The Architecture of the Unexpected

One of the books I picked up during my unexpected side trip to Half-Price Books was Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, by Edward S. Morse.  It contains surprises.

I didn’t look at it closely before I bought it.  I needed something on non-Western architecture, and it fit the bill.  That’s all I needed to know.  Now I’ve cracked it open, and it’s given me several shocks.  For instance, I didn’t anticipate its antiquity – it was written in 1885.  As Clay Lancaster points out in the Preface to the Dover Edition, this is a good thing – Morse was able to study Japanese architecture before the West left its footprint. 

The second shock is the fact it was written by a scientist.  Morse was in Japan to study brachiopods.  He was teaching zoology at the Imperial University in Tokyo.  Things like art and architecture were a sideline to him, until his friend Dr. Bigelow told him to stop bothering himself with brachiopods.  “For the next generation the Japanese we knew will be as extinct as Belemnites,” Bigelow said.  And thus, a zoologist wrote a book about houses.

Then, reading the Preface by Morse himself, I see him thanking none other than Percival Lowell for “numerous courtesies.”  Small world, isn’t it just?  I’d had no idea that a man studying brachiopods and dwellings in Japan would have anything at all to do with my hometown astronomer, but there it is.

Perhaps the most unexpected shock is this: Morse is a wonderful writer who makes you laugh.  You don’t pick up a book on architecture expecting a good giggle, but how can you not laugh when you come across a passage like this as Morse discusses the influence of Japanese art and architecture already evident in America in the late 1880s:

It was not to be wondered at that many of our best artists – men like Coleman, Vedder, Lafarge, and others – had long before recognized the transcendent merit of Japanese decorative art.  It was however somewhat remarkable that the public at large should come so universally to recognize it, and in so short a time.  Not only our own commercial nation, but art-loving France, musical Germany, and even conservative England yielded to this invasion.  Not that new designs were evolved by us; on the contrary, we were content to adopt Japanese designs outright, oftentimes with a mixture of incongruities that would have driven a Japanese decorator stark mad.  Designs appropriate for the metal mounting of a sword blazed out on our ceilings; motives from a heavy bronze formed the theme for the decoration of friable pottery; and suggestions from the light crape were woven into hot carpets to be trodden upon.  Even with this mongrel admixture, it was a relief by any means to have driven out of our dwelling the nightmares and horrors of design we had before endured so meekly, – such objects, for example, as a child in dead brass, kneeling in perpetual supplication on a dead brass cushion, while adroitly balancing on its head a receptacle for kerosene oil; and a whole regiment of shapes equally monstrous.  Our walls no longer assailed with designs that wearied our eyes and exasperated our brains by their inanities. We were no longer doomed to wipe our feet on cupids, horns of plenty, restless tigers, or scrolls of architectural magnitudes.  Under the benign influence of this new spirit it came to be realized that it was not always necessary to tear a flower in bits to recognize its decorative value; and that teh simplest objects in Nature – a spray of bamboo, a pine cone, a cherry blossom – in the right place were quite sufficient to satisfy our craving for the beautiful.

Isn’t that delightful?  I expected a dry treatise on Japanese architecture.  What I’m getting is plenty of architectural information, but I’m also getting a lesson in style, an intimate glimpse into history, a draught of art, and the delectably dry humor of a man who has  suffered one too many brass children holding lamps.

There’s also something to learn of sociology in here.  Morse says, in his Introduction:

It is extraordinary how blind one may be to the faults and crimes of his own people, and how reluctant to admit them.  We sing heroic soldier-songs with energy and enthusiasm, and are amazed to find numbers in a Japanese audience disapproving, because of the bloody deeds celebrated in such an exultant way.  We read daily in our papers the details of the most blood-curdling crimes, and often of the most abhorrent and unnatural ones; and yet we make no special reflections on the conditions of society where such things are possible, or put ourselves much out of the way to arouse the people to a due sense of the degradation and stain on the community at large because of such things.  But we go to another country and perhaps find a new species of vice; its novelty at once arrests our attention, and forthwith we howl at the enormity of the crime and the degradation of the nation in which such a crime could originate, send home the most exaggerated accounts, malign the people without stint, and then prate to them about Christian charity!
In the study of another people one should if possible look through colorless glasses; though if one is to err in this respect, it were better that his spectacles should be rose-colored than grimed with the smoke of prejudice. 

He’s right, you know.  Utterly, absolutely right.  His observations and advice were excellent then, and they’re excellent now. 

So here we have a book that not only explores Japanese architecture, but art, society, and human nature.  Morse isn’t afraid to compare and contrast.  Many authors engage in that trick, but few are as brave as he is in exposing the warts as well as the wonders both of the society under observation and his own.  In the Introduction, in fact, as he’s mentioning that there are some Japanese houses he doesn’t like, he balances that by noting that English homes aren’t so special, either:

Still another English writer says: “It is unpleasant to live within ugly walls; it is still more unpleasant to live within unstable walls: but to be obliged to live in a tenement which is both unstable and ugly is disagreeable in a tenfold degree.”  He thinks it is quite time to evoke legislation to remedy these evils, and says: “An Englishman’s house was formerly said to be his castle; but in the hands of the speculating builder and advertising tradesman, we may be grateful that it does not oftener become his tomb.”

Morse took seriously the concept that one shouldn’t forget the beam in one’s own eye while whining about the mote in another’s.  Of course, in this case, he was dissing England, not America, but we get the sense that he’s lumping things East and West, by way of comparison – England’s faults, therefore, became our own.

Morse was writing in an age where science wasn’t as segregated as it is now.  Scientists could let their curiosity take them where it would – and if that meant throwing over brachiopods in favor of building materials, that would do.  Adding social studies to the mix, even better.  Books could breathe.  There wasn’t such a rigid focus on sticking to the subject at hand (just ask Melville, who found it perfectly reasonable to insert several chapters on cetaceans in the middle of an epic adventure story).  Tight focus is admirable, but I think sometimes we focus the beam a little too much.  We forget that things are inextricably connected, because we’re so used to erecting partitions.

That’s why it’s nice to read a nineteenth-century book on architecture.  All of the things that go in to architecture – the society, the environment, the history of the culture and the 1,001 things that influence the way a building is built and used – get explored, without apology, and without fear that a dose of opinion and humor will somehow cheapen the work.

We probably don’t need a return to the extremes of 19th century segues (and if you’re wondering what I mean by extremes, pick up an unabridged copy of Les Miserables for a weighty example).  But it certainly wouldn’t hurt if fiction and non-fiction writers of today took a hint from Japanese architecture, and instead of erecting walls, used easily-rearranged partitions instead.

Advertisements