Monday, July 18, 2011


Two sites along our itinerary have included the use of balloons as a means of drawing attention to itself. The actual nature of this usage remains unclear, but of the most available comparisons are to objects used by American wholesale or cardealers to draw attention to their businesses.



Whether in a commercial setting or a cultural setting, this usage, as a performance, seems to indicate a desire to draw attention to the site, to beckon visitors, and most importantly, to assert its presence by utilizing an object that floats high into the air such that it is highly visible from many surrounding vantage points.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

For My Eyes Only

Few structures on Earth live more on a basis of performance than the two shrines at Ise, both of whose entire existence is experienced, from a human standpoint, at a great distance and impeded by both a series of physical borders and strict policing—an existence punctuated only by a performance held every twenty years, and but a few others lesser processes held at other intervals. The process of this twenty-year cycle involves the Japanese government rebuilding the entirety of the two shrines and all built structures in their constituent compounds, including 125 distinct shrines and all bridges, at an exorbitant cost drawn from imperial funds, the most recent of which took place in 1993.

Ilicit photo of the NEIKU
The original conception of the structures, their continued use, and their reconstruction are all a mater of performative processes, in which, arguably, the only purpose of the architecture is to affect public spectacles and performances, or else to indicate that they occur. The lay people are not privy to the whole appearance of the structures, required to stand behind a series of high, opaque fences and pray facing a gate within which special white silk drapes obstruct the view of the shrines. Visitors are not permitted even to take photos from their distant vantage point outside of the fence, regardless of the fact that from that area, the shrine is not visible to begin with. No one sentient being in the entire universe but the highest ranking member of the Japanese Shinto religion and the Emperor himself may lay eyes on the contents of these two shrines. The objects themselves are also entirely ceremonial in nature, representing objects bestowed upon the Japanese land at its mythical conception several millennia ago by various kami, a polytheistic spirit-god. Just as with the Heian Complex and the Villa Katsura, those structures which are attached to the Imperial Japanese government are not, in most senses, public property. And yet, as exclusive as the structures themselves are, let alone their contents, they drawn vast crowds and attention from the public, the two Ise shrines sharing in excess, on average, over 10 million visitors annually (14 170 000 in 1995). Historical accounts, such as the Daijingu shozojiki which recounts a Kanname Festival in 934, even record attendance in excess of 100 thousand for the single event alone.

Shakkei (borrowed scenery)

The idea of shakkei in Japanese gardens is to use the background landscape as an element that makes part of the garden. The idea of borrowed scenery is a concept that has been done in Japanese gardens for centuries. It gives the illusion that the garden is bigger than it really is and it also symbolizes the harmony between the larger landscape and the nurtured garden. The borrowed views can be anything from a distant mountain, valley or lake. The garden is manipulated a lot of times by trimming some of the trees in the garden to frame the view of the distant mountain. The landscape in the background adds depth and perspective to the garden and it shows a hierarchy of elements in the garden going from small trees or bushes to bigger trees and then finally to the mountains in the back.

The Oldest New Shrine

The shrine at Ise, both the inner shrine for the imperial family and the outer shrine dedicated to agriculture, has been in a state of constant renewal since its establishment in the 7th century. Every 20 years, the shrines and all accompanying structures including fences and bridges, are rebuilt. In fact, in the plan of the design, two sites are located for several of the temples. The main shoden as well as minor shrines. These are indicated by the map. The map shows that for each shrine structure, there are two pieces of land set aside for it. There are two adjoining rectangles. One is for the current temple, the other is the alternate site of the temple, where it will be in twenty years. These alternate sites are indicated in pink. During such a reconstruction, everything is rebuilt: new wood, thatch, stone, and other materials are sourced for the new shrine.

The result is an impressive and magnificent feat of wealth and power. The reconstructions testify to the authority of the tenno or emperor and of the country itself. The constant reconstruction also has one important effect, that of preservation. Because the shrines have been continuosly reconstructed with little change, the shrine at Ise still preserves the original architectural styles as it was first built. The frequency of the reconstructions really amplify the effect of this process as the skills and tools with which to reconstruct the temples will never be lost. There will be 3 to 4 reconstruction for every person's life, and the constancy of such a cycle ensures the shrines architectural integrity and survival. However, even as the tectonic techniques survive, the tectonic materials are always new and never aged (in terms of centuries of time). Such a process calls in the very question of the old new and the new old. The Ise Shrine has been called the oldest new building in existence. When reconstruction is necessarily built into the life cycle of the building, does the new reconstruction a new building, or is it merely a reincarnation, true to its core despite the change of the skin?

Monday, July 4, 2011


Gohei--zig-zag strips of white paper attached to a rope, operates as a symbol of the Kami and an offering to the Kami. Divine fences are installed throughout the Shinto shrine to mark the scared soil or spaces for worship. With green bamboo at the corners and ropes with Gohei tied to them, the fence creates a physical representation of the presence of the Kami. Whereas in China, fences or boundary elements usually represent a zone that contains valuable objects that are protected from the tourists in gardens or Buddhist temples. The more protected and fenced off an object is from the tourists, the more precious it is. In a shinto shrine, fences decorated with religious emblems are not necessarily identified with an object of immense value to draw in tourists' attention, they are usually used to attract good spirits (not tourists) to the site and establish boundary for scared space that seems empty yet mysterious. As simplicity was the essence of earlier Shinto shrines in Japan, scared spaces are marked by basic materials-- unpainted wood and rope. It appears that the survival mechanism for the Shinto shrine is the unseen and the impenetrable. In contrast, fences in Buddhist temples or other tourist sites are heavily constructed, usually in steel, to provide maximum protection, and also to indicate the significance of the object or view displayed.


Garden of Fine Art, Kyoto

Tadao Ando's Garden of Fine Art is an interesting case of a Japanese garden, although certainly not a prototype or anything near an archetype. Ando's design is a composite of simple yet complex ideas and symbolism regarding the Japanese ideals and consequently formal and materialistic qualities. He uses the concrete as a simple yet elegant solution to permit "softness, light, wind, and stillness" all at the same time. This is unaffectedly done with a kind of mysterious emptiness that occupies this water garden-pavilion. The presence of light, water, simplicity, and the certain geometric discipline is just a few of the things that unify the traditional Japanese gardens with the Garden of Fine Art in Kyoto. The use of vertical leveling and layering of surfaces is also strikingly similar to that found in the building complexes found often in Japanese gardens or other architecture (such as religious, Shinto)

At the same time, there are irreconcilable differences, such as the physical presence of water in the Garden of Fine Art in contrast to symbolic presence of water (among other things) denoted by the gravel in many of the rock gardens such as Tofukuji Stone Gardens.

Abstract Scale

In comparison to many Chinese gardens, Japanese gardens are somewhat more abstract and simple in form and representation. Many of the features in these gardens serve as small scale representations for important scenes or real life areas found across Japan. Amanohashidate, a natural land bridge and one of Japans most famous scenic views, is represented by a small land bridge across a pond in the Katsura Imperial Villa, which is just one of many specific views which appear throughout the stroll garden.

Such stroll gardens also incorporate miniature installations, such as small lanterns along the edge of a pond to represent lighthouses at the edge of the sea, or bonsai trees to form small landscapes, while larger trees in the background represent the mountains in distant landscapes.

Japanese zen rock gardens like this one at Ryoan-ji are perhaps the most abstract version of garden design, with their calm raked white gravel representing water in which one may only enter through their mind and lose themselves in deep meditation. A series of rocks litter these rock gardens in an abstract, yet purposeful way which hints at an organization which is not obvious or controllable. These stones represent the solid in the void, or the land in the sea and provide a static contrast to the carefully raked and rippled stones to create a calming, peaceful scene.