Knowlton School of Architecture (2005-2009) (Evan)

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    KSA Japan Day 12-14: Kyoto

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 24, '13 5:56 PM EST

    Day 12: Kyoto

    First stop: Ryoan-Ji, a Zen Buddhist temple most famous for its dry (rock) garden: a mysterious arrangements of rocks that's been the subject of speculation for centuries. It's been said the rocks represent a family of tigers swimming across a river, or mountain peaks piercing the clouds, or simply islands in the sea... Whatever the symbolism, for me the garden only reinforces my view that Japanese gardens can, in general, be characterized by their emphasis on difference and separation, with each distinct element clearly delineated from its neighbor (compare to Chinese gardens, which take a more synthetic approach). Here, we note the stone frame around the rectangular gravel bed of the dry garden: beyond the frame, a drainage channel is cut, separating the horizontal plane of the gravel bed from the rear wall, and from the steps of the temple's viewing platform. Even within the dry garden, the larger black rocks are kept distinct from the white gravel - not just by color or size, but by a thin band of moss that marks the interfact between materials.

    From Ryoan-ji we headed to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. As it started to rain, we joined the mass of Japanese schoolchildren, trying to navigate the crowd while avoiding eye-level umbrella tips. This was a miserable experience overall. The pavilion itself was recently rebuilt (after a 1950s arson), though visitors are prohibited from getting close enough to examine the details. Compared to other sights in Kyoto, this is a theme park ride. Visitors are paraded along a fixed route (ruining any chance to experience the surrounding strolling garden as intended), with the path enlarged at the most postcard-perfect viewpoints. (Some say the temples at Nikko are the most obnoxious/ostentatious of traditional japanese architecture, but I'd say the GOlden Pavilion is right up there....). A disappointment, though perhaps I'd be able to appreciate the architecture more on a day without crowds (If any such day exists.... you'd think a rainy december morning would be a good bet).

    From there, onward to Daitokuji, another temple complex on the outskirts of Kyoto. This large complex is not particularly famous, though it does have a lovely dry garden, and a large bamboo grove - the stop here mainly serves to emphasize the extent to which Kyoto has preseved its collection of temples and shrines - over 1000 still remain by some accounts.

    From Daitokuji, we jump forward in time to the Kyoto International Conference Hall, and after a quick debate with the receptionist, were able to arrange an official tour, immediately, with no advance booking (i'm continually amazed by the Japanese people, and their willingness to help us see their buildings.... ). The building is incredible: one of the unexpected highlights of the trip. Designed by Savhio Otani and built in phases from 1963-1973, the hall is a mix, about 50% over-scale riff on traditional architecture, 50% sci-fi set design. In plan, the staggered boxes of the main meeting halls are surrounded by perimeter circulation and gathering space, as in the traditional home. It differs from traditional planning in scale (though it's pretty close to Nijo Castle, a super-size version of a traditional home), and it differsin section. Here, the auditorium volumes are shifted vertically, and connected by a series of platforms, steps, and ramps, creating a thickened ground plane within the building, a pedestrian matrix that allows for multiple paths between the major program elements. From the exterior, the pitched roof forms of the halls appear geometrically similar to the roofs of Minka farmhouses, and certain ornamental elements seem to be gemetric abstractions of forms found at Ise Shrine, and other temple and shrine complexes. The complex citculation network, the concrete materiality, and the reference to traditional architecture all mark this building as a prime example of Japanese Brutalism, in which Japanese architets attempted to merge the social ambitions of the international movement with elements from their traditional (pre-war) culture. The result is, to my eyes, an apprealing regionalist versione of the style.

    After a stop at Kengo Kuma's fairly uninteresting Shiseikan Arts School, we moved on to the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavilion. A contrast to the Golden Pavilion in every way, the Silver Pavilion is well-preserved, surrounded by an incredible 'strolling' garden, and though far from deserted, feels like a undiscovered gem compared to with the crowds at the Golden Pavilion. The pavilion itself is not particularly interesting, architecturally (and, as at the Golden Pavilion, the interior is inaccessible), but it does provide focus for views from across the landscape, and as such helps for orientation from within the garden, which stretches up the adjacent hillside. Here, the expertise of Japanese landscape designers becomes incredibly clear. In December, many of the leaves are still changing, and our path through the garden felt like a carefully orchestrated sequence of colors, from the electric green of the moss, glowing in the rain, to the sun-red of the maples. One of the many high points of a long day.

    From the Silver Pavilion, we hit Nanzen-ji before heading to the hotel. One of my favorite temples in Kyoto, this former residence features a mid-size garden that is criss-crossed by a covered walkway. This is probably the closest thing in Kyoto to a Chinese garden, as the blurring between landscape and architecture is more extensive than at gardens where the individual elements are more distinct. (The covered walkway was much-appreciated, as it continued to rain off-and-on throughout the day.) When this walkway is combined with the adaptability of sliding screens and the ambiguitity between interior and exterior in the pavilions here, the result is incredibly interesting: there is no clear distinction between the garden and the pavilion, as the two merge into one continuous field. It would be amazing to revisit the temple in each season, to see how the spacial sequence shifts depending on the state of the sliding doors....

    After an attempt at Maekawa's Kyoto Hall (undergoing restoration), we headed to the hotel.


    Day 13: Kyoto, Free Day.

    A free day for the students, our 'leadership team' decided to make one more attempt at Katsura, the much lauded imperial villa, inspiration to European modernists: apparently - impossible-to-visit, based on our two failed attempts at the online-booking lottery.

    We went directly to the Imperial Houshold Agency office (at the Imperial Palace West Gate), to see if we'd have better luck applying in person. Amazingly, they were able to schedule a tour of the imperial palace that morning (one hour later) and for Katsura Villa that afternoon. 

    The imperial palace was nice enough - seemingly modeled more explicitly on Chinese precedents than other traditional architecture we'd seen. Here, the configuration is that of south-facing halls separated by courtyards, flanked by smaller support spaces in east- and west-facing halls. This is the basic typology of the Chiense siheyuan courtyard house, and we've seen it time and again in Chinese homes and temple complexes, and in certain Japanese shrine and temple complexes (as at Nikko and at Ise, both axially-arranged sequences of courtyard-hall-courtyard).  (Many Japanese temple complexes are converted residences, and are more easily aligned with residential typologies). Here, on a smaller scale than, say, the Forbidden City, the palace complex features a number of auxilliary spaces of differeing character. Large swaths of gravel form much of the perimeter, but tucked into one corner is a pleasant stroll garden - visible, unfortunately, from only one side (the paths had been cordoned off). 

    With time to kill before our Katsura appointment, we took a long walk to Nijo Castle, a super-scale version of the traditional Japanese home, with interior spaces flanked by perimeter coridors. As we noted earlier, seeing this typology, there's something extremely appealing about such an adaptable scheme, with the potential to open the interior completely to the exterior, allowing the building to reconfigure itself season-to-season. Less appealingly, the rooms flanked by corridors schemes seems to reinforce the familial power relations that would allow the patriarch to 'drop in' on any room in the complex at any time, without notice. 

    On to Katsura, the imperial villa complex that had a huge impact on the development of European modernism - first through the pre-war writings of Bruno Taut (who lived in Japan for several years in the 30s, fleeing the Nazi regime in his native Germany), and later through the work of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius.

    In plan, the villa is much like others we've seen, with interior rooms flanked by perimeter corrdiors, some open-air, some enclosed, most adaptable via sliding screens. The zig-zag plan is elegant and rational, and the simple massing could easily be mistaken for a Modern villa, if you removed the roof. What you don't see in plan is the play of massing in the form of the villa: in two of the three main volumes visible from the garden, the primary floor juts out over the ground/basement level. In the third, the lower level fills the full footprint, and the upper level is pulled back. It's an interesting contrast, and gives the building mass a sequence, from solid to void, as you round the corner along the garden path. This effect would presumably be amplified if the screens were opened, allowing diagonal views through the building. 

    While the main building is the big draw here, Katsura's landscape is one of the better stroll gardens we've seen, punctuated by a number of small pavilions. The small tea house in particular is worth noting - open to all sides, the roof appears to float, the building is ethereal, barely there. I'd have to check the timeline, but it's tempting to read the garden pavilions as early experiments, as the design of the main villa progressed. 


    Day 14: Kyoto.

    We started the day with a long visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha - a hillside shrine famous for its seemingly-endless paths, lined by red Torii gates. It would take days to explore all the paths here, but the paths closest to the entrance are prehaps the most impressive, as the tightly packed gates occassionally oen up to views through the wooded valley. After a quick stop at Sanjusangen - a long hall filled with buddhist sculptures - we drove to the Kyoto Central Station, a massive, modern stucture in the center of the city. Impressive mostly for its scale, we took the escalators up to the 15th floor observation deck, then returned to the bus. 

    On to Kiyomizudera - a hillside temple raised on an impressive gridded substructure, allegedly constructed with no nails - only ingenious joinery. From here, we took a walk along scenic Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka, two tastefully-restored historic streets, before the long drive from Kyoto to Kanazawa.


    After two visits now, I'd say Kyoto remains one of my favorite cities. The Chinese-stlye planning grid gives the city a rationality that's lacking in Tokyo, but it also lacks the oppresive scale of similarly-planned cities like Beijing. The major streets here are only 4-5 lanes, still pedestrian-friendly, and the warren of narrow lanes within each major block give a sense of organic growth to the city without disrupting its overall order. The city has become a modern metropolis while retaining much of its historic character. In any district, you're likely to stumble upon ancient temples, mid-block, down narrow alleys, or find edo-era wooden storefronts sandwiched between modern shops, or historic streets turned into shopping malls with just the addition of a covered arcade structure. And of course, Kyoto is only a part of the massive urban agglomoration that stretches all the way to Nara: Osaka's central station is only 40 minutes from Kyoto's by limited express train, and even faster by Shinkansen.

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Thoughts on the M.Arch I program at the Ohio State University, 2005-2009, plus additional work with OSU as a critic and lecturer.

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