Creativity Born from Constraints: Larry Speck (Full Transcript)

In this talk, Austin-based architect Larry Speck reveals how architectural creativity was oftentimes born from constraints. From wood scarcity, hot summers, and harsh winters blossomed the elegant, minimalistic themes of 18th century Japan. Hear about how the Japanese dealt with building regulations and adapted to the world around them to produce some of the world’s most cherished structures.

Larry Speck – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

So I do believe that these periods in history that have been made the most fertile and where real fundamental advances occurred, not just — sometimes as a kind of fluffy creativity that’s kind of narcissistic, but this is real advances in culture and advances that make a difference in the world.

And often they come from a kind of real acknowledgement, and embracing of constraints. And in this period in Tokugawa, Japan, they’d had flat population, and suddenly, they got their political problems worked out. They stopped warring with each other, and there was a period of real peace and prosperity.

But with that peace and prosperity came growth. They had population growth, and they were more fluid, they started consuming more.

And scarcity began to be an issue. They were a closed society, they didn’t have import or export, so they were having to live within the constraints of their island culture there.

So in that period, amazing things happened. And they happened at an environmental and technological level of innovation, but also at a social and cultural level of innovation.

And all of those were stimulated by action and acknowledgement of constraints. In the beginning of that period, after they got peace and prosperity, they started building like crazy. They are a forested country, they had tons and tons of wood, and they didn’t really build any different than they had before.

They built these big, amazing castles, but they were very traditional. They just made them bigger and bigger and stouter, and they used these massive timbers to do that. They built temples, again, in a very traditional kind of way, but just bigger, just better.

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And this is – Todaiji is a great temple in Nara, the largest wood building in the world. It’s impressive, not for its creativity, but more just for its scale and its massiveness and just more, more, more.

They were also building all new cities out of wood, and their towns. That was their major building resource, and they had reveled in it. Sometimes, of course, there might be a fire. That’s natural with wood. But that’s okay. They would just rebuild the city after the fire, and things were fine.

All of the islands in the archipelago in Japan were just covered with forest. And it seemed like there was an infinite supply of wood.

But then in 1657, there was the big Meireki fire in Tokyo. Edo was what it was called then. And in the Meireki fire half the city of Edo was burned.

Edo, by 1720, was the largest city in the world, so this was a massive city in a massive fire. And when they went back to try to rebuild Edo, they found out they were running out of timber – this enormous resource that had been so plentiful. They were running though their timber.

And so they began to address this, and they addressed it with some environmental and technological solutions. So, as you can see on the slide on the left, they preserved all the forest in the steeper slopes of the mountains.

And then where there was a little less slope, that was more ideal for agriculture, so they restricted those areas, the agricultural areas, to just those lower slopes to preserve the forest. And then they built their cities in very, very compact ways so they didn’t use any more land than possible.

And then they did a very thorough inventory of all their forest and what the resources were that were out there – and this timber could be used for building, this could be used for heating our homes, and this could be used for cooking our foods. In a very meticulous way, they inventoried everything.

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And then they began a very elaborate process of silviculture, which is raising trees as crops. They figured out particular kinds of trees that would be better for this, and they farmed them, and they optimized the land’s ability to produce timber. So they used very solidly environmental and technological factors.

But then they also had to ration this wood, so they regulated it, and they told people, “You can only use X amount of wood for building your house.” And it challenged the cultural and social side of things.

“Wait, how can I make a house with much less wood?” And it challenged the architects and the builders to optimize that wood. They began to make these thin, light structures, not those heavy, kind of gross castles they were doing before, but now buildings that are much more delicate because they’re using that resource of wood in an optimal way.

Inside, they made less partitions, less rooms, more open space, and it began to affect the way they lived as families in these houses. They made the dividers out of shoji screens, which are actually wood, but made into paper in a very efficient use of that wood to make the articulation of the interior spaces.

Because the buildings were much lighter and airier, they opened them up to daylight much more than they had before, and they began to make things like porches and courtyards and extensions of the house into the outdoors, and began to occupy those spaces, so they were living indoors and outdoors in a relatively salubrious climate.

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