'In Praise of Shadows' Finds Relevance in Today's Architecture

'In Praise of Shadows' Finds Relevance in Today's Architecture

In Praise of Shadows is a classic book on traditional Japanese architecture and layout, composed by Junichiro Tanizaki and published in 1933, subsequently translated into English four decades later; it’s still relevant today. The title clearly shows a taste for dark over light, which equates with traditional spaces and surfaces over bright contemporary ones. Nevertheless Tanizaki’s essay is not only a reactionary stance against changes in his home country; it’s among the clearest articulations of ideology, culturally rooted but professionally human.

His essay has a timeless quality that hits on the romantic connections we have with our items and our surroundings. He rolls on, among other things, tableware, clothes, movies, bathrooms (yes, bathrooms) and buildings. Much of the essay involves the distances of buildings, including houses, where the appreciation and sense of shadows is pronounced. These modern spaces illustrate Tanizaki’s thoughts, providing an opportunity to estimate the writer and discuss his essay in light of today’s architecture.

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“[There] are definite requirements: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete you could listen to the hum of a mosquito.”

Within this quote, ancient in Tanizaki’s publication, he is not referring to a space like the one envisioned. He’s talking about a toilet, what he calls “a place of spiritual repose.” (Remember he wrote the essay in 1933, when a toilet “in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss,” as he writes, ” was prevalent.) Yet, as the essay continues across its 42 pages, this description may apply to just about what Tanizaki discusses, if in varying degrees of literal and metaphorical terms. It’s easy to feel the silent alongside the dimness and clear orderliness of the space in The Cross House in Japan, designed by Love Architecture, which we’ll also see in next three photos.

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“In making for ourselves a place to reside in, we spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.”

Tanizaki contrasts the “parasol” of a Japanese home’s roof to the “cap” of the roofing of a Western house; the latter has a bigger “visor” allowing more sun to infiltrate the interior of the house. Within the heavy eaves required for maintaining driving rain and winds off shoji screen walls, Tanizaki finds the roots of the “Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, deep shadows against mild shadows — it has nothing,” as he writes. The realities of existence bred an appreciation of shadows.

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“The lighting in the backyard steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it’s just this indirect light which makes for us the allure of a space.”

Shadows are made not just from the contrast between direct sunlight and also the lack of it ; gentle, indirect lighting creates shadows in which the difference between dark and light exists. In this room we could see soft light coming through a bamboo screen on the window and light being cast down the wall from a skylight. The effect is splendid.

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“We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the face of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them.”

This poetic description of light hitting a wall make us understand a little bit of lighting can be more impressive than a complete wall aglow with light. The stream of light cutting across the wall shown — the brightest part of several subtle shades — is a wonderful case in point.

G. Steuart Gray AIA

Here is another instance where pieces of mild intersect with the arrangement, surfaces and furnishings of an area to develop into another part of the aesthetic assemblage.

Gardner Architects LLC

“Whenever I see the alcove of a constructed Japanese room, I marvel in our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of light and shadow.”

While this Craftsman teahouse from the Washington, D.C., region is the opposite of Tanizaki’s description of an alcove in terms of light and dark (he talks about dark alcoves), the quality of shadows remains apparent. Indirect light on the walls and sloped ceiling provides the alcove off the bedroom a consistent glow that’s extremely inviting.

Dennis Mayer – Photographer

“We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they distribute a flat expanse of grass.”

Tanizaki sums up the comparison between East and West as being satisfied with one’s surroundings versus the decision to enhance one’s lot, respectively. This backyard in San Francisco exemplifies the cultural cross-fertilization which has happened in the ensuing 80 years since Tanizaki wrote his essay, one which has witnessed Asian sensibilities infuse Western contexts. The aesthetic recognition clarified in In Praise of Shadows is shared by all over the world, but it runs the danger of being a fashion rather than something which permeates thought and experience. Tanizaki provides those prepared an excellent primer for learning to love the shadows of life and light.

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