Charles Besjak (Chair)
First, an argument in favor of travel.
Visiting buildings in person differs fundamentally from studying plans or looking at photographs. A visitor can stumble upon unexpected views and feel their perspective shift as they walk forward. The feeling of passing through a mighty gate or of emerging from a low-ceilinged corridor into an open room is not easy to understand from a distance. It is nearly impossible to predict in advance how a building will feel. Planning this trip, I looked forward to experiencing structures in all their three-dimensional, dynamic glory.
It was even better than that.
The buildings taught me again and again to appreciate my senses. The sound of falling water changes the experience of a place. So does the feeling of running your hand along a smooth, polished concrete wall. Or a rough stone wall. A shrine built over water smells different from a shrine built over land, and the light on the water shrine dances continuously as the water ripples below. Walking across wooden castle floorboards in bare feet, feeling irregularities smoothed by years of use, is not the same as walking the same path in boots. The sounds of clapping hands and coins falling into collection boxes are fundamental elements of Shinto shrines. The smell and the feel of tatami mats are fundamental elements of Japan.
Even from a single vantage point, our eyes make observation a rich experience. Where a photographer must pick an exposure setting, losing detail in the light and dark parts of the picture, our eyes can continually readjust to reveal a wealth of subtleties in bright and dark areas. A place that looks uniformly black in a photograph is actually many different grays and browns. An exterior wall the same color as the sky does not actually blend into the sky when you see it in person. The time it takes our eyes to adjust is part of architecture too: walking into a sunlit room from a dark corridor is completely different from walking into a sunlit room from a sunlit corridor.
I have tried to record these impressions, and to let my experience of the structures guide this report. I have enjoyed studying the history of Japanese architecture, and will include history, construction details, and structural information whenever it makes sense. I hope to convey here a little of the feeling of walking through these places, with the time to linger on the details.
The Phoenix Hall, seen from across the pond, where members of the Fujiwara clan sat to contemplate Amida Buddha. © Abby Enscoe.
Tall single-story structures with an extra overhang at mid-level let merchants show off their wealth without breaking a law prohibiting them from building two-story structures, Sanmachi district, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. © Abby Enscoe.
I have long believed that seeing architecture in person is fundamentally different and more valuable than studying it from afar. This trip emphatically confirmed that conviction. The structure and details of buildings evoke layers of responses that cannot be imagined from a distance. Spending time in the buildings, walking in and around them, was crucial to exploring their effect on people. I have always loved Japanese architecture, but my understanding of its impact was limited to what I could learn from books and photographs. Visiting with the time to explore slowly and carefully was an amazing experience, even more than I hoped it would be. Studying these structures in person gave me the chance to see the power and impact of craftsmanship, innovative structural systems, and architectural choices.
My trip to Japan evolved continually, both during planning and while I traveled. During the months between receiving the SOM fellowship and leaving for Japan, I invested a good deal of time in researching Japanese architects and structures. My itinerary developed as I fine-tuned my interests and knowledge of Japanese architecture. While traveling, I was able to approach my itinerary flexibly as I found some structures prohibitively hard to reach and discovered others that I had not focused on before. I learned about the Sayamaike Museum from an Australian architect about to start an internship with Kengo Kuma. I missed visiting Ando’s Church on the Water because it was closed for weddings throughout my time in Hokkaido.
I let my reactions to the structures themselves guide my approach to the trip as well. I spent all day exploring many buildings, and left others after only an hour. I found I could easily sit still for hours, writing, drawing, and watching people move through the spaces. I visited Himeji-jo a second time after the first time bowled me over. Ancient buildings absorbed more of my time than I had expected they would; I spent long, wonderful days exploring their halls.
Perhaps because Japan is such a friendly, safe, navigable place to travel, I found that I could focus my mental energy on Japanese architecture and culture to a far greater extent than I had expected. I brought architecture books with me on my trip, and I spent many evenings sitting on tatami mats, drinking tea and learning about temple construction and Japanese history, or studying Japanese. Taking the time to learn about the connections between architecture and history in advance made visiting the buildings a rich experience.
Overall, I learned far more than I expected to learn, and often in different directions than I had anticipated. The attention to detail, the history, and the intricate craftsmanship of the ancient buildings were breathtaking. Modern structures offered lessons in a high level of craft that seems largely absent from construction in the United States. I appreciated the chance to study Japanese earthquake engineering in the context of real buildings with a wide variety of structural systems. As a result of the trip, I have an array of new ideas about structure, a greater appreciation for craft, and a better understanding of how architecture impacts people. I will also continue to savor memories and impressions of my time spent visiting Japanese buildings. I am deeply indebted to the SOM Foundation for the opportunity to explore Japan and learn about its rich architectural heritage and the directions Japanese architects are exploring today.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture. © Abby Enscoe.
University of California, Berkeley
is a master's degree candidate in structural engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Enscoe studied physics as an undergraduate at Harvard and worked as a carpenter with Habitat for Humanity for two years.