After about 20 hours in transit (including some jet-lagged confusion on the Tobu Line out of Tokyo), I've arrived at my first stop in Japan: Nikko. The city had been cut from our official itinerary fairly early in the planning process, and I wanted to see what we'd be missing (and, I admit, spend a few peaceful nights in a traditional inn before the frenzied tour officially starts).
Nikko is justifiably famous for its collection of UNESCO-listed temple complexes, nestled in the cedar forests a few miles from the modern city. Nikko's temples are considered the best of Japan's Edo-era architecture, and as late as the 19th century they were widely considered the apotheosis of Japanese architecture in general. Essentially, the Nikko temples take Chinese-Buddhist precedents, and crank up the volume. These buildings are gaudy and ostentatious: no surface goes undecorated, and the riot of ornamentation and visual collision of myriad materials can be shocking, if one was expecting severe minimalism. Of course, the temples at Nikko are of a different era than, say, the restrained imperial villas and gardens of Kyoto.
For architects today, "Japanese traditional architecture" will bring to mind the geometrically-precise proportions of tatami-mat tea rooms, or the honest tectonics of unlaquered joinery, or the sliding screens that could reconfigure a room for different uses, or seasons. This perception, while not untrue, is largely the result of the promotion, and curation, of only certain modes of Japanese architecture by the major players of early European Modernism. The Japanese influence on Gropius and the Bauhaus is well known. Bruno Taut was perhaps the first to exhile the exhuberant aesthetics of Nikko to the history books when he embraced the spare lines of Katsura in a memorable diagram in his "Japanese Architecture."
It's too easy to dismiss Nikko as frivolous, as a overwrought riff on Chinese styles before Japan developed a 'true' indigenous architecture, and I believe the buildings here fit perfectly well on a trajectory of development that runs from the earliest Minka farmhouses all the way through to present. We'll see similar temple architecture later on, and will be interesting to compare.
Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.