Sunday, 18 September 2011

Wright and the Japanese Connection

There wouldn’t be too many architects who have had more influence on the direction of modern design than Frank Lloyd Wright. For over sixty years he continued to shape the direction of both public and domestic architecture throughout his long career and even more than fifty years after his death (1959), his reverence continues to grow. Wright boldly claimed himself to be an absolute original, influenced by no one, yet there was one culture that he rightfully acknowledged had shaped his ‘organic’ approach to architecture and that was Japan. He had a passion for Japanese prints even before he had visited the country, but eventually he could not resist the lure of Japan, visiting for the first time in 1905. It remained the only country outside the United States that he worked and lived, eventually reviving his flagging architectural career through the commission for the Imperial Hotel Tokyo (sadly demolished in the 1960’s). During his time in Japan, Wright was inspired by what he saw and set about designing a range of buildings influenced by traditional architectural styles. One of those was the Yodoko Guest house in Ashiya City (near Kobe), which is only a short train ride from where we are living. Of course Jules and I felt compelled to visit this piece of architectural history that was constructed in 1923 from plans drawn up by Wright in 1918. The recently renovated house has now been designated as a ‘nationally important cultural property’ and is beautifully perched on a hill that overlooks the Hyogo prefecture. As we entered the house and removed our shoes we were struck by how quiet it was. Unlike similar Wright buildings in the United States that are inundated by tourists, we were very much left alone to wander and enjoy the environment as it was meant to be appreciated. I could immediately see that this building signalled the birth of Wrights ‘Usonian’ style of architecture (a term invented by Wright for his new style that would emerge from the sobering experience of the depression and would reflect a culturally reformed America), which he would continue to champion throughout his remaining career. It is a heavy style with intricate stylistic features that takes advantage of then modern reinforced concrete construction methods. The interior reflects the obvious influence of traditional Japanese design with Wrights use of dark feature wood panels that follow familiar rectangular grid patterns on both the walls and ceiling. Some of the window treatments are quite delightful with individual elements that reflect the architects famed attention to detail. There are also several purely Japanese rooms complete with tatami mats that sit comfortably in the building, which are combined with the more modern western styled rooms filled with furniture that are also of Wright’s design. It was nice to walk around at our own pace experiencing what Wright had envisioned all those years ago. He would eventually leave Japan in the 1920’s with a new sense of aesthetic, but his cultural and spiritual connection with the country would always remain, as I’m sure will be the case with us also.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Tracking by High Speed Train

When you think about travelling around Japan one mode of transport immediately comes to mind…the famed ‘bullet train’, or as it is officially known in Japan, the Shinkansen. If you wish to travel to any of the major cities you can certainly fly there in about an hour, but with the added time of getting to the airport and making your way through the dreaded security it becomes a much longer operation than expected. There is also the added cost to consider, as it is generally much more expensive by air. Therefore the value and convenience of the Shinkansen often makes it a more favoured option. For us the station is only half an hour away by train and with little waiting time with pre-purchased tickets we can be on our way within an hour of leaving home. With typical Japanese efficiency the trains departs on time every 10 minutes or so, heading off to all parts of the country. As it pulls into the station, the train itself has a look that is unlike no other you have ever seen. Bigger in size than regular trains, with a sleek and aggressive appearance that suggests that this machine is built for one function only…speed!! Having an allocated carriage and seat makes boarding amazingly orderly and time efficient (although there are also carriages available for unreserved seating). While the airplane style seats are a little small for most of us westerners, there is plenty of legroom and porthole style windows to view the passing scenery. Moving through the suburban areas, the speed appears to be relatively slow, but this can be somewhat deceptive. For instance, if you were travelling to Kyoto from Osaka it would take around half the time of a regular local train. As the speed picks up you are none the wiser until eventually you realise that you are now actually out in the country and the world is passing by at very rapid rate. At it’s top speed of over 300km per hour it remains an amazingly comfortable ride and a very time efficient way to travel. Apparently the trip to Tokyo from Osaka used to take around six hours, but has now been brought back to around two and a half hours as a result of the high-speed train. With over a hundred and fifty million Japanese commuters travelling on the Shinkansen every year it certainly remains a very popular way of getting around. For us, on our journeys to Tokyo and Hiroshima, it was as much about the experience of travelling on this great train as simply arriving at our destination.