, Tanizaki is lyrical in his praise, crediting these elements with almost magical properties.

I blink in uncertainty at this dreamlike luminescence, feeling as though some misty film were blunting my vision….. Have you not yourself sensed a difference in the light that suffuses such a room, a rare tranquillity not found in ordinary light?1

But this is not just romantic wishfulness. When I was researching the meaning of In'ei in Tanizaki's essay In'ei Raisan (published in English as In Praise of Shadows) I asked Dr. Mike Jarvis to carry out testing and analysis on samples of the paper used in Japanese screens. This is what he found:

Washi : An Analysis by Dr. Mike Jarvis

When I was asked if I, as a scientist, could write something about the science behind In Praise of Shadows, I found the task daunting, because I have never been to Japan and because of the gap in thought that had to be crossed. Tanizaki says, different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science.1 Eighty years on, Japan is doing excellent science; in my own research field of natural fibres, Japanese scientists are among the most respected in the world. But it is hard to find distinctively Japanese science, different from that of other countries in the sense that Tanizaki seems to have wished for, a sense that connects with his vision of beauty and of how beauty comes into being.

In its rather stiff and clumsy way, science has something to say about certain of the topics on which Tanizaki’s essay alights, especially about the nature of light and about human vision. In Western architecture, rooms are designed to be flooded with light. In contrast Tanizaki says of a Japanese house: The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-panelled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room.1 Here there is some science that connects.

Japanese paper does not let direct light through as glass does, but it collects light from every angle outside and diffuses some of that light to every angle inside. Collecting light from such a wide range of angles is surprisingly efficient compared with a direct shaft of sunlight, as can be shown by spherical geometry. Indirect light entering through a glass window is coloured by whatever is outside and changes in colour with direction and weather and time of day, but light passing through Japanese paper into a room contains all the colours of the sky, trees and buildings outside, combining these into white. Light dispersed from the large area of a shoji screen casts shadows, but not at all the harsh shadows made by direct sunlight through glass or by the electric lights that Tanizaki so disliked; instead the shadows are gently graduated as the light caresses the room from a broad range of angles.

None of that would work with Western paper. In the first place, to have enough strength to withstand wind and everyday wear, Western paper would need to be as thick as cardboard and no light would get in at all. But even thin paper is made in the West from wood fibres coated to varying degrees with chalk and titanium dioxide. Any light that gets past the coatings is filtered to a reddish tinge by lignin remaining in the wood fibres. Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the first surface of a soft snowfall.1

Traditional Japanese papers (washi) are made from lignin-free bast fibres like Kozo, the paper mulberry, and they contain no mineral fillers. The strength of the Kozo fibres is retained during the labour-intensive process of hand pulping, so that paper strong enough for a shoji panel can be made thin enough to pass diffuse light. The only Western equivalent of washi is the flax paper from which banknotes are made.

The quality of light entering through a glass window depends on what is outside the window to reflect the light. Light from the sky – especially North light – is cold, while light reflected from cream-coloured stone is warm and light reflected from trees or grass has a greenish cast. Light coming from different directions often differs, therefore, in both colour and intensity. Although with no direct sunlight there are no shadows in the normal sense, there is still graded light and shade around any object in a room with glass windows, and the graduation is not altogether smooth. It is fragmented a little, without us really noticing, by the differences in the light arriving from different angles.

In contrast light diffused by washi mixes the outdoor colours into white and has much the same intensity across the whole area of the shoji. Then the nuances of light and shade around an object depend only on the shape and texture of the object, and what we see is pure form.

I am conscious that much of the above is expressed in just a handful of words by Tanizaki himself. Perhaps that was part of what he meant in lamenting the lack of distinctively Japanese science, grown from Japanese roots. (Mike Jarvis 2012)**

**At the time of writing the above Mike Jarvis was Reader in Chemistry at Glasgow University conducting research into biological materials and their constituent polymers in order to analyse and understand their structures and mechanical performance.

The Japanese paper (washi) in external sliding screens (shoji) seems to be capable of accomplishing two, apparently contradictory, feats; it can both restrict and enhance light. When light is abundant or is directed towards the shoji, the washi restricts and softens the light that enters the room. When light is scarce or when none is directed towards the shoji, the washi gathers whatever light exists, from whatever oblique direction, and channels it into the room. In all conditions washi seems to act to achieve Tanizaki’s rare tranquillity not found in ordinary light.

Tanizaki's study in Ishoan, the house he occupied from 1936-1943.

1. In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, translated by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker, published by Vintage Books.

2. Uneasy Balance, Christopher Platt and Brian Carter (eds), MSA Publications, Interview with Steven Holl.

3. Form Fabric Detail, Christopher Platt, Brian Carter, Mark Baines (eds), MSA Publications, Essay by Chris McVoy (Steven Holl Architects).

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