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.
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.
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.
And then they began to say, “Wow, this outdoor space — we can make it much more beautiful. We can landscape it. We can make gardens. And we can make an extension of our house in the garden.”
And out of that thought, there was a big leap in the creativity and landscape architecture of the beautiful Japanese garden that became an extension of the house. And then they went even further than that — they began to affect, really, their everyday lives in those homes.
So as in the center here, rather than heating the whole house, which took a lot of wood to heat, instead, they would heat only local areas, and they would make these little pits, and they would put the fire in there, and they would gather around the fire, and they only heated the area where the family was occupying that room.
And then when they cooked, they would cook at the table, and the heat that was being used to boil the stew was also being used to warm the bodies of the people around the table there. They even altered their cuisine so that in the wintertime, that’s when you had stews. They virtually did away with grilling or baking, because that used too much wood.
But they would make these stews and then gather the family around in the wintertime, around the table and eat then.
And in the summertime, they didn’t have stew because that created too much heat, so they began to eat more raw vegetables and raw fruit, and they began to eat much more raw fish. And that began to alter their cuisine, and they invented new types of food and dishes that could be warm weather dishes when we wouldn’t want to use heat to produce that in the home.
So they completely altered the kind of cultural life that they had there. And out of that came many phenomenal innovations that we benefit from in an international way.
In architecture, it inspired Frank Lloyd Wright. He was very much a fan of these Japanese homes made out of light timber frames, and his Usonian houses, which we see on the slide at the top, were really born of his study of Japanese architecture. It began to have an influence all over the world.
Other architects, like Mies van der Rohe, could see that frame, that openness, that integration of indoors and outdoors, these light, thin barriers between nature and inhabitation. And it revolutionized modern architecture and began to give us possibilities in buildings that we didn’t have before.