Saturday, 25 June 2011

In praise of shadows... at least if they surround light

Actually, rather than being part of some consumerist conspiracy, the dearth of LED fittings for is probably much less sinister and just a lack of a market among house builders for new lighting. The electrics seem to be the last thing that is thought about in the building process. By this time the consultation process between architect and client has probably dried up and a sketch is handed to an electrician to put fittings in the ceiling in the middle of each room so everywhere is bathed in uniform light. Eat your heart out Jun'ichiro Tanizaki 

I've been reading a translation of his essay, "In Praise of Shadows" (1933) which apparently is required reading for any student of architecture in Japan, although Tanizaki is no architect. Of course architecture contains a great deal more philosophy than anything else, and you don't need to be an architect to know how buildings and spaces work. In Praise of Shadows is a good critique of modernisation and the westernisation of Japan. Tanizaki, who was born in 1886, just after the Meiji Restoration, laments the introduction of electric light into restaurants. He goes off on a crusade to find a deeper appreciation of subtlety and cloudiness in orientals from the colour of their skin to the materials used in their soup bowls and on their sliding doors. 

He wrote that "Japan wastes more electric light than any western country except America." This was in the 1930s; goodness knows what he would have made of the country more recently. He adds that "so benumbed are we nowadays by electric light that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination." He talks about establishments that are "lit far too extravagently" admitting that "some of this may be necessary to attract customers."  He talks of the waste of lighting before it is dark in the summer, "and worse than the waste is the heat . . . Outside it will be cool, but inside it will be ridiculously hot, and more often than not because of lights too strong or too numerous. Turn some of them off and in no time at all the room is refreshingly cool. Yet curiously neither the guests nor the owner seem to realise this. A room should be brighter in winter, but dimmer in summer; it is then appropriately cool, and does not attract insects. But people will light the lights, then switch on an electric fan to combat the heat. The very thought annoys me." (p 36-37)

If only he were still alive and working as an electrician in Matsumoto.

"Light is used not for reading or writing or sewing," he says later, "but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs against the basic idea of the Japanese room." So when we're asking what went wrong with Japanese architecture and looking for a culprit, we can add electric lights to aluminium windows in the line up of usual suspects. And I suppose the Japanese obsession with imitating the West. 

Joshua Sowin writes more about Tanizaki's essay here . I've been reading a 1977 translation by Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker, published by Leete's Island Books of Stony Creek, CT.