Follow the Ladder!

Signs of external influences in the work of Kazuo Shinohara are only scarcely recognisable. However, one such hint points towards French painting, and from there backwards to Japan’s cultural past. In his reflections on the subject, Tibor Joanelly not only encounters the paintings of Paul Cézanne, but also the concept of the Third Person in the work of the Japanese master. 

What if a significant part of an architect’s oeuvre could be reduced to a single moment - to a simple realisation, perhaps made while reading a journal or to a moment of sudden inspiration while on a field trip? What would all this mean for the body of work as a whole? Would it become disenchanted? Or would it appear more comprehensible and yet deeper at the same time?

Undoubtedly, such an endeavour would enter the realm of unfettered plausibility, a kind of architectural conspiracy theory: a single sign would imbue the entire complex web of an entire body of work with meaning. Dependencies, references, concepts, metaphors and coincidences, imaginings and fictions that were begun, interrupted and resumed would come together in a logic that would be completely and conclusively fulfilled in a few realised buildings.

Be that as it may, that is exactly what the following essay attempts to do – it aims to capture a turning point in the work of the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006), around halfway through his career, which, in turn, set in motion a theoretical "machine". This moment, according to my thesis, can be traced back to a single object: a ladder.

Tanikawa House

This particular ladder can be found in Tanikawa House, a weekend retreat built in 1974 in a wooded area of Kita-Karuizawa, half a day’s journey north-west of Tokyo. Shinohara built it for the then aspiring and now renowned poet Shuntarō Tanikawa (b. 1931). The house is considered as one of Shinohara's major works and can arguably be understood as an artistic collaboration between client and architect. The project began with a poem by Tanikawa, which provided the inspiration for a very unusual spatial arrangement:

"Winter house or pioneer cabin (house)
Summer space or church for a pantheist (need not be a house)" 1

The "church for a pantheist" is a strange space - with no recognisable purpose and, above all, of little practical use in the conventional sense. Its floor is made of stamped earth and has a steep slope – not enough steep and too damp to serve as a place to sit for a poetry reading, for example. The earth floor seems to have been created solely to bring the sloping terrain into the house and, much like the surrounding forest, to be wandered through in an aimless manner. In addition to two slender, braced timber posts, the space is presided over by a bench, a sculpture of a cockerel, a basin for drawing water and the aforementioned, rather sculptural ladder.

The sacred summer space seems to have hardly ever been used, in part because the former owner made little use of the house; but for the architect it unleashed a chain of concepts and metaphors that he later condensed into an entire theory of space in an essay in The Japan Architect in 1975. Besides the fairly easy-to-understand concept of "transversality" in this essay Shinohara indisputably elaborated the concept of the "Third Person singular":

"The act of traversing expresses a basic function in relation to the combination of site-level differential and the geometric space of the main room. [...] as one traverses this space, one's vision alters from perspective to reverse perspective and back to perspective again. The alterations in the condition occur in the first person. But I am interested in what happens to change the condition of the space when someone traverses it. This takes place in the third person. Alteration in the first person can easily be included in a general background of phenomenalism; in other words, such alteration can be regarded as a special authority for the recognition of the first person. The changes that take place in the third person, however, are not ordinary. The survey of physical space is made by the third person." 2

While this rather cryptically written section at least makes it clear what is meant by the First Person singular, the Third Person singular remains hard to grasp. Although the statement can be compared to a theatrical setting of an observer and an observed person, this play with analogy remains rather abstract: it is not at all clear who or what this observing third person is supposed to be.

If one follows the indication that the first person wanders through space with a phenomenal, i.e. physically determined gaze, it could be concluded very abstractly and conversely that the third person looks at space from an "objectified", Cartesian perspective. However, this is not a conclusion that makes understanding the concept any easier.

Following on from the essay itself, Shinohara never commented on the theatrical spatial relationships implied here, but there are enough reasons to assume that they already underpinned his work before Tanikawa House and became increasingly important with each subsequent project. Towards the end of his working life, they even became the defining motif. To understand this development, one should heed the instruction in the title and follow the ladder in Summer Space.

Paul Cézanne's tilted landscape

Shinohara’s ladder is a replica of the one found in the studio of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) in Aix-en-ProvenceA, adapted for standing on a sloping floor in Tanikawa House. The replica must have been made very deliberately, as is indirectly confirmed by a statement from the client.3 However, neither he nor Shinohara ever said what the ladder was really about.

Ladders, at least, seem to have played a role in the architect's work; they are a recurring motif. The first ladder appears in Umbrella House (1961), leading from the open-plan kitchen dining room to a kind of attic loft above the tatami-covered sleeping area. The same motif can be found in House of Earth (1966) and in South House in Hanayama (1968). In Prism House (1974), there is no actual ladder, but a steep, ladder-like stair, which is overshadowed by the much more prominent appearance of the ladder in Tanikawa House. Another steep stair can then be found in House in Uehara (1976), which is also the last variation on this theme that was built. Shinohara only planned a real ladder again in the unrealised project for House in Tateshima (2006), which he pursued for himself and his family until his death.

In the case of Tanikawa House, an initial, obvious assumption leads one to a preliminary realisation: in Shinohara's work, as in Cézanne's, the ladder would be suitable for viewing a "landscape" from above; this view would objectify it, so to speak. In fact, some of Cézanne's painted landscapes appear to be viewed from an elevated position - from the top of a ladder, for example. But Cézanne did not, in fact, use ladders en plein air; the object in his studio was a working aid for making large-format paintings. But the reference to landscape is evident in another way. The artist, who was born in Aix-en-Provence, actually favoured elevated locations for his landscape paintings.

The View from Everywhere

Cézanne depicted his landscapes as he saw them: for him, objects in the distance appeared larger in relation to the foreground and middle ground, which led to a kind of curved pictorial space and a tilt effect in many paintings from around 1880 onwards. Another plausible explanation for the argument to follow lies in Cézanne's fascination with Japanese art, in particular Japanese woodcuts by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).4 Compositional similarities were already recognised in 1913 by the German art historian Fritz Burger (1877-1916), who linked the special and frequently used "bird's eye view" in Cézanne's Provençal landscape paintings with the spatial expression in Hokusai's 36 views of Mount Fuji.5 For example, Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from 1890 and Hokusai's Katakura in the province of Suruga (1829-1831) are very alike, apart from the figures and a mirrored pine tree in the composition.

Through Hokusai, the evidence of Shinohara's deliberate reference to Cézanne becomes clearer. One possible intermediary was the artist Gyōji Nomiyama (1920-2023), for whom Shinohara built two houses (Sea Stairway, 1971 in Tokyo Nerima, and House in Itoshima, 1976). Nomiyama lived in France 1952–1964, where he studied oil painting, following Cézanne in particular. The construction of Shinohara’s first house for Nomiyama was preceded by a long process of getting to know each other - and thus, one would expect, also conversations about art. Another mediator between France and Japan was Kōji Taki (1928-2011), a cultural philosopher and amateur photographer who had a great fondness for French culture. Shinohara had met Taki when Taki had written about an exhibition of the Shinohara’s work, and this meeting led to a close and extremely fruitful friendship.6  

It can be assumed that Taki provided Shinohara with an important reference: in 1970, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1908-1961) essay Le doute de Cézanne, written in 1945, was translated into Japanese for the first time.7 In it, the French philosopher directly links the work of the artist Cézanne with the concept of phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the simultaneity of "experienced" and "objective" perspectives in Cézanne's work, which is very plausibly echoed by Shinohara as a contrast between phenomenal and geometric or "physical" space.

It can also be assumed that Taki perhaps helped Shinohara establish the conceptual relationship between sloping ground, phenomenology and Cézanne. It could well be that the ladder was Taki's idea in the first place - even though or precisely because it is known that in Tanikawa House the idea was developed and realised together with Shuntarō Tanikawa.8

In any case, Cézanne's work must have been of great importance to Shinohara's interest in architectural space. For the architect, who left nothing to chance in the representation of his architecture, used the ladder to create an atypical and valuable trace of his own thinking beyond his very idiosyncratic texts.

Diverging vanishing points

However, the Provençal-Japanese associations extend even further: they are also related to the way Cézanne painted landscapes and still lifes. From around 1880, both are characterised by the use of diverging vanishing points, which led the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the aforementioned essay written in 1945, to the conclusion that in Cézanne's paintings both the things themselves and the process of their perception are depicted. Merleau-Ponty speaks of "objective" and "primordial" dimensions. Cézanne would accordingly abolish this distinction in his paintings.9

Indeed, many of Cézanne's landscapes, village paintings and still lifes create a strong feeling both "for the things themselves" and for the depicted whole. In a remarkable essay, the art historian Paul Smith refers to this as a "view from everywhere".B

The simultaneous connection between the depicted object and the overall context rests primarily in the phenomenal-sensual fusion of the viewer and the viewed - Cézanne developed a particular technique to bring this about. With Merleau-Ponty and Smith: In Cézanne's paintings, we are "grasping nearby objects in the same time as we look at them" or surveying them in a larger scene through "walking". This kind of forced, virtual movement around the picture reveals the meaning of the objects much better than a static, centred point of view. Cézanne thus introduced a tangible sense of time into the static picture.

According to Smith, the "lived perspective" typical of Cézanne opens up a relational pictorial space in which all objects enter into a relationship with each other and become protagonists. Respectively: through the process of perception, we ourselves take their place, becoming actors and thus dissolve any form of superordinate perspective. The objects "form a close-knit 'system' of relations (or 'world'), the organised structure of which allows us to grasp it in their visual totality".

Cézanne worked intensively with perspective and projection techniques, evidenced by the notes he made on perspective and his admiration for the medieval artist Villard de Honnecourt (ca. 1200-1250). Like the figure of the ladder, visual projection is also a connecting thread between Cézanne and Shinohara. The parallel or oblique perspective depictions found in the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige that Cézanne was so inspired by, create the "objectifying" effect that serves as a key to understanding the nature of their echoes in Cézanne’s work. Smith puts it succinctly: "Parallel projection can simultaneously generate strongly three-dimensional shapes and produce the allocentric [i.e. objectifying] spatial relations characteristic of views."10

Rakuchū rakugai

A tilted landscape, an objectified view: The depiction of space in Japanese courtly art before the 19th century woodblock print knows at least two forms that trigger such perceptions: Fukinuki yatai 11 – axonometric depictions of people and buildings "without a roof" on emaki scrolls and Rakuchū rakugai 12– depictions of "scenes in and around the capital" made on screens. These forms of representation experienced their heyday in the 12th and 16–17th centuries respectively.

From 1960 onwards, Shinohara intensively studied the design principles or "methods" of traditional Japanese architecture,13 and it can be assumed that he was familiar with and had intensively studied both traditional Japanese modes of representation – and that he found them again in the art of Cézanne. In looking at Rakuchū rakugai in particular, an illusion of a landscape on an inclined plane is created: standing in front of such a screen, the viewer’s gaze immediately tilts into the depths of the virtually depicted space; it follows the strictly bottom-left to top-right (or vice versa) projection of individual scenes, moving back and forth between "back" and "front" through the pictorial space. Last but not least, the viewer's gaze is stimulated by wafts of clouds or fog that lie over the equally harmonising juxtaposition of human scenes and built architecture; this makes every scene and every object appear both focused and distanced at the same time. The contents of the picture appear as if they were presented on one of Cézanne’s tablea - without any actual perspective. Each object, each scene stands alone and is at the same time embedded in a superordinate, logical whole. In this field, the scenes of equal value activate each other.

In Rakuchū rakugai, everything the capital Kyōto had to offer is depicted. Thanks to their axonometric representation, every scene and every architectural element appears animated with Eigenvalue - to use Shinohara’s own word for this quality. The wall screen shows The View from Everywhere: The representation itself is Third Person, so to a certain extent uninvolved, distanced, simply "objective" and encyclopaedic; the experience of the image, however, is First Person, phenomenal, immediate, activated via the depicted actions and the depth effect.

Shinohara characterised the perception of traditional Japanese space ten years before Tanikawa House, in a remarkable analogy to Merleau-Ponty, as a back-and-forth movement between First, Second (?) and Third Person. The background is an examination of architectural space in comparison between West and East:

"Space of contemporary architecture is like [Frank Lloyd] Wright's space, that is, a space recorded by the movement of the human eye, comparable to the world narrated by the protagonist who speaks in first person, the "I" of literature. Since Renaissance, space is constituted by the presence of the "I", so it is natural for us to think that the point of view is the human one. But, in the architecture of the previous eras what points of view existed? Was there not a different mechanism of the point of view? Looking at the particular composition of traditional Japanese architecture, such as that of Jiko-in [the Buddhist temple in Nara], it shows us a completely different mechanism of the point of view. The point of view there does not belong to man but to architecture itself, as if in literature the world was described by the third person, that is, a universal person who embodies history. Reflecting on these different mechanisms of the point of view I began to think that by freely changing the first, second and third person we can find a new way of recording space. Or, perhaps, that introducing the point of view of a fourth person, who has nothing to do with the previous three, we could describe a "space without point of view".14

Shinohara wrote the text in 1964, almost exactly 300 years after the construction of the temple to which he refers, which was built in 1663. In the period between the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Edo (1603-1868) periods, Japan can be assumed to have had a homogeneous, courtly-urban culture of elites, in which painting and architecture were created within the same cultural environment. This alone implies that Shinohara's described third person also implies the urban view of Rakuchū rakugai. Or rather: a self-contained cosmos that makes no distinction between city and house, either in painting or architecture. Even if Shinohara does not make any direct statements about rakuchū rakugai in his hitherto translated texts, due to the explicit references made to Cézanne this traditional form of representation appears to be a kind of invisible, or concealed medium that accompanied Shinohara’s own thinking and writing. For the equation of architecture and literature can be read in two ways: both as the principle that a house must be architecture (as an art form) and as a deep structural analogy between house and city. The analogous transition from the space of the individual house to the urban space will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

From the house to the city to the house

After the War, Shinohara and his contemporaries actively pursued the examination of techniques and forms of representation of Japanese tradition - and in the early 1960s, this research was extended from Japanese aesthetics in general and "Japanese Urban Space" in particular to the analysis of settlement space. One example of this is the December 1963 issue of the journal Kenchiku bunka.15 It can be assumed that Shinohara was familiar with it. In this issue, Rakuchū rakugai is discussed in detail as a genuinely Japanese form of urban representation and, as in the quotation above, placed in relation to Western examples.

The short essay on Rakuchū rakugai is revealing. It reads like a description of the space that Shinohara realised with Tanikawa House in 1974 and attempted to define theoretically a year later: according to Teiji Itō and his co-authors the axonometric representation in Rakuchū rakugai makes "no difference in spatial density", and thus "the whole space can be grasped uniformly, without subjective emphasis, only with a calm logic". The "focus would be placed in the hands of the viewer". Itō and his co-authors describe a kind of topological space, a network of relationships between the scenes depicted:

"The image of space from the mandala to Rakuchū rakugai was actually a space of relative relationships in which the symbols are [regularly] distributed. The cognitive structure of our urban space is by no means an accumulation of descriptions of content, but its extension through a sum of rhythmic impressions. If the sum of such impressions is the real image of urban space, then the perception of individual elements is also sufficiently effective for the space, which is defined only by the relative relationship of the discontinuous arrangement."16

In Rakuchū rakugai, the impression of discontinuity is significantly reinforced by clouds or mist wafting between the scenes; they interrupt the process of perception and isolate and individualise the objects depicted - this effect is similar in a way to Cézanne's multi-perspective play of different vanishing points and viewpoints.

Discontinuity is an essential theme in Shinohara's work. With this description of Rakuchū rakugai, however, it becomes even more reminiscent of both Shinohara and Cézanne: according to Itō and his co-authors, the "spatial emotion of the individual" arises through "the pictorial perspective - through the constant movement of the point of view, which does not exist in the European representation of the city".17 In addition to the transcultural gaze, the evocation of emotion through architecture has been an important theme in Shinohara's work since the early 1960s.18 As if this were not enough, the text in the journal hints at the form of urban experience that Shinohara conceptualised with the term "transversality" and which became central to his later work: According to Itō and his co-authors, the urban space of Japan depicted in Rakuchū rakugai:

"that typical image that traces [an] arrangement of dots [...]. The human experience of space creates a linear line of memory by tracing these points. [...] Space is only created when a person enters and experiences it."19

Transversal movement through city and house

Shinohara borrowed the term "transversality" from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), whose essay Proust and the Signs he had learnt about from the aforementioned Kōji Taki.20 In brief, Taki was a co-founder of the experimental photo magazine Provoke, which in the second half of the 1960s documented Japanese life between student rebellion, desperate lust, military and economic exploitation and experimental art with a critical eye and a commitment to a new aesthetic.21 The photographic forays captured in Provoke are not only a documentation of urban contradictions, but also reflect a dramatic view of the contemporary city from the perspective of the first person, who until then had no role models in Japan. Together they form a transversal first-third person panorama.

Shinohara used the principle of transversality for the path of a person walking slowly through the summer space of Tanikawa House. This would connect the various spatial elements in the experience: the sloping ground, the windows, the forest, the supports, and the roof. With the movement through the space, the ladder, bench and rooster are also synthesised into a feeling of totality, similar to architectural objects on the way through an urban landscape.

"Transversality" is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for the spatial perception between fragmented objects in the city and the house. In the case of Shinohara, only the sign of the ladder provides information about the nature of this transversal space: it arises, in the sense of Merleau-Ponty, from the mixture of virtual and actual movements of an object between other objects, between "primordial" and "objective" states of perception. The ladder on the inclined surface in the summer space of Tanikawa House is the very medium that links Shinohara's design intentions with Cézanne's "primitive" and simultaneously objectifying gaze.

It is not difficult to recognise even more aspects implicit in the figure of the ladder: namely a symbol of the complicated and contradictory relationship of Japanese architecture to the city, between autonomous object and anonymous construction, both of which are equally absorbed into the greater whole. Shinohara's philosophical, aesthetic allusions to Japanese space are typical of his time. They are, at the very least, an expression of a search for identity in the wake of the catastrophe of the Second World War and the subsequent change in the living environment through growth and commercialisation. They characterise an entire generation of architects - a generation, we should well remember, that has defined the image of Japanese architecture in the West today.

...to be continued.

 

Bibliography:

  • Burger, Fritz Cézanne und Hodler: Einführung in die Probleme der Malerei der Gegenwart, Munich 1913, p. 95–96. 
  • Cesaro, Giorgia «Modernity From the Past: Kazuo Shinohara’s Fourth Space», in: Regionalism, Nationalism & Modern Architecture Conference Proceedings, Porto 2018, p. 87; English extract from: Cesaro, Giorgia, l’Eco dello spazio. Forme, metodi e logica nell’architettura giapponese, Milano 2021 (an Italian translation of Shinohara's book Jūtaku kenchiku, Tokyo 1964, not authorised by the Shinohara Archive at Tokyo Tech.) 
  • Dufour, Diane / Witkovsky, Matthew S. Provoke: Between Protest and Performance – Photography in Japan 1960/1975, Göttingen 2016. 
  • Gilles Deleuze, Gilles Proust und die Zeichen, Berlin 1993; Original: Marcel Proust et les signes, Paris 1964. 
  • Kerez, Christian «‹Ich hatte eine Skulptur erworben›. Der Bauherr der Tanikawa Residence im Gespräch mit Christian Kerez», in: Werk, Bauen + Wohnen 12–2015, p. 24. 
  • Massip-Bosch, Enric Five Forms of Emotion. Kazuo Shinohara and the House as Work of Art, octoral thesis at the University Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona 2015. 
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice «Le doute de Cézanne», in: Sens et non-sens, Paris 1948; Japanese translation by Nagato, Tokio Imi to muimi, Tokio 1970. 
  • Menges, Axel (Hg.), Kazuo Shinohara, Berlin 1994, p. 141–142. 
  • Okuyama, Shin-Ichi «Kongenialer Blick: Kazuo Shinohara und der Philosoph Kōji Taki», in: Werk, Bauen + Wohnen, p. 28–31.  
  • Shinohara, Kazuo «When Naked Space is Traversed», in: JA The Japan Architect, Februar 1976, p. 64–69, Original: Kazuo Shinohara, «Ragyō no kūkan no ōdan suru toki», in: Shinkenchiku, Tokyo, Oktober 1975, p. 158–163. 
  • Smith, Paul «Cézanne’s ‹Primitive› Perspektive or the ‹View from Everywhere›», in: The Art Bulletin, 1–2013 (March), p. 102–119. 
  • Tanaka, Hidemichi «Cézanne and ‹Japonisme›», in: Artibus et Historiae, 2001, Band 22, v. 44, p. 201–220.

Follow the Ladder!

3/22/2024

Part I: Kazuo Shinohara, Paul Cézanne and the Third Person.

Signs of external influences in the work of Kazuo Shinohara are only scarcely recognisable. However, one such hint points towards French painting, and from there backwards to Japan’s cultural past. In his reflections on the subject, Tibor Joanelly not only encounters the paintings of Paul Cézanne, but also the concept of the Third Person in the work of the Japanese master. 

1 Shinohara 1976, p. 65.

What if a significant part of an architect’s oeuvre could be reduced to a single moment - to a simple realisation, perhaps made while reading a journal or to a moment of sudden inspiration while on a field trip? What would all this mean for the body of work as a whole? Would it become disenchanted? Or would it appear more comprehensible and yet deeper at the same time?

Undoubtedly, such an endeavour would enter the realm of unfettered plausibility, a kind of architectural conspiracy theory: a single sign would imbue the entire complex web of an entire body of work with meaning. Dependencies, references, concepts, metaphors and coincidences, imaginings and fictions that were begun, interrupted and resumed would come together in a logic that would be completely and conclusively fulfilled in a few realised buildings.

Be that as it may, that is exactly what the following essay attempts to do – it aims to capture a turning point in the work of the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006), around halfway through his career, which, in turn, set in motion a theoretical "machine". This moment, according to my thesis, can be traced back to a single object: a ladder.

Tanikawa House

This particular ladder can be found in Tanikawa House, a weekend retreat built in 1974 in a wooded area of Kita-Karuizawa, half a day’s journey north-west of Tokyo. Shinohara built it for the then aspiring and now renowned poet Shuntarō Tanikawa (b. 1931). The house is considered as one of Shinohara's major works and can arguably be understood as an artistic collaboration between client and architect. The project began with a poem by Tanikawa, which provided the inspiration for a very unusual spatial arrangement:

"Winter house or pioneer cabin (house)
Summer space or church for a pantheist (need not be a house)" 1

Theatrical setting in the summer room of Tanikawa House: But who is the observing "Third Person"? – ©Kōji Taki, courtesy of The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech
Theatrical setting in the summer room of Tanikawa House: But who is the observing "Third Person"? – ©Kōji Taki, courtesy of The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech
Section Tanikawa House – ©The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech
Plan Tanikawa House – ©The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech
Plan Tanikawa House – ©The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech
01 | 06
Theatrical setting in the summer room of Tanikawa House: But who is the observing "Third Person"? – ©Kōji Taki, courtesy of The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech

2 Ibid, p. 68.

3 See Kerez 2015, p. 24.

4 See Tanaka 2001.

5 See Burger 1913, p. 95-96; even if Shinohara was probably unaware of Burger's essay, such a comparison was part of the implicit knowledge due to the relations between Japan and Germany at the time.

Atelier Cézanne

The "church for a pantheist" is a strange space - with no recognisable purpose and, above all, of little practical use in the conventional sense. Its floor is made of stamped earth and has a steep slope – not enough steep and too damp to serve as a place to sit for a poetry reading, for example. The earth floor seems to have been created solely to bring the sloping terrain into the house and, much like the surrounding forest, to be wandered through in an aimless manner. In addition to two slender, braced timber posts, the space is presided over by a bench, a sculpture of a cockerel, a basin for drawing water and the aforementioned, rather sculptural ladder.

The sacred summer space seems to have hardly ever been used, in part because the former owner made little use of the house; but for the architect it unleashed a chain of concepts and metaphors that he later condensed into an entire theory of space in an essay in The Japan Architect in 1975. Besides the fairly easy-to-understand concept of "transversality" in this essay Shinohara indisputably elaborated the concept of the "Third Person singular":

"The act of traversing expresses a basic function in relation to the combination of site-level differential and the geometric space of the main room. [...] as one traverses this space, one's vision alters from perspective to reverse perspective and back to perspective again. The alterations in the condition occur in the first person. But I am interested in what happens to change the condition of the space when someone traverses it. This takes place in the third person. Alteration in the first person can easily be included in a general background of phenomenalism; in other words, such alteration can be regarded as a special authority for the recognition of the first person. The changes that take place in the third person, however, are not ordinary. The survey of physical space is made by the third person." 2

While this rather cryptically written section at least makes it clear what is meant by the First Person singular, the Third Person singular remains hard to grasp. Although the statement can be compared to a theatrical setting of an observer and an observed person, this play with analogy remains rather abstract: it is not at all clear who or what this observing third person is supposed to be.

If one follows the indication that the first person wanders through space with a phenomenal, i.e. physically determined gaze, it could be concluded very abstractly and conversely that the third person looks at space from an "objectified", Cartesian perspective. However, this is not a conclusion that makes understanding the concept any easier.

Following on from the essay itself, Shinohara never commented on the theatrical spatial relationships implied here, but there are enough reasons to assume that they already underpinned his work before Tanikawa House and became increasingly important with each subsequent project. Towards the end of his working life, they even became the defining motif. To understand this development, one should heed the instruction in the title and follow the ladder in Summer Space.

Paul Cézanne's tilted landscape

Shinohara’s ladder is a replica of the one found in the studio of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) in Aix-en-Provence, adapted for standing on a sloping floor in Tanikawa House. The replica must have been made very deliberately, as is indirectly confirmed by a statement from the client.3 However, neither he nor Shinohara ever said what the ladder was really about.

Ladders, at least, seem to have played a role in the architect's work; they are a recurring motif. The first ladder appears in Umbrella House (1961), leading from the open-plan kitchen dining room to a kind of attic loft above the tatami-covered sleeping area. The same motif can be found in House of Earth (1966) and in South House in Hanayama (1968). In Prism House (1974), there is no actual ladder, but a steep, ladder-like stair, which is overshadowed by the much more prominent appearance of the ladder in Tanikawa House. Another steep stair can then be found in House in Uehara (1976), which is also the last variation on this theme that was built. Shinohara only planned a real ladder again in the unrealised project for House in Tateshima (2006), which he pursued for himself and his family until his death.

In the case of Tanikawa House, an initial, obvious assumption leads one to a preliminary realisation: in Shinohara's work, as in Cézanne's, the ladder would be suitable for viewing a "landscape" from above; this view would objectify it, so to speak. In fact, some of Cézanne's painted landscapes appear to be viewed from an elevated position - from the top of a ladder, for example. But Cézanne did not, in fact, use ladders en plein air; the object in his studio was a working aid for making large-format paintings. But the reference to landscape is evident in another way. The artist, who was born in Aix-en-Provence, actually favoured elevated locations for his landscape paintings.

The View from Everywhere

Cézanne depicted his landscapes as he saw them: for him, objects in the distance appeared larger in relation to the foreground and middle ground, which led to a kind of curved pictorial space and a tilt effect in many paintings from around 1880 onwards. Another plausible explanation for the argument to follow lies in Cézanne's fascination with Japanese art, in particular Japanese woodcuts by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).4 Compositional similarities were already recognised in 1913 by the German art historian Fritz Burger (1877-1916), who linked the special and frequently used "bird's eye view" in Cézanne's Provençal landscape paintings with the spatial expression in Hokusai's 36 views of Mount Fuji.5 For example, Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from 1890 and Hokusai's Katakura in the province of Suruga (1829-1831) are very alike, apart from the figures and a mirrored pine tree in the composition.

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris  – © public domain
Katsushika Hokusai, Fuji seen from the Katakura tea plantation in Suruga province, 1829-1931, from the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji. – © public domain
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Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris – © public domain

6 See Okuyama 2015.

7 Merleau-Ponty 1948 / Nagato 1970.

8 See Kerez 2015; the idea of the ladder was co-conceived by Tanikawa. This suggests that some spatial facts in Shinohara's designs are based on shared authorship.

9 See Merleau-Ponty 1948 / Nagato 1970.

10 See Smith 2013, p. 102-113.

11 translated as: «blown off roof»

12 literally: "centre of Kyōto and suburbs of Kyōto"

13 Shinohara examines the methods of traditional Japanese architecture in numerous essays; a complete list of these publications can be found in: Menges 1994, p. 141-142.

Quartier Four

Through Hokusai, the evidence of Shinohara's deliberate reference to Cézanne becomes clearer. One possible intermediary was the artist Gyōji Nomiyama (1920-2023), for whom Shinohara built two houses (Sea Stairway, 1971 in Tokyo Nerima, and House in Itoshima, 1976). Nomiyama lived in France 1952–1964, where he studied oil painting, following Cézanne in particular. The construction of Shinohara’s first house for Nomiyama was preceded by a long process of getting to know each other - and thus, one would expect, also conversations about art. Another mediator between France and Japan was Kōji Taki (1928-2011), a cultural philosopher and amateur photographer who had a great fondness for French culture. Shinohara had met Taki when Taki had written about an exhibition of the Shinohara’s work, and this meeting led to a close and extremely fruitful friendship.6  

It can be assumed that Taki provided Shinohara with an important reference: in 1970, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1908-1961) essay Le doute de Cézanne, written in 1945, was translated into Japanese for the first time.7 In it, the French philosopher directly links the work of the artist Cézanne with the concept of phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the simultaneity of "experienced" and "objective" perspectives in Cézanne's work, which is very plausibly echoed by Shinohara as a contrast between phenomenal and geometric or "physical" space.

It can also be assumed that Taki perhaps helped Shinohara establish the conceptual relationship between sloping ground, phenomenology and Cézanne. It could well be that the ladder was Taki's idea in the first place - even though or precisely because it is known that in Tanikawa House the idea was developed and realised together with Shuntarō Tanikawa.8

In any case, Cézanne's work must have been of great importance to Shinohara's interest in architectural space. For the architect, who left nothing to chance in the representation of his architecture, used the ladder to create an atypical and valuable trace of his own thinking beyond his very idiosyncratic texts.

Diverging vanishing points

However, the Provençal-Japanese associations extend even further: they are also related to the way Cézanne painted landscapes and still lifes. From around 1880, both are characterised by the use of diverging vanishing points, which led the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the aforementioned essay written in 1945, to the conclusion that in Cézanne's paintings both the things themselves and the process of their perception are depicted. Merleau-Ponty speaks of "objective" and "primordial" dimensions. Cézanne would accordingly abolish this distinction in his paintings.9

Indeed, many of Cézanne's landscapes, village paintings and still lifes create a strong feeling both "for the things themselves" and for the depicted whole. In a remarkable essay, the art historian Paul Smith refers to this as a "view from everywhere".

The simultaneous connection between the depicted object and the overall context rests primarily in the phenomenal-sensual fusion of the viewer and the viewed - Cézanne developed a particular technique to bring this about. With Merleau-Ponty and Smith: In Cézanne's paintings, we are "grasping nearby objects in the same time as we look at them" or surveying them in a larger scene through "walking". This kind of forced, virtual movement around the picture reveals the meaning of the objects much better than a static, centred point of view. Cézanne thus introduced a tangible sense of time into the static picture.

According to Smith, the "lived perspective" typical of Cézanne opens up a relational pictorial space in which all objects enter into a relationship with each other and become protagonists. Respectively: through the process of perception, we ourselves take their place, becoming actors and thus dissolve any form of superordinate perspective. The objects "form a close-knit 'system' of relations (or 'world'), the organised structure of which allows us to grasp it in their visual totality".

Cézanne worked intensively with perspective and projection techniques, evidenced by the notes he made on perspective and his admiration for the medieval artist Villard de Honnecourt (ca. 1200-1250). Like the figure of the ladder, visual projection is also a connecting thread between Cézanne and Shinohara. The parallel or oblique perspective depictions found in the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige that Cézanne was so inspired by, create the "objectifying" effect that serves as a key to understanding the nature of their echoes in Cézanne’s work. Smith puts it succinctly: "Parallel projection can simultaneously generate strongly three-dimensional shapes and produce the allocentric [i.e. objectifying] spatial relations characteristic of views."10

Rakuchū rakugai

A tilted landscape, an objectified view: The depiction of space in Japanese courtly art before the 19th century woodblock print knows at least two forms that trigger such perceptions: Fukinuki yatai 11 – axonometric depictions of people and buildings "without a roof" on emaki scrolls and Rakuchū rakugai 12– depictions of "scenes in and around the capital" made on screens. These forms of representation experienced their heyday in the 12th and 16–17th centuries respectively.

From 1960 onwards, Shinohara intensively studied the design principles or "methods" of traditional Japanese architecture,13 and it can be assumed that he was familiar with and had intensively studied both traditional Japanese modes of representation – and that he found them again in the art of Cézanne. In looking at Rakuchū rakugai in particular, an illusion of a landscape on an inclined plane is created: standing in front of such a screen, the viewer’s gaze immediately tilts into the depths of the virtually depicted space; it follows the strictly bottom-left to top-right (or vice versa) projection of individual scenes, moving back and forth between "back" and "front" through the pictorial space. Last but not least, the viewer's gaze is stimulated by wafts of clouds or fog that lie over the equally harmonising juxtaposition of human scenes and built architecture; this makes every scene and every object appear both focused and distanced at the same time. The contents of the picture appear as if they were presented on one of Cézanne’s tablea - without any actual perspective. Each object, each scene stands alone and is at the same time embedded in a superordinate, logical whole. In this field, the scenes of equal value activate each other.

Scenes in and around the capital on the left of two opposing screens with Nijō Castle and the western half of Kyōto, 17th century, Museum of Modern Art New York, Mary Griggs Burke Collection – © public domain
Scenes in and around the capital on the right of two opposing screens with Nijō Castle and the western half of Kyōto, 17th century, Museum of Modern Art New York, Mary Griggs Burke Collection – © public domain
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Scenes in and around the capital on the left of two opposing screens with Nijō Castle and the western half of Kyōto, 17th century, Museum of Modern Art New York, Mary Griggs Burke Collection – © public domain

14 Cesaro 2018, p. 87. (not authorised translation by Shinohara Archive at Tokyo Tech).

15 Kenchiku bunka, No. 206 ("Japanese Urban Space"), Dezember 1963.

16 Ibid, p. 142.

17 Ibid.

18 See Massip-Bosch 2015.

19 Kenchiku bunka, No. 206, p. 142.

20 Deleuze 1964.

21 See Dufour/Witkovsky 2016.

In Rakuchū rakugai, everything the capital Kyōto had to offer is depicted. Thanks to their axonometric representation, every scene and every architectural element appears animated with Eigenvalue - to use Shinohara’s own word for this quality. The wall screen shows The View from Everywhere: The representation itself is Third Person, so to a certain extent uninvolved, distanced, simply "objective" and encyclopaedic; the experience of the image, however, is First Person, phenomenal, immediate, activated via the depicted actions and the depth effect.

Shinohara characterised the perception of traditional Japanese space ten years before Tanikawa House, in a remarkable analogy to Merleau-Ponty, as a back-and-forth movement between First, Second (?) and Third Person. The background is an examination of architectural space in comparison between West and East:

"Space of contemporary architecture is like [Frank Lloyd] Wright's space, that is, a space recorded by the movement of the human eye, comparable to the world narrated by the protagonist who speaks in first person, the "I" of literature. Since Renaissance, space is constituted by the presence of the "I", so it is natural for us to think that the point of view is the human one. But, in the architecture of the previous eras what points of view existed? Was there not a different mechanism of the point of view? Looking at the particular composition of traditional Japanese architecture, such as that of Jiko-in [the Buddhist temple in Nara], it shows us a completely different mechanism of the point of view. The point of view there does not belong to man but to architecture itself, as if in literature the world was described by the third person, that is, a universal person who embodies history. Reflecting on these different mechanisms of the point of view I began to think that by freely changing the first, second and third person we can find a new way of recording space. Or, perhaps, that introducing the point of view of a fourth person, who has nothing to do with the previous three, we could describe a "space without point of view".14

Shinohara wrote the text in 1964, almost exactly 300 years after the construction of the temple to which he refers, which was built in 1663. In the period between the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Edo (1603-1868) periods, Japan can be assumed to have had a homogeneous, courtly-urban culture of elites, in which painting and architecture were created within the same cultural environment. This alone implies that Shinohara's described third person also implies the urban view of Rakuchū rakugai. Or rather: a self-contained cosmos that makes no distinction between city and house, either in painting or architecture. Even if Shinohara does not make any direct statements about rakuchū rakugai in his hitherto translated texts, due to the explicit references made to Cézanne this traditional form of representation appears to be a kind of invisible, or concealed medium that accompanied Shinohara’s own thinking and writing. For the equation of architecture and literature can be read in two ways: both as the principle that a house must be architecture (as an art form) and as a deep structural analogy between house and city. The analogous transition from the space of the individual house to the urban space will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

From the house to the city to the house

After the War, Shinohara and his contemporaries actively pursued the examination of techniques and forms of representation of Japanese tradition - and in the early 1960s, this research was extended from Japanese aesthetics in general and "Japanese Urban Space" in particular to the analysis of settlement space. One example of this is the December 1963 issue of the journal Kenchiku bunka.15 It can be assumed that Shinohara was familiar with it. In this issue, Rakuchū rakugai is discussed in detail as a genuinely Japanese form of urban representation and, as in the quotation above, placed in relation to Western examples.

The short essay on Rakuchū rakugai is revealing. It reads like a description of the space that Shinohara realised with Tanikawa House in 1974 and attempted to define theoretically a year later: according to Teiji Itō and his co-authors the axonometric representation in Rakuchū rakugai makes "no difference in spatial density", and thus "the whole space can be grasped uniformly, without subjective emphasis, only with a calm logic". The "focus would be placed in the hands of the viewer". Itō and his co-authors describe a kind of topological space, a network of relationships between the scenes depicted:

"The image of space from the mandala to Rakuchū rakugai was actually a space of relative relationships in which the symbols are [regularly] distributed. The cognitive structure of our urban space is by no means an accumulation of descriptions of content, but its extension through a sum of rhythmic impressions. If the sum of such impressions is the real image of urban space, then the perception of individual elements is also sufficiently effective for the space, which is defined only by the relative relationship of the discontinuous arrangement."16

In Rakuchū rakugai, the impression of discontinuity is significantly reinforced by clouds or mist wafting between the scenes; they interrupt the process of perception and isolate and individualise the objects depicted - this effect is similar in a way to Cézanne's multi-perspective play of different vanishing points and viewpoints.

Discontinuity is an essential theme in Shinohara's work. With this description of Rakuchū rakugai, however, it becomes even more reminiscent of both Shinohara and Cézanne: according to Itō and his co-authors, the "spatial emotion of the individual" arises through "the pictorial perspective - through the constant movement of the point of view, which does not exist in the European representation of the city".17 In addition to the transcultural gaze, the evocation of emotion through architecture has been an important theme in Shinohara's work since the early 1960s.18 As if this were not enough, the text in the journal hints at the form of urban experience that Shinohara conceptualised with the term "transversality" and which became central to his later work: According to Itō and his co-authors, the urban space of Japan depicted in Rakuchū rakugai:

"that typical image that traces [an] arrangement of dots [...]. The human experience of space creates a linear line of memory by tracing these points. [...] Space is only created when a person enters and experiences it."19

Transversal movement through city and house

Shinohara borrowed the term "transversality" from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), whose essay Proust and the Signs he had learnt about from the aforementioned Kōji Taki.20 In brief, Taki was a co-founder of the experimental photo magazine Provoke, which in the second half of the 1960s documented Japanese life between student rebellion, desperate lust, military and economic exploitation and experimental art with a critical eye and a commitment to a new aesthetic.21 The photographic forays captured in Provoke are not only a documentation of urban contradictions, but also reflect a dramatic view of the contemporary city from the perspective of the first person, who until then had no role models in Japan. Together they form a transversal first-third person panorama.

Shinohara used the principle of transversality for the path of a person walking slowly through the summer space of Tanikawa House. This would connect the various spatial elements in the experience: the sloping ground, the windows, the forest, the supports, and the roof. With the movement through the space, the ladder, bench and rooster are also synthesised into a feeling of totality, similar to architectural objects on the way through an urban landscape.

View from above of a tilted "cityscape": from the poet's writing room, the summer room of Tanikawa House and the possible transversal movement of a human figure appear panoramic, as if painted on a wall screen. The photograph was presumably taken by Shinohara himself. – ©The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech.
View from above of a tilted "cityscape": from the poet's writing room, the summer room of Tanikawa House and the possible transversal movement of a human figure appear panoramic, as if painted on a wall screen. The photograph was presumably taken by Shinohara himself. – ©The Kazuo Shinohara Estate at Tokyo Tech.

"Transversality" is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for the spatial perception between fragmented objects in the city and the house. In the case of Shinohara, only the sign of the ladder provides information about the nature of this transversal space: it arises, in the sense of Merleau-Ponty, from the mixture of virtual and actual movements of an object between other objects, between "primordial" and "objective" states of perception. The ladder on the inclined surface in the summer space of Tanikawa House is the very medium that links Shinohara's design intentions with Cézanne's "primitive" and simultaneously objectifying gaze.

It is not difficult to recognise even more aspects implicit in the figure of the ladder: namely a symbol of the complicated and contradictory relationship of Japanese architecture to the city, between autonomous object and anonymous construction, both of which are equally absorbed into the greater whole. Shinohara's philosophical, aesthetic allusions to Japanese space are typical of his time. They are, at the very least, an expression of a search for identity in the wake of the catastrophe of the Second World War and the subsequent change in the living environment through growth and commercialisation. They characterise an entire generation of architects - a generation, we should well remember, that has defined the image of Japanese architecture in the West today.

...to be continued.

 

Bibliography:

  • Burger, Fritz Cézanne und Hodler: Einführung in die Probleme der Malerei der Gegenwart, Munich 1913, p. 95–96. 
  • Cesaro, Giorgia «Modernity From the Past: Kazuo Shinohara’s Fourth Space», in: Regionalism, Nationalism & Modern Architecture Conference Proceedings, Porto 2018, p. 87; English extract from: Cesaro, Giorgia, l’Eco dello spazio. Forme, metodi e logica nell’architettura giapponese, Milano 2021 (an Italian translation of Shinohara's book Jūtaku kenchiku, Tokyo 1964, not authorised by the Shinohara Archive at Tokyo Tech.) 
  • Dufour, Diane / Witkovsky, Matthew S. Provoke: Between Protest and Performance – Photography in Japan 1960/1975, Göttingen 2016. 
  • Gilles Deleuze, Gilles Proust und die Zeichen, Berlin 1993; Original: Marcel Proust et les signes, Paris 1964. 
  • Kerez, Christian «‹Ich hatte eine Skulptur erworben›. Der Bauherr der Tanikawa Residence im Gespräch mit Christian Kerez», in: Werk, Bauen + Wohnen 12–2015, p. 24. 
  • Massip-Bosch, Enric Five Forms of Emotion. Kazuo Shinohara and the House as Work of Art, octoral thesis at the University Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona 2015. 
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice «Le doute de Cézanne», in: Sens et non-sens, Paris 1948; Japanese translation by Nagato, Tokio Imi to muimi, Tokio 1970. 
  • Menges, Axel (Hg.), Kazuo Shinohara, Berlin 1994, p. 141–142. 
  • Okuyama, Shin-Ichi «Kongenialer Blick: Kazuo Shinohara und der Philosoph Kōji Taki», in: Werk, Bauen + Wohnen, p. 28–31.  
  • Shinohara, Kazuo «When Naked Space is Traversed», in: JA The Japan Architect, Februar 1976, p. 64–69, Original: Kazuo Shinohara, «Ragyō no kūkan no ōdan suru toki», in: Shinkenchiku, Tokyo, Oktober 1975, p. 158–163. 
  • Smith, Paul «Cézanne’s ‹Primitive› Perspektive or the ‹View from Everywhere›», in: The Art Bulletin, 1–2013 (March), p. 102–119. 
  • Tanaka, Hidemichi «Cézanne and ‹Japonisme›», in: Artibus et Historiae, 2001, Band 22, v. 44, p. 201–220.
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