February 01, 2007

Buddhism in Architecture

I have been working on a project in my design studio to build an addition to the Museum & Library at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. I am taking a significant portion of inspiration from Japanese architecture. (Though how I settled here is another long and winding thought process.) From an entry on Japanese Aesthetics in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy I can pull two principles which show up repeatedly: change or impermanence and self-cultivation. Change is related directly to Buddhist philosophy while self-cultivation has strong roots in Confucianism. These can be seen through many forms of Japanese art in their expressions of beauty (self-cultivation through the mastery of difficult art forms), and especially in what they value. The writer of the article used the example of the cherry blossom. It is no more beautiful than the apple or pear blossom, but it is valued more for its very transience. The cherry blossom blooms and falls so quickly.

How does one embody the quality of change or impermanence in architecture? Architecture, by its nature, is designed to last, to hold up, to be stable and strong, and unchanging at least for a significant period of its life. Some architects have allowed natural processes to impact their buildings, such as by cladding them with a surface with weathers over time, like steel which rusts, copper which greens, or wood which grays. I want a building that can be understood in an instant, in what it speaks of, and if not an instant, than perhaps an hour. This is a museum; visitors may not have the opportunity to return often enough to see change taking place over months, years, or decades. How can they experience change in a single visit?

The natural world embodies change in its very existence, daily through light, wind, and water, and through the change of seasons. But these things are anathema to curators. Light levels must be kept low and controlled, unchanging, so as not to speed the deterioration of the art. Natural ventilation does not allow for proper temperature and humidity control. Water is the worst of all, causing mold and even damaging art directly.

There is one other avenue I feel worth pursuing and that is motion and placement. Not actually motion of an object changing position, but implied motion through the use of line, color, and weight. A diagonal line implies a sense of motion or action while a horizontal line may imply continuation or rest. Yet how to I reconcile that with traditional Japanese construction. True the rooflines are often diagonal and active, but the post and beam structure below is very orthographic. I think the Japanese have already given me the answer. Their buildings are always dominated by the roof, the first and most visible element, which is supported on thin columns. The walls are hung from the roof, they do not support it, and are layered, often literally paper thin. If I want motion, I must have a roof in motion and it must dominate both the interior and exterior of the building. The idea of placement comes from the dry rock garden, such as at Ryoanji. The great boulders sit on beds of moss and seem to float in a sea of white gravel. They give the impression that if you looked away, they might have drifted, or if you return tomorrow they would be different. These two things combined with a very judicious and controlled use of natural light, another thing at which the Japanese excel through their use of overhangs and screens, could possibly convey a feeling of constant change.

Impermanence in motion.

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