Vernacular Culture in Tokyo
7 February 2013
Tokyo is a city famous for recycling itself, but the kind of urban sustainability that comes from urban recycling isn’t what usually comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability, and is more akin to what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” — the wholesale tearing down of the old to make way for the new. This is, of course, a perennial feature of industrial civilization, but the level of this creative destructive activity in Tokyo has outstripped its operation elsewhere; Tokyo is the purest species of the genus “industrial city.”
While most of the structures demolished in the “destructive” phase of creative destruction are lost, there is a small preserve of formerly endangered buildings, the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. Many of the “historical” structures at the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum were not all that “old” — not even as old as the house in which I grew up and where I spent my childhood. But such is the character of a city (and its historical museum) that continually re-invents itself by tearing down the old and building the new in its place that the “old” is not always all that old.
Many of the more recent buildings at the museum (mostly houses rather than commercial structures) felt downright modern and contemporary and not really in any sense “old.” I was, in fact, reminded of the Gordon House — the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oregon, and another contemporary structure that has been turned into a museum. It has been noted that Wright was profoundly influenced by Japanese aesthetics, and there is a surprisingly detailed documentary about the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and his time spent in Japan, Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan. This film is well worth watching, and goes well beyond Wright’s work to discusses the extensive influence that Wright had in training an entire generation of Japan’s modern architects.
It would be too facile to say that Wright was influenced by Japan or the Japanese architects were influenced by Wright; there was something more fundamental at stake. There was an essential relationship, a deep consonance, between Japanese aesthetics and Wright’s personal aesthetic vision, and, as it happens, the two were uniquely suited to each other. Wright’s personal aesthetic vision of architecture within nature, drawn from nature and harmonious with nature, happened to coincide with age-old Japanese aesthetic traditions that have valued nature differently from Western axiology (although this is changing in our own time). If an individual mind chances to resemble, in its constitution, an ancient tradition of which that individual mind is not, however, a part… or if an ancient tradition chances to find its most contemporary expression in the works of an individual whom it did not shape… it should be no wonder that the individual and the tradition will eventually find each other. Modern transportation technology has made it possible for us to find and to experience traditions of which we did not even know ourselves to be a part until we happen upon them. And this is one of the great experiences of travel.
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