The Urban Vision Interviews Vinayak Bharne

Noted Los Angeles based Urbanist Vinayak Bharne’s latest book “Zen Spaces and Neon Places – Reflections on Japanese Architecture and Urbanism,” has been praised as “….easily the most enjoyable book on Japan in a long time…..” It compiles the twenty-year intellectual relationship of an architect, city planner and scholar with a culture in which he was not born. The book goes from historic Nara to post-modern Tokyo, from contemplative tea-huts to kinky love hotels, and from ancient shrines to modern landmarks – unraveling a complex discussion on what is Japanese about the built world we experience in Japan today, and reminding us why Japan continues to be a reference for our times. Bharne share his nspiration behind this effort and the lessons therein

1. Let’s start from the beginning. You went to Japan for the first time from India in 1993 on a national scholarship at the age of nineteen. Is there a single tread that connects that trip and all the others you made till your last one in 2013?

The 1993 Japan trip was my first outside my native India. I had read a lot on Japan to win the scholarship, but did not know anything beyond the obvious aspects of Japanese culture and architecture. But I remember visiting the famous Zen garden of Ryoan-ji, and also visiting Ginza, and being equally fascinated with what I saw and felt in both these places. And I think this contradictory duality is what stayed with me over the years: The fanatical austerity of a dry meditative Zen garden or the rustic simplicity of a Shinto shrine, versus the riot of consumerist signage of Ginza and Shinjuku or the unbelievable pace of urban life in Japanese cities. And exploring how and where these extremes came from, and reflecting on this for twenty years is what Zen Spaces & Neon Places is all about.

2. You begin the book with the ancient Ise Shrine and end in Tokyo. Do these two places represent an emblematic Japanese duality you wish to highlight?


Ise and Tokyo form compelling bookends to the larger narrative. They are both equally Japanese because there is nothing like them anywhere else on the planet, and not even in Japan. Ise is the only Shinto Shrine today that is still fully reconstructed every twenty years. And there is no city with the density, intensity and pulse of Tokyo. The perceived contrast between these two places could not be greater. Also, Ise’s origins are shrouded in ancient myth, while modern Tokyo’s birth was relatively recent, after the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo. And both places are well-known today to the wider world. So it made sense to use them as the frames of the bigger argument.

3. Is this book an effort on your part to fill a gap in the architectural literature of Japan?

I did not make this book to do anything particular as such, but I think that there are very few books that attempt to capture the complexity of the Japanese built environment holistically. I mention three books that have inspired me – Japanness in Architecture by Arata Isozaki, Rediscovering Japanese Space by Kisho Kurokawa, and From Shinto to Ando by Gunter Nitschke. I single out these books because most English books on Japanese architecture are highly biased, in that they focus heavily on traditional Japanese architecture or exclusively on its Modern architecture. My interest was to offer a sweeping panorama of how the Japan we see today has been shaped and reshaped by so many circumstances, and to highlight how its cultural blueprints have endured in so many ways, if we have the eyes to see them. I think in this sense, the book is quite different from many English books on Japanese architecture out there.

4. You argue for a stripping away of the minimalist image of Japanese architecture that remains dominant even today. Could you elaborate on this?


In 1933, the Modern German architect Bruno Taut on his first trip to Japan proclaimed the Ise Shrine and the Katsura Villa as the ultimate archetypes of Japanese culture. This was highly biased and manipulative proclaim, from someone who knew nothing about Japan. But in a time when both Japanese and Western architects were getting increasingly wooed by Modern architecture and its abstract tendencies, the austere aesthetic of these two buildings was like a confirmation for them. And the whole world caught on to the idea that Japanese architecture is dominantly minimal and monochromatic. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. So the very first chapter of the book unravels the richness and diversity of traditional Japanese architecture and aesthetics – from the raw structuralism of the Todai-ji Temple, the pure white of the castle, the rich ornamental baroque of the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple and the Nikko Shrine, and the bold red hues of the Heian Palace or the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Unless one sees how diverse and complex Japanese architecture truly is, we will never even begin to understand it.

5. One of the chapters that caught my attention is on frontality, titled “The Mondrian in the Japanese Room.” This is a lesser known side of Japan. How did you come to this?


I first encountered the Mondrian reference in Arthur Drexler’s 1955 book “The Architecture of Japan”. There were just a couple of cursory mentions on how Japanese interiors resemble Mondrian’s compositions, but that point stayed with me. Then in 1993, just days before leaving for Japan, I came across an essay by an Argentinian architect Gorge Ferras, in Process Architecture No. 25, that offered a compelling argument on Japanese architecture being frontal in nature. It was these two pieces that framed this exploration. And each time I visited Japan, I would explore this notion, particularly when I stayed in Zen monastic quarters. Drexler and Ferras were both right: the walls of traditional Japanese rooms, due to their strict linearity and bareness are indeed like Mondrian compositions, if you know how to perceive them through absolute frontality. And this opens up a whole other way of understanding architectural space, not through length, breadth and height, but through personalization, subjectivity and metaphor.

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