Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Book Review of Arthur Drexler's The Architecture of Japan

By Ben Temperley

The Architecture of Japan is a book by Arthur Drexler. The author was Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York when the book was published in 1955. The book contains four chapters. The first chapter, Cultural Background, describes the environment of Japan and some of its religious beliefs. The second chapter, Structure and Design, is concerned with the types and principles of the structure distinctive to Japanese design. The third chapter, Buildings and Gardens, describes buildings considered to be Japanese masterpieces. The final chapter describes a Japanese exhibit house that was made in 1953 and displayed at the MOMA.

The highlight of the first chapter is the Ise Shrine. Ise, in southwest Honshu, is the holiest place of the Shinto religion. The complex of buildings making up the Ise Shrine is perhaps the most impressive of all Shinto architecture (Drexler, 1955, p. 23). The main building, the Shoden, contains the sacred symbols of Shintoism. Every twenty years, the Ise Shrine is rebuilt on an adjacent site. At the time the book was written, the shrine had been rebuilt fifty-nine times over a period of twelve hundred years.

Chapter two reveals key elements of Japanese design. Drexler notes that Japan is the only major civilization in the world to never develop furniture (1955, p. 41). This has influenced their design as space is experienced differently at a lower level. The Japanese have developed and refined four types of roofs over the centuries including the single gable, the square pyramidal, the hipped roof, and a combination of hipped and gabled roofs (Drexler, 1955, p. 44). Traditional Japanese buildings are wood frame construction. The bracketing that supports and defines the roofs can be extremely intricate. The Japanese are also known for cantilevered beams, heavy timber columns, and thatch and tile roofs.

Two important units of measure used by the Japanese are the ken and tatami mat. The ken is made of six shaku. A shaku is 11.93 inches. Lumber is sold in standard lengths of 1, 1 1/2, 2 and 2 1/2 ken (Drexler, 1955, p. 56). Tatami mats are made of rice straw covered with woven rush. They average 3 feet by 6 feet and are 2 or more inches thick (Drexler, 1955, p. 64). Tatami mats protect the floors and are also arranged to produce rooms of different sizes and shapes (Drexler, 1955, p. 67).

Chapter three presents fine examples of buildings and gardens in Japan. The first building presented is the Horyuji Temple. Empress Suiko founded this temple in 607. The earliest surviving buildings of Horyuji reflect a style of architecture in China that was current a hundred years earlier (Drexler, 1955, p. 75). The temple features a pagoda. A pagoda marks a sacred site or holds a Buddhist relic. A pagoda is derived through China, from the Indian Stupa. Drexler states, "[T]he universe and the axis on which it revolves are represented by a dome surmounted by a spire, the pagoda became a giant architectural ornament retaining, at its top, only a miniature replica of the forms from which it evolved" (1955, p. 77).

Other important architecture include the Daibutsuden, Todaiji Temple. This is the largest wood building in the world (Drexler, 1955, p. 87). The Nino Castle is an impressive Japanese fortification featuring twenty foot tall stone walls. The walls do not contain mortar (Drexler, 1955, p. 140). A very beautiful sand garden is found at the Ryoanji Temple, near Kyoto. The garden features five stones set in moss and artfully placed on white sand (Drexler, 1955, p. 182). This author likes how the garden encourages the viewer to contemplate the negative space between the rocks.

The final chapter features a Japanese exhibition house for the MOMA. It is a complete house with a garden and waterfall. It features a tea house and veranda.

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