japonisme: 8/16/09 - 8/23/09

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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18 August 2009

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


THE "Spirit of the Orient" appears to be invading not only American trades and market gardens, but its art and architecture. From the solemn groves of Nikko, from ancient castle moats and mountain shrines, from the wet, shining leaves of water gardens in old Nippon, from the soft curves of the flowing roof lines and the tender tones of the untouched wood surfaces, our modern house-architects are drawing inspiration for new and delightfully "different" effects.

Local character in architecture is always a fascinating study, and the high standard of culture in Japan, the refinement of art developed through centuries by a people devoted to the ideal, must of necessity impress itself upon their architecture.

While the mere draughtsman, wedded to conventional forms and accustomed methods, would find Japanese architecture only absurd and impracticable, there are architects who are artists as well, and who find in these sources a delightfully suggestive and enriching field of study.

They know that thatched roofs and light sliding partitions are not practicable for American homes, nor do they desire to copy Japanese ideas merely because they are foreign and strange. Charming and interesting as is Japanese tradition in architecture, it is so for Japan and not for us, and it would be foolish indeed to attempt to naturalize in this country many of their local idiosyncrasies.

But the sympathetic student of architectural forms finds much real beauty that can be used to impart a fresh interest to jaded ideas. In the houses here mentioned, Messrs. Green & Green of Pasadena, California, have attempted to naturalize in a new world environment the usable and livable features of Japanese architecture.

The highly picturesque character of the natural surroundings -- the houses being situated on high ground overlooking the wild gorge of the Arroyo Seco -- is admirably suited to a certain irregularity and picturesqueness of architectural treatment, and the introduction of Japanese suggestion accentuates the charm.

Although the motif is picturesque, it is not carried to extremes, but an effect of simplicity is obtained in a composition which is in itself rather loose and complicated by the simple treatment of detail. The Japanese system of bracketing, for instance, said by authorities on art to be the acme of perfection for wood, has been adopted in these designs with happy results.

Without employing the queer quirks and angles of Japanese roof lines, their graceful curves, so difficult to achieve, are sufficiently marked to render impossible an effect ordinary or common-place. While there is a decided Japanese feeling, nothing has been carried to extremes, and the slightly foreign accent has been so modified by principles of good domestic design as to give a wholly normal and satisfying result. The different features are harmonized with admirable skill and a sane and sound judgment.

Hard-burned clinker bricks set roughly in dark mortar are used in the foundation and in the entrance pillars and chimneys, strikingly combined with large, mossy boulders brought from the near-by mountains. The warm purplish-brown of the brick in combination with the mossy boulders and the soft grays and browns of the wood construction give a color effect of great beauty and softness.

The chimneys are strongly suggestive of Japanese influence, as are also the treatment of the windows and the open rafter work. Great simplicity characterizes the construction, which is all exposed and made to form the decorative features. The timbers are mortised together with oak pins, and nails are used scarcely at all in the construction.

While groups of mullioned windows are largely employed, Japanese suggestion is again felt in the narrow slits of windows which open on the side terrace, with but one long, narrow light, divided in the center by a single wood muntin [sic].

No attempt has been made to introduce Japanese ideas in the interior arrangement, which is that of the usual high-class modern home. The living and dining rooms are heavily wainscoted and beamed, the solid ceiling beams of the construction being exposed in true CRAFTSMAN style. Simple CRAFTSMAN ideas are carried out in the finish and furniture.

Two views are given of the architect's own residence, which nearly adjoins the house just described and which embodies similar ideas. That all appearance of sameness or monotony of treatment should be entirely absent from designs based upon the same general picturesque motif is evidence of the skill and fertility of the designer.

Such architecture can be the result of no hard and fast rules. Not only must the architect possess the artist temperament to begin with, but the trained eye for harmonious detail, the eye as sensitive to discords of form and color as the trained ear of the musician is to discords of sound. It is the aim of these architects to interpret these subtle harmonies by their work, and above all things to have all construction and materials true to their own nature, believing that brick treated simply as brick, stone as stone or wood as wood, is better than any disguise that can be put upon them.

Henrietta P. Keith

The Craftsman (ed. Gustav Stickley)
July 1907 1

There are numerous really terrific resources on this subject,
some of which are:

Douglas Keister's Photography

Antique Home & Daily Bungalow

The Arts & Crafts Society

East Meets Northwest

Maggie's Farm

The Rose and The Chrysanthemum

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16 August 2009

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

From the time of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 with the Japanese "Ho-o-Den" display, the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced in some ways by Japanese art. Wright reported that he found Japanese art "nearer to the earth . . . than any European civilization alive or dead."

....The Thomas Hardy House in Wisconsin, was done in a Japanese style. 1 [While] Wright freely acknowledged an important 
philosophical debt to Japanese art, and to the wood­
block print in particular, he consistently rejected 
suggestions that Japanese architecture had any direct 
impact on his work. Throughout his career Wright maintained that he found in Japanese culture
 not the inspiration which many suspected, but 
merely confirmation of many of his own 'organic'
 design principles. English Arts and Crafts architect C. R. Ashbee observed that "The Japanese influence is very clear. Wright is obvi­
ously trying to adapt Japanese forms to the United States, 
even though the artist denies it and the influence must be 
unconscious. 2

As early as 1878, when Morse returned from Japan with photographs of buildings, he began a series of popular lectures that culminated at MIT in 1882, at just about the time that H.H. Richardson's style began to change.

Explicit and direct references to Morse's Japan, with compelling visual correspondences of Richardson's railroad stations to images in Morse's collection, is not surprising in view of other connections between Richardson's office and the Japanese vogue of the day. Morse's book was dedicated to William Sturgis Bigelow, who was the son of Richardson's client and a leading authority of Japan. 3

Excellent examples of bungalows with a Japanese character can be found in the works of the brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene. Their basis of design was formulated from influences of H.H. Richardson, with whom they once had a slight association. 4

The Greenes set out to California in 1893 to visit their parents in Pasadena. Along the way they [also] attended the Colombian Exposition in Chicago. There they saw Japan's official exhibit, a re-creation of the Ho-O-Do of Byodo-In, a Buddhist Temple of the Fujiwara period. 5

Bernard Maybeck was at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition (400 years since Columbus "discovered America") in Chicago as well, helping to create the building that represented California.

Is it surprising that buildings of some architects of that moment are compared to Shinto Shrines in Ise? A collection of buildings, a collection of similarities. The connection is obvious. Oh, and Richardson? I don't know if he was there, but i do know he was from Chicago!

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