In his latest book, Neil Jackson brings a new perspective to the study of exchanges of architectural ideas and designs between Japan and the West by examining how people experience and understand the cultural spheres of others. In so doing, he reinvents the ways architectural historians might use extensive and relatively unknown materials from various fields. Although Japanese architectural ideas and technologies have historically been deeply influenced by those of China, a closer look at scholarship on the country's more recent architectural past reveals the study, imitation, and absorption of Western ideas, forms, and technologies, the subsequent rediscovery of traditional Japanese values, and formulations of some distinctive definitions of Japanese space and aesthetics. The tendency to depict Japan and the West in binary opposition has led to fragmentary references to Japan in Western-oriented architectural surveys. Moreover, such studies often place a certain Orientalist-inclined emphasis on a few select projects and themes, such as Katsura Imperial Villa and Metabolism, and generally rely on the work of a handful of prominent architects as somehow constitutive of “Japanese” architecture.
Today, however, we are seeing shifting approaches to understanding the cross-cultural interrelationships that compose architecture's history and the various social and political practices that have influenced it. More than simply a process of communicating identity or exchanging useful design information, architecture composes a form and means of cross-cultural interconnectivity, with the potential to illuminate various social contexts and the mutually entangled, dynamic differences of meaning that those contexts help to shape over time. This not only requires criticism of the standard geopolitical perspective on architectural history, where categories such as Japan, the West, and Asia are used to define particular forms of architecture, but also necessitates a reevaluation of the limits often placed on notions of cultural identity and the extent to which we attribute certain architectural concepts to the social systems from which they may have emerged. One of the valuable contributions made by Jackson's Japan and the West, then, is the new material it provides from which we may begin to reconsider “how such architectural and spatial differences were adopted by each opposing culture and how, in a relatively short period of some one-hundred-and-fifty years, an architecture interdependent, one upon the other, emerged” (4).
Jackson's selection of and engagement with specific historical materials is strategic and well considered, particularly in that he does not simply dismantle notions of Japanese and Western architecture per se, but rather focuses on the individual, empirical processes through which the exchange of architectural information occurred. Unlike other scholars who use methodological approaches that draw upon certain examples of architectural writing to reconstruct the development of specific architectural ideas, or employ morphological analysis to trace the evolution of architectural forms and spatial features over time, Jackson examines architecture as a cultural medium that is capable of shaping people's experiences and that represents a kind of sociocultural condition unto itself. According to this framing, the ways in which certain architects and designers encountered Japan, the influence of their respective social backgrounds, their particular relationships with their surroundings, their preconceptions, and their actual spatial experiences become the basis of their own subjective architectural interpretations concerning Japan and its architecture. Jackson is particularly successful in linking these reflections with pseudo-Western-style architecture and Japanese-Western eclectic architecture, considering these as emblematic of the distinctive and personal dynamics at work in sustained processes of cross-cultural exchange.
Three specific examples deserve further discussion. Jackson's study of Edo-era Dutch merchants living in Dejima, the first isolated trading island in Nagasaki, introduces readers to Dutch diaries and sketches that shed light on the merchants' individual encounters with Japanese authorities, their prejudices against the Japanese and the wooden architecture of Japan, and the variety of opinions, misunderstandings, and distortions that informed their experience of Japan and its built environment. Subsequent figures such as the American zoologist Edward Morse emphasized the simplicity and flexibility of Japanese architecture in part because it was what they wanted to see. As Jackson notes, “What is significant is that architects and artists visiting from the West looked for it [Japanese proportion] and expected to see it. In so doing they were applying Western values, based upon the classical orders, to Japanese architecture” (69). Ironically, Japanese architects such as Chuta Ito, who were otherwise unaware of the uniqueness of their architectural culture, also absorbed these interpretations of what constituted Japanese architecture, so that their work in turn promoted these same biases, such as privileging stone over timber construction.
Jackson places notable emphasis on architecture produced for international expositions and in relation to specific art movements. For example, if the designs of Japanese world's fair pavilions over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries strove to capture the bold, original architectural expression deemed appropriate for a modern nation-state, they also reinforced perceptions of Japanese architecture as exotic and tailored to Western tastes. As a result, many Americans misunderstood projects such as the Phoenix Hall at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, even as its complicated construction techniques impressed figures such as Henry Hobson Richardson. Jackson rightly details the relationships among contemporary architects, craftsmen, artists, and art dealers to underscore the connections between Ruskinian thought and Japonisme and their influence on architectural exchange. He also highlights lesser-known examples, such as the transformation of Christopher Dresser's design ideas through his study of Japanese traditional decoration.
A third influential moment of exchange captured in the book revolves around the way Japanese architects used the modernist discourse of Western architects, selectively reinterpreting it to position their designs in relation to modernist ideals. Bruno Taut's praise for Katsura Imperial Villa provides a quintessential example of how a visiting architect's subjective reflections regarding Japan acquired a prominent and symbolic position in the history of modern Japanese architecture. This imbalance echoes in the historical engagements of figures such as Le Corbusier and Antonio Raymond and their reception by architects such as Kunio Maekawa and Kenzo Tange, who explored Japanese modern architecture from a wide range of perspectives. This circulatory process linking Japanese and Western architects is also evident in the transmission of Metabolist ideas and postmodernism through Peter and Alison Smithson's study of Japanese architecture.
For all of its rich and fascinating cross-cultural perspectives, the book leaves the reader somewhat uncertain regarding what conclusions to draw from this material. Jackson has effectively collected a wide range of historical moments in the history of cross-cultural exchange between Japan and the West, and the result is a work that challenges the existing analytical frameworks used to examine the intersections between Japanese and Western architectural cultures. But one wonders if there is ultimately a limit to what is possible with respect to the interpretation of such encounters, particularly given the complex subjectivities and biases involved. For example, the relationship between prevailing ideological discourses and detailed depictions of architectural spaces is difficult to understand.
As a whole, however, the book provides useful insight into the ways that Western designers found inspiration in their interactions with different cultures and people in Japan, and how these experiences prompted the creation of new ideas and design approaches. The book's cover photo, depicting the Kimura Industrial Research Institute (Kimura Sangyo Kenkyujo), designed by Kunio Maekawa, is particularly relevant in this regard. Maekawa's work confronted the gap that separated admiration for Western modernist architecture from the realities of Japanese society, and the architect understood both the design process and his own expertise as the means for mediating these differences. For Maekawa, the significance of cross-cultural exchange derived from the dynamic experience of recognizing this gap and finding creative possibilities to address it. Historical research can only verify that process repeatedly.
While the historical differences between Japanese and Western architectural production and culture may have narrowed, striking distinctions still persist. The notion of an objective, collective image produced through dialogical encounters has its limits, as does the association of Japanese architecture with traditional timber construction, sensitivity to nature, and ideals of simplicity and openness. Jackson's book, with its many examples, offers a useful reminder of the ways in which the construction of architectural culture represents a series of subjective, physical exercises that arise from the phenomenon of cross-cultural exchange itself.