japonisme: mid-century....... japonisme? :: part three

19 August 2009

mid-century....... japonisme? :: part three

"'Young architects, forget Rome, go to Japan!' exclaimed Walter Gropius after his return to Cambridge from the Far East in the early 1950s." 1

But many had al- ready gone. In 1930 Richard Neutra was invited to speak in Japan, as he was considered one of the best suited modern architects to indicate the way of adapting Japan's age-old building techniques.

"The synthesis of Eastern and Western accomplishments in building... involved the integration of two seemingly dichotomous elements -- Nature and geometric structural forms. The importance of bringing the two together, Neutra said, was introduced to him early in his career." 1

"As the Japanese have already successfully turned the 'Buddhist universe' into architecture, the West gradually discovered their achievements in visual arts, architecture and later in philosophy as well.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, Gerrit Rietveld, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and many others took inspiration from Japanese building heritage in creating modern architectural space of the West." 4

The Case Study Houses were experiments in American residential architecture sponsored by John Entenza's (later David Travers') Arts & Architecture magazine, which commissioned major architects of the day, including Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig and Eero Saarinen, to design and build inexpensive and efficient model homes for the United States residential housing boom caused by the end of World War II and the return of millions of soldiers.

The program ran intermittently from 1945 until 1966. The first six houses were built by 1948 and attracted more than 350,000 visitors. While not all 36 designs were built, most of those that were constructed were built in Los Angeles; a few are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one was built in Phoenix, Arizona. A number of them appeared in the magazine in iconic black and white photographs by architectural photographer Julius Shulman. 2

Charles and Ray Eames' contribution to this experiment included their own home. With its open plan and its integration of structure with landscape, the Eames house translated into high-tech forms the democratic ethos Frank Lloyd Wright had earlier explored in his prairie houses. With the Eameses, as with Wright, the Japanese influence is pronounced, evident not only in the simple, tatami matlike rhythm of walls, floors and ceilings, but also in the attempt to displace Western ideas of art with the Eastern art of living. 3

These houses epitomized the nature of "mid-century modern" architecture.

"As a romantic tendency colors the modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, a classic predisposition flavors that of Philip Johnson.

In Johnson's work every element is placed in symmetrical response to some other and each bears a close and logical relationship to the total design...

Less evident, but no less important a Japanese charac- teristic, is the use of a standard unit of measure throughout the residence. It determines the proportional relations of house parts in the same way that the ken assures the Japanese builder of pleasing visual effects." 1

We have seen both outright attribution and denial of attribution to inspiration from the Japanese.

"Johnson, however, had political theories of his own. He laid out his position on race in an article for the Examiner titled 'A Dying People?' He opened the article by warning that Americans were failing to reproduce in sufficient quantities, predicting deserted ghost towns and a massive population decline. Midway through the article, however, Johnson displaced population decrease in absolute terms with a decrease in the population of the white race, writing: 'This decline in fertility, so far as scientists have been able to discover, is unique in the history of the white race.'

The decline Johnson was predicting would be only among whites, the non-whites apparently not worthy of consideration as part of the population. 'In short,' Johnson wrote, 'the United States of America is committing race suicide.' Only by thinking in the broader terms of the greater good of the race could whites save it:
…by their lack of will to live and grow, [Americans] themselves accelerate the already rapid decline in births. I have heard many educated men talk in this way: --Well if we are not the fittest to survive, nature will wipe us out. The Japanese may be more fit to survive. Remember Darwin.--" 5

Remember Darwin indeed. The hatred is not new. The spread of ideas is not new. The need for time to accept and to own what is new: these are build into our very genes.

For better and worse.

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Anonymous Jacob Russell said...

Those quotes from Phillip Johnson are pretty disturbing. How deeply woven into the collective English/European-American psyche this dark thread. There are similar strands in Japanese culture--a strange balance between Buddhist universalism and Shinto nationalist zenophobia. Human, all too human.

24 August, 2009 09:17  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

uncanny, don't you think, how each succesive generation of bigots use the same words and "rational."

i think that to fear/hate the other is in our dna. the interesting thing is in just how many it's overcome.

24 August, 2009 11:39  
Blogger lola ruiz said...

I like what you wrote: "The need for time to own and accept what is new".
That happens to me even with my recently made quilts. I feel attracted to artist work which, at first sight i don't like much. I enjoy the time i spend observing it, learning from it and, if possible, "living" with it. I call that the loving process because even if i discover that i don't like it at all, i always learn something.

I love this post.

10 August, 2011 03:24  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you lola. interesting perspective, and it makes me think of something that occurred to me recently that sometimes i'm afraid to sample new things because i'm afraid i might not like some of them! perhaps this is the very definition of close-mindedness.

10 August, 2011 11:21  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

another thought -- for some, the fear of actually liking something that is new and unfamiliar may be even more threatening as it means one must change one's perception of one's self.

10 August, 2011 11:34  

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