Japanese Architecture and Sustainability

I often discuss sustainable design with my husband, who is a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified architect–how he incorporates everything from harvesting daylight to green roofs to featuring prominent screens with energy consumption data in his current projects. Despite my ongoing personal interest in sustainability issues, however, I had never pursued them in a systematic manner nor had I really considered incorporating them into my teaching on Japanese art history and visual culture. When I received the Trillium sustainability workshop announcement a (LED) light bulb suddenly went off. I could use this opportunity as a springboard to learn about the state of sustainability studies from an academic standpoint while getting hands-on advice about how to incorporate these critical issues into my teaching. I joined the Trillium sustainability workshop to revamp and enhance my regularly offered course “Japanese Architecture.” My objective was to learn new and innovative ways to address the 21st century concerns of urbanization, sustainability, and environmental design related to building in a “disaster nation,” particularly focusing on issues in the post-Fukushima context.

“Japanese Architecture” is a survey of the major architectural traditions of Japan. Architectural sites discussed range from prehistoric tombs and dwellings up through the innovative and sustainable contemporary design work of world-renowned Japanese architects such as Isozaki Arata, Ando Tadao, and recent Pritzker prizewinner Ban Shigeru. While the course is organized chronologically, individual sessions focus on the development of various architectural typologies over time, including Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, tea ceremony structures, garden design, imperial and shogunal palaces, fortified castles, modern institutional structures, and private residences. Japanese architectural practices are considered in comparison with other Asian and Euro-American building traditions. In addition to focusing on the aesthetic and structural issues related to various Japanese architectural monuments, we also examine the historical, social, religious, and environmental contexts of their construction and use.

My experience at the Trillium workshop in January has inspired a number of enhancements to the course, which will be implemented in three main areas. I plan to dedicate a full session to the theme of sustainability in which students will read a general theoretical introduction by Leslie Paul Thiele in conjunction with work by Azby Brown on Japan’s long history of sustainable practices in building material use (“The Sustainable City: The Carpenter of Edo,” in Just Enough, Tokyo, Kodansha, 2009). This will tie into earlier discussions in the course about Shinto architecture and the sacred harvesting of wood materials in the context of an animistic local culture. It will also span up to the contemporary green design work of prominent firm Nikken Sekkei. In addition, discussions about sustainability will feature prominently in course sessions on the urban development of Edo-Tokyo and the dramatic transformation of the city’s waterways. Using the important work of urban historian, Jinnai Hidenobu (“The Cosmology of a City of Water,” in Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), the class will consider how Edo reengineered its waterways and Tokyo lost them to expedient development for transportation infrastructure in the frantic race to prepare for the 1964 summer Olympics. We will discuss arguments for reestablishing Tokyo as the “Venice of the East” and movements to reclaim and re-naturalize its canals and harbors. Other sessions will broach questions of sustainable design as a result of economic necessity and critical social equity issues related to equality of access to environmental design. The course will conclude with a timely discussion of architectural design and environmental issues in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the mega disaster of 2011, when the northern Tohoku region of the archipelago was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I am looking forward to teaching this new, enhanced version of the course in Fall 2015.