When I tell people that one of my favourite architecture books is Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, I’m often met with a rather bemused expression.
Published in 1933 in Japanese and translated to English in 1977, In Praise of Shadows isn’t ground a breaking text, in the way that Towards a New Architecture or Learning from Las Vegas are. Nor does it have the academic depth of one of my other favourite books, Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change. In fact, it really is simply an extended essay on light, shadow, aesthetic, and detail.
But it is a beautiful essay, that beyond the intricate descriptions reveals much about what we have lost in the pursuit of a new, modern, epoch. The author, Junichiro Tanizaki, speculates on the loss of craft at the hands of a society frantically adopting what is ‘new’. He reveals some fundamental differences in the Western culture of the time and that of Asian tradition. Where the search for clarity, for a Modernist re-invention, is characterised as light, sparkling, clean; the subtlety of craft in traditional Japanese culture is characterised by it’s shadow. Tanizaki laments the loss of subtlety in the ideas imported from the West – paper screens replaced with glass, tatami mats replaced with tiles, the sheen of lacquer in candlelight replaced by the glare of lacquer lit by the electric bulb.
On the face of it these may seem like the wistful writings of a man disillusioned by the encroachment of foreign ideas within his homeland. Yet in his writings Tanizaki makes observations about the destructive nature of a reckless pursuit for a ‘modern’ future at the expense of tradition. The brightness of the adopted ‘future’ is revealed as one-dimensional, lacking in atmosphere, lacking in subtlety. The complexity of tracing a line between subtlety and functionality has been lost. Instead of appreciating the art of shadow, the room must now be fully lit; there is no in-between. Robert Venturi, many years later, makes similar observations on Modernism in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
If these were the only observations that Tanizaki made I doubt I would list his book amongst my favourites. Strikingly however, In Praise of Shadows goes beyond critique to ask questions far more radical – what would a ‘modern’ Japan look like without the Western influence, could Japan have entered its own Modernist epoch through a natural evolution instead of an imported one? The ideas in these questions are not confined to Japan alone, although the impact is perhaps most pronounced there. Around the world, what have we lost by sacrificing our own evolution of art and society for the gleaming prospect of a new modern society? And what have we gained?
I am not anti-Moderntist and I am not anti-globalisation, however Tanizaki’s warning that what is shiniest is not always necessarily the best remains as true today as it was in 1933. His ideas provide an interesting and unusual framework to consider the success or failure of architecture, ancient or contemporary, and questions give us new ways of understanding and exploring buildings and places.
I first read it one evening a few years ago while relaxing with a glass of Rioja. I would encourage you to read it also – with or without the Rioja.
In Praise of Shadows: buy online
In Praise of Shadows is available on Amazon for just over £5 or about $9.