Talking about Art and Architecture- Introduction and 1st Question – Gloria Yu YANG

Thinking about tradition is interesting. For example, when walking down a stair, how many people have paid attention to the small decorations on the stringers and how many people bother to think about where does the decorative shape come from. We take the shape, decoration, form and materials for granted as if they are natural beings coming along with another natural being, the building. Architecture not only serves as the cultural setting for the society,
but they fundamentally cultivate people’s perception of space, light and
the outer world.  Most importantly, people who inhabit within the
architecture inherit the limitations of the architecture form. In other
words, buildings, with their treatment of materials and space, frame
people’s perceptions of the world and themselves in an unconscious way.

Therefore, only when we are placed into another geographical territory, usually far from our own, we suddenly feel the differences between things, environments, and realize the distinctiveness of each culture and tradition. For example, almost every single American who comes to Japan has been overwhelmed by the cultural maze that embodied in the wooden structure, the tatami mats, lower ceilings and so on, and most of the time they would uncritically attribute their feelings of this difference to the so-called Oriental tradition, and worst of all, to that ubiquitous Zen, or Shinto spirit. Another example can be seen in the Japanese tourists’ passion for Italian culture, crystallized in the Renaissance architecture in Rome and Florence.  One of the explanations for this passion is that the Renaissance architecture propose the most different architecture form from their own tradition.  There are many modernist building in Japan, and even Neoclassical architecture still bear some resemblance with the modern box-concrete buildings.  The Renaissance architecture, especially with the decoration and sculptures provoked a most exotic setting standing for the Japanese understanding of the "Westernness."

Then how to articulate and understand the differences embodied in the architectural forms and how to articulate the relationship between tradition, culture and architecture? The series of thoughts and observations on art and architecture that I begin to write from today aims to find the questions and answers within this large inquiry.  The first question I am asking is How are different cultural traditions revealed in the same architectural form? In another word, if we all build concrete, box-shape office buildings, would they be exactly the same all over the world? My answer is absolutely not. If they are exactly the same, they are watermarks of failure of the architects (No, you cannot blame the phenomena on globalization, there is always a choice, even an alternative one).  Moreover, even the buildings are same, the receptions of these buildings in different local contexts are different.  Today I realized that the answer to this first question is the reason why I chose to write my Ph.D thesis and why I shifted my direction in architecture two years ago. I was not born to be fond of architecture, especially back to the 1980s and 1990s in most of the Chinese cities buildings are gray, rectangular, concrete boxes, punctuated with square, rectangular windows in deep green, or gray color. The interior of the buildings are as boring, dull as the exteriors, characterized by the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, grid windows, concrete floors, and every piece of furniture, if there are any, reminds you of models of geometry class. Usually the only visual pleasure comes from the plants near the window. In the late 1990s Chinese city people witnessed another trend of dullness, namely, skyscrapers with shinning window-curtains, concrete-skeleton.  They are tall and weird. The interior of the building is filled with very poorly-designed space, elevator with metallic doors, and again, pale, fluorescent tubes. These buildings illustrate how uncomfortable and awkward situation the urbanization in China undergoes.  Having these two uncomfortable spatial experiences labeled "modernism," I was certainly not fond of "modern" architecture at all. Also I did not find those Beijing courtyard houses lack of tap water or flush toilet fascinating, no matter how they soaked with cultural tradition.  When I came to the U.S.A, I saw those concrete boxes or towers and I thought they were as dull as those buildings in China because they are all labeled "modern." Of course I was wrong. Having lived, studied and worked in those buildings, I became to realize how comfortable and practical the interior is, how the architectural forms of the buildings serve for their function and eventually, why thousands of buildings are considered as trash, cheesy and bad copies in critics’ eyes. 

And then I understood why I always felt something different when I walked into the buildings built by Japanese in my hometown.  At the first sight, they are not much different with the buildings built in the 1930s in Japan. They shared a Neo-classical facade and a Chinese/East Asian gable roof. However, even now I still can not make out what exactly is different about the spatial experiences those buildings formed, as embodied in detailed decorations, the height of the ceilings, and the corner design, etc.  I believe that the differences came from not only the differences between architects’ cultural backgrounds, but also comes from their reactions to the local culture and materials, to their contemporary political and cultural atmosphere, and to their own intentions for the buildings.  Long story short, it is complicated. That is why I decided to take on the research on the Japanese colonial architecture in Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan from 1905-1945.

The best architectural experience is Unphotographable. Photographs of buildings not only flatten the building, reducing the depth to a facade, but they also dismiss the atmosphere, which is made of changes of lighting, combination of panels (corner design) and the texture of materials.  More importantly, the appreciation of architecture involves a temporality that does not exist in any representations of architecture.  As time passes, the sunlight pouring into the Lorenzo chapel dramatically affects the experiences of the spatial organization and decoration.  As viewers move through the space, the relationships between ceiling and wall, between the column and the vault and between the decoration and structure, are constantly changing. For example, walking through the dark passage and catching up the reflective light of the gold on the sliding panels of a Japanese house is dramatically differently from the sliding panel that are remounted and displayed under the broad daylight in museums.

Therefore, interpretations of the Japanese colonial architecture have to overcome the obstacle of time in order to reconstruct what would the buildings be conceived in almost a century ago, which was totally different from what we saw today.  I will stop here today. My writings in this series are not academic research writings: the logic is inconsistent, the knowledge contains mistakes and the point of views bears prejudice.  They are not results of thorough-meditations but improvised thoughts that I jotted down to keep a track of my loose mind. The only effort I will put is to use precise and clear language, avoiding those vague, big words. However, these thoughts, as loose, scattered they are, do allude to the theoretical framework of my academic research. Another motivation of my writings is to resume my passion of a writer, to share my thoughts, passions in letters and to communicate with people through words.


About GloriaYuYANG

art historian, writer, a dog person, NYC-resident (not new yorker), a ph.d student of Japanese art and architecture,


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