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Nonfiction in Brief

SPACE AND SPIRIT IN MODERN JAPAN Text and photographs by Barrie B. Greenbie (Yale University Press: $29.95)

December 25, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

These perspicacious photographs and prose portraits afford an intimate view of Japan, from serendipitous Tokyo, which hums efficiently despite a haphazard cityscape that confuses even cab drivers, to timeless, traditional Kyoto, where a joyous, almost carnival mood prevails outside soulful shrines and minimalist gardens. Architecture professor Barry Greenbie is ambitious with this text, however, creating not only an offbeat guidebook but a consistently inspired inquiry into the differences between Eastern and Western culture.

Japanese design encourages an awareness of space that is dramatically more sensitive than our own, Greenbie writes, illustrating how Japanese gardens, for instance, encourage visitors to be connected, at any one moment, with their entire ethos. Stream crossings, he explains, are built with unevenly placed stones so that one must watch where one is stepping. In so doing one also sees the water below the stones, with its currents, leaves and fish, pebbles underneath the water, shimmering reflections of sky and foliage, and even one's own body. Japanese design also calls attention to life's ephemerality, Greenbie suggests. He contrasts Egyptian pyramids, whose mummified residents and hardy architecture attempt to deny earthly fate, with Japanese pagodas. Made of wood, the most perishable of building materials, the pagodas are surrounded by changing greenery set against enduring stones.

The point of encouraging this hyper-sensitivity to time and space, Greenbie suggests, is to strengthen Japanese culture: By reminding the Japanese of life's fleeting nature, Japanese design heightens their need to be connected to something more enduring--tradition; by motivating them to order "the peculiarities of moment-to-moment existence," Japanese design also makes tradition a vital part of daily life. It thus should be no wonder that the Japanese have held on to tradition despite formidable challenges, such as the rapid pace of technological development.

Greenbie's theories, plausible up to here, become more questionable when he suggests that the Japanese people's strict adherence to tradition actually gives them more freedom than is enjoyed by most Americans. The opposite would seem to be the case, for as Greenbie himself writes, "Any Westerner who has not had long experience in Japan is bound to feel quite literally like a bull in a china shop trying to fit into the pattern." Greenbie argues, however, that everyone has a distinct place in the Japanese order, while in America, all people are clumped into one generalized personality: "the real you" fabricated on Madison Avenue and not, of course, representing "the peculiarities of anyone's life."

Whether repressive or liberating, though, America's anonymous culture seems on the verge of eclipsing Japan's hierarchical one, Greenbie reports, as the Japanese struggle to meet spiraling housing demands with "spiritless" high-rises that lack traditional "texture, proportion and grace." "As so much of the rest of the world is doing," Greenbie laments, the Japanese are now "providing mere storage compartments for human beings."

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