Learning from Edo: Architecture at the Intersection of Milieux
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Bruno Taut's 1936 re-reading of Japan’s architectural history illustrated how one might reconstruct meaning into historic artifacts for the sake of sustaining a theoretical agenda. The architect’s Western eyes marveled on the efficiency and sufficiency of the traces of Edo country-living and palatial retreats like Katsura, which for him were testimony of a Modernist heritage before its time. While his retroactive manifesto for Japan’s architectural history became, in post-war years, a commonplace interpretation of the nation’s proto-modernity, his appraisal of the primitive Japanese hut against the lavish temple of Nikko was a variation on the theme at the heart of ecological debates to this day. In recent years, scholars such as Conrad Totman and Jared Diamond reiterated aspects of the Edo period model of a sustainable building practice. Diamond’s interpretation of the Tokugawa top-down management of resources exemplified the pertinence of retrospective evaluation of architecture in the widest frame of reference. Considered jointly, Taut’s and Diamond’s accounts offer a case in point, demonstrating that eco-wise construction is necessarily bound with social values, political and natural systems. Architectural ecology must be considered as a web of interrelations, or it may, sometimes, engender the collapse of society. As historians and theoreticians, we ought to step outside the architectural archives and engage a broad scope of evaluation parameters; we ought to reflect on, and interpret, the many milieux where a building interacts, and bridge between its performances in the material, social and aesthetic realms. If architecture’s exchanges with the environment has always remained the key to evaluating its ecological impact, the shift one might identify over the years is in a given society’s understanding of the multiplicity of milieux, where architecture structures the nodes.