Or, as the atlases have it, Japan: a country that endlessly contradicts itself, but does so with such artistry that it hardly matters. But what can it teach us
I have just returned from a trip to Japan, a country of contrasts – of order and chaos, of tradition and modernity, of randomness and control. There were three highlights: the first in Tokyo, the second in the Japanese Alps and the third Kyoto. In Tokyo it was the Yu-un guest house, commissioned by Takeo Obayashi and designed by Tadeo Ando. It’s really more gallery than house. The building has a box-within-a-box organisation, bisected to create a set of 3D interlocking volumes where void becomes gallery and solid becomes room.
Ando was asked to collaborate with the artists exhibiting. The brutality of the concrete creates a brilliant foil for the delicacy of the works inside but it is the highly controlled sequence of passage from inside to out that sets the building apart. Clearly it was not an easy ride. There were endless disputes between architect and artists but it’s about as near perfect a fusion of art and architecture as it gets. As if to make the point, Ando signed the building with a sketch on his way out.
Contrast this with the chaos of the city with its proliferation of ancient wires and cables strung along every street in a way that makes maintenance almost unimaginable. Where buildings are jammed so tightly against each other that you can rarely get far back enough to appreciate them. Where city planning appears not to exist. And yet the culture in Japan is one of control and respect.
Take the fabulous Bullet trains. When they pull into Tokyo station and the last passenger has disembarked, a team of identically clad cleaners enter the train, and in what looks like a speeded-up film clip they wipe every surface, pick up every scrap of litter and, as if on cue, exit the train in unison before lining up on the platform to bow to their manager.
This is not just about expressing respect for their superiors but about self-respect, too. Although there are evident hierarchies in Japan, there is a great sense of community and belonging, where every task, however mundane, is afforded value. I suspect it makes for a greater meritocracy, with the gulf between wealth and poverty bridged by a respect that underpins all manner of work.
And then, in contrast, employment law seems relaxed and relatively government-free. It would appear you can be upfront about who you are looking for – so if you think you need a Swedish/Japanese bilingual male you can say so and contracts are not required. There is also a spirited disregard for health and safety that results in elegant designs.
The building has a box-within-a-box organisation, bisected to create a set of 3D interlocking volumes where void becomes gallery and solid becomes room
Next stop was the mountains. Although I have always longed to visit Japan in the spring to see the flowering cherry and wisteria, the landscape of the mountains was magical with snow clinging to the trees that looked just like fluffy white blossom. A walk through a steeply wooded forest in virgin snow, where I’m sure the footprints I saw belonged to a small bear, was followed by a long hot soak in the spring water of an onsen. After an exhausting experience in one of the largest metropolises in the world, I felt at one with nature, an experience that goes to the root of Japanese culture, and one that is carefully preserved and revered.
Another great Bullet train ride to Kyoto. Apart from the poetry and romance of the ryokan where we stayed, the highlight was a tour of the Katsura Imperial Villa. Here is the most exquisite appreciation of the relationship between landscape and building. The 17th-century villa, its tea houses and moon-gazing platforms, are set in a garden with artificial hills, ponds and streams.
The weathered stones that form the paths were selected for their irregularity of size and surface. Of course, they sit well with the moss that binds them, but their choice was not for that reason alone. An uncertain walking surface causes you to look down lest you lose your footing, so as you are led from one spectacular composed view to the next you are not conscious of the in-between.
Instead you are taken on a journey from the mountains to the country. A carefully framed view through the tea house looks onto what appears to be a furrowed field. I almost expected to see a farmer with a scythe but it’s an illusion. Far from being a field, it is a meticulously manicured landscape of low grasses, but your view is so sweetly controlled that the scale plays tricks on your eyes.
What lessons can we learn from a culture where complexity and contradictions abound, where control is matched by an equal degree of chaos – where an at-oneness with nature sits beside an obsession with modernity? You can’t pick up characteristics from one place and transplant them to another but perhaps we could exert a little more control where it matters and a lot less where it doesn’t?
Original print headline - A week in paradoxia
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects