The quiet simplicity and lack of adornment in a traditional Japanese room is misleading, Tanizaki insists, unless one considers what has emerged as a primary presence within the void: a play of infinitely graduated shadows. While physically vacant to an objective eye and mind, the bare room contains an elusive something the eye can’t grasp or the mind comprehend. ‘An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness,’ he writes. ‘And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers beyond the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence … Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows. Were the shadows to be banished from its corners, the alcove would in that instant revert to mere void.’103
The seductive appeal of space melting into an uncertain glow, with soothing yet evocative depths that incite inquiry, lies at the heart of Japan’s indigenous decorating. Each backlit boundary of white paper shoji behaves as a shadow-box, or rear-projection screen, on which appear vague impressions of nature, conveying an amorphous yet fascinating world open to human interpretation. Superimposed on the more nebulous images are slightly firmer shadows cast by nearby vegetation or bamboo blinds, along with the crisper, denser black lines of the thin wooden lattice on which paper is pasted. These overlays become more compact on shitajimado, but further enriched by irregular shadows cast from reeds or bamboo. In each of these membranes, fact is transformed into possibility, and concrete things are replaced by elusive shadows, liberated from certainty. Space is compressed into two dimensions, in the manner of a photogram, and no longer perspectival. We are amazed by this evocative world, and spurred to look more closely, to ponder its mysteries by searching with the moving eye and reaching back into the imagination.
If the amorphous images on paper screens could only be gazed upon as fixed impressions, they would incite little power of action beyond quiet contemplation. Crucial to their capacity for discovery is the way in which their contents and depths transform with proximity. Randomly interwoven fibres appear in the paper as one draws near, as do slight tonal variations of every scale, neither of which are evident from afar. Moreover, with shoji the searching need not end at the membrane, for the screen can be opened to suddenly expose a previously intimated world – disclosing the weather or angle of the sun, the garden and landscape, encouraging one to step onto the veranda and assess newly emergent possibilities. In other words, the screen’s mystery offers a beginning rather than end, a threshold rather than limit, transforming us from submissive audience to active seekers.
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The inexhaustible mysteries achieved in the past with paper screens are being reconceived in glass by a number of Japanese architects. A particularly deft skill with this medium has been demonstrated by Hiroshi Hara, who etches sheets of glass with suggestive images of lines, dots, webs and circles, at times transparent figures on a translucid ground and at other times the reverse. Complicating these impressions is the way in which he then folds the glass wall into a many-pleated membrane. The optic effects of various layers are superimposed, increasing their elusiveness and response to each person’s vision and motion. Rational space becomes diffused and broken up by the ricocheted light, including reflected images from afar appearing on some angles of glass, an intermingling of reality and fiction that culminates in Hara’s Kenju Park ‘Forest House’ in Nakaniida and the Iida City Museum, both in Japan.
The provisions for discovery in translucent windows, when possessing multiple scales responsive to changing viewpoints, raise the question as to whether similar powers could be inspired by opaque walls? Here, as well, the building art of Japan seems to point the way in its graduated range of details, possessing every scale. The searching eye in almost any part of a traditional building is able to find ever-new features in the same location, and when drawing near can detect and gaze into a microworld that resists any complete exposure and termination of action. Richly tectonic yet anonymous forms, freed from excessive control by their builders’ persona, give the observing eye tremendous leeway in making its own startling disclosures, as if roaming through an uncharted landscape.
The intricate construction of an old Japanese teahouse, temple or shrine, or imperial villa such as Katsura or Shugaku-in, contains large features the eye can best detect from a distance, but offers new and ever-emerging attributes as it draws near, brought to light by each person’s action. These powers are especially strong in buildings that embody the rustic simplicity refined and celebrated in the tea culture. Walls, floors and ceilings of natural materials have inherently scalar textures, often built up from overlaid elements that present a richly plaited structure with its own microperspective of receding layers. Additional scales of detail are found in highly visible joints and fastenings, and in the way the inherent grain of materials has been enhanced by human craft. The extraordinary depth of surface and assemblage in a bamboo ceiling or stone pavement continues to surprise at every new viewing angle or distance, disclosing something fresh for the eye. Weathering and use over time – the bleaching of the sun, splatter of rainfall, overgrowths of moss or lichen and erosion by human feet or weather – only magnify these depths further with patinas the Japanese conserve and treasure.