Kinne Trip: Part 2

This is part 2 of a multi-part description of my trip to Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan, as part of my Kinne Traveling Fellowship grant through my studio at GSAPP.  You can read the first post here.  To see all my photos from Kyoto, visit my Google+ album here.

March 13th

Our second full day in Kyoto. This time we checked out the southern/southeastern part of the city, visiting  Fushimi Inari Taisha (Grand Shrine), Tofuku-ji, and then back in downtown, Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Inari, whose messengers are foxes (kitsune). There were fox statues everywhere! This shrine is the chief shrine to Inari, and is distinctive for its thousands of vermilion torii, or sacred gates. Torii are present at every Shinto shrine, but here it’s traditional for families and even corporations to donate them, so there are tunnels of torii lining the pathways. The shrine grounds encompass a mountain trail lined with smaller shrines and rest stations. We walked up for only about 20 minutes or half an hour, then headed back. It’s a beautiful place, and if we had more time, I would have wanted to complete the entire hike.  After visiting, I would say that a trip to Fushimi Inari should be... mandatorii.  Or perhaps... obligatorii.  Either way, I might describe our visit as... revelatorii.

We then walked to our next stop, Tofuku-ji, another Buddhist temple. This one had multiple gardens, and gardens on every side of the abbot’s quarters, which was quite beautiful. There was a rock garden and a moss garden, and across the ravine, a landscape garden. The gardens and buildings were all connected by covered walkways, which we especially appreciated since it rained while we were there. Inside the main hall, there was some kind of class or event going on, with many people, mostly women, creating ikebana, or flower arrangements. It was fun to watch them at their work!

The rain stopped and we were ready for lunch. On our way back toward the train station we ran into a recommended restaurant from the Kyoto Lonely Planet guide, called Cocohana, serving Korean food, so we headed in. The restaurant is in a converted house, which is cool, and the food was great. There was also a birthday party or some kind of children’s event going on with lots of little kids running around, which was kind of cute.

Hoping that the rain would hold off, we decided to make a last stop at Nijo-jo, the shogun’s castle in downtown. But when we emerged from the subway, it was pouring rain. We made a run for it and managed to get in before the last entry, and walked through the main castle building, but with the rain it was dark and hard to see inside. In order to preserve the wall paintings, there are no internal lights. The castle is huge, though, and the floors are interesting because they were built to creak on purpose, apparently to warn the shogun of any intruders. After the castle tour we sat in the lounge area hoping the rain would stop, but it didn’t, so we went back to the hotel without seeing the grounds. Next time, I guess!

At dinner we went to another restaurant from the guidebook, hoping for another hit, and found a cheap, tasty Japanese restaurant down the street from our hotel. Success. I recommend the Lonely Planet guidebook if only to help navigate the hundreds of restaurant choices!

March 14th

Justin & I headed out on our own to see the city of Nara, the old Japanese capital before Kyoto (which was itself the capital before Edo/Tokyo). Nara is about an hour away by train, and is known for its monuments in Nara Park, including Todai-ji, Kasuga Taisha, the Nara Museum, and Kofuku-ji.  It's also known for its wandering sacred deer.  At Nara station, we took the city loop bus up to Todai-ji and worked our way back to the station from there. Todai-ji is truly an impressive temple, whose enormous daibutsuden, or Buddha Hall, houses an equally enormous Buddha (or "Big Buddha," as it says on one of the signs). The giant bronze Buddha is flanked by gold-leafed bodhisattva. One of the pillars in the hall has a pretty large hole in it, and according to legend, anyone who can fit through this hole, supposedly the same size as the Buddha sculpture’s nostril, will reach enlightenment. We watched with amusement as one father helped his small child climb through it several times, and then with even greater amusement as several young women and even a couple of young men squeezed through on their stomachs. We didn’t try ourselves.

After visiting the daibutsuden we wandered through more of the temple grounds, up a lot of stairs to some outer buildings where there was a nice view over the valley. We didn’t really know where we were, but a very helpful man, who apparently volunteers as a YMCA guide, explained the significance of the buildings to us, and directed us to one of the pavilions where there was free hot tea for visitors – although you have to wash your cup afterward. He described some of the festivals and how each pavilion is named for a different month and used for different annual events. Pretty cool!

We climbed down from the heights and wandered over to Kasuga Taisha, another Shinto grand shrine, this one known for its collection of hundreds of bronze, stone, and gold-plated lanterns.  We wandered among the lanterns for a while, admired the sacred trees (yorishiro), and then continued on our way; having entered from the back, we walked out the front, down the path lined impressively with stone lanterns (and with deer looking for cookies).  At the end of the path, we encountered one of our favorite things in Japan: roasted sweet potatoes in a bag!  Apparently these are called yaki imo.  We bought a large one from a lady with a big stove-looking thing on a cart, while the stove gave off a loud, high-pitched whistling.  It was quite cold in Nara that day, so we clutched our sweet potato halves for warmth (before eating them) and continued on our way.

Our final stop was Kofuku-ji, a temple that is probably more impressive when not covered in giant tarpaulins.  As it was, with the main hall covered up, and as cold as it was and as tired as we were by then, this was one of the less impressive sights.  Nice pagoda, though.  After our brief visit here we finished our walk back to the train station, stopping along the way with the hopes of getting lunch.  Unfortunately, when we tried a chain curry restaurant, we discovered that they had only pork or beef curry, and had to leave since Justin doesn't eat either of those.  Our train was delayed (!) on the ride back but we returned to the hotel without any other problems.  We even got some hot chocolate, in a can, from a vending machine on the station platform.  Hot (canned) drinks from vending machines seem to be pretty popular, especially coffee.

Back in Kyoto we had dinner at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant very close to the hotel with the others in our travel group.  I'm not a big fan of raw fish, so the benefit of this type of restaurant for foreigners like me is the wide variety of foods available without having to order off a menu you can't read - you just pick up whatever you want from the belt as it goes around.  There was a limited but satisfactory number of cooked items on the menu so I was fine.  It's entertaining just for the experience alone, though, if you've never been to an establishment like this before.


Book Review: "Abstract"

Every year Columbia GSAPP releases a yearbook of sorts, full of student work from the previous year.  This year's Abstract, designed by Stefan Sagmeister, has been setting the school a-buzz, but not for the usual reasons.  Because this year's Abstract was a decoy.

Inside the flimsy plastic case that resembles a book is... nothing, just a web address spelled out in block letters, like the packaging for some alphabet toy.  The actual Abstract is an electronic-only affair, downloadable from this website, available as an application only for desktop computers (Windows and Mac) and iPads (sorry, Android).  There is no web version.  So far I've only seen a limited preview, since I don't have an iPad, and I don't spend much time at home.  I've heard numerous complaints that the application doesn't work at all, but I hope to find out for myself... eventually.  From what I've seen by looking over the shoulder of someone with an iPad, the app is actually quite nice, provides high-resolution views of the content, and lets you both search and browse at random through the "pages."

But what's causing my peers to grumble, and with which I agree, is that the plastic decoy version is a big waste of resources.*  Why bother creating this faux plastic version of a book at all?  Why not just post the link around the school and call it a day?  Most of us aren't opposed to electronic content - far from it.  What we don't like is the pointless plastic packaging, worse than sending an application on DVD through the mail, since there's not even any content inside.  I do have my own reservations about the format of the "book," however, since I'm not sure we're yet at the point where the archiving of digital materials can stand the test of time.  What happens in 10 years when there are no more iPads and no more Windows 7, and we can't open this application anymore?  Do we have to keep an old Windows machine around, like they do at real archives, just to open this program?  I grant you that books are becoming more and more electronic, but for something that claims to be an archive of student work, this year's Abstract falls a little short.  And why is there no web version? At least a web version might get picked up by electronic archives like The Wayback Machine, and thereby stand a chance at existing for more than the next few years.

I would like to make clear that I mean no disrespect to the students who worked on this project, including students in my own program, but I wish someone had been able to convince the administration that a plastic decoy is not something anyone wants on his/her shelf.  I've seen copies of Abstract used as a gift for visiting professors or brought along when we visit others outside the school, as a kind of ambassador; I can't image using this plastic box in the same way.

I have a few older versions of Abstract, so I must admit that this year's falls pretty well into line with the others.  Last year's, nicknamed "the potato," is cut full of holes that go all the way through the book.  I was pretty disappointed with this version, since I think it's disrespectful to the student work inside.  We spent a lot of time and effort on these projects, and then other students spent a lot of time and effort laying out the book, only for the designer to cut holes indiscriminately through the images.  Does no one actually value the work inside?

The year before was a "gold brick" of a book, with some optical illusion lines on the cover and case.  I thought it was gaudy and ostentatious, especially since the gold foil covers the edges of the paper as well as the cover, and the edges are laser-etched so the lines wrap all the way around.  But at least the work inside is treated like something valuable, and the gold even elevates the work to the status of idol or relic.  Over-the-top, but at least respectful and comprehensible.

I much prefer some of the older versions I have, from before I was a student, given to me at the open house I attended back in 2010.  These versions contain clever details, like nesting a series of books within one another, or covers that require following a certain set of directions to open, printed diagrammatically on the book itself.

Image by gsapponline from Issuu.com, Abstract 2008-2009

I appreciate the impulse to create an archive of student work, and as a librarian myself, I want to encourage it.  I think we should be learning from past student work.  But I don't think this year's Abstract is either a particularly good way to preserve content or particularly respectful in its execution.  I hope next year's version returns to analog (print), if only so I can have a tangible record of my final year at GSAPP.

You can download your own copy of Abstract 2011-2012, assuming you have the right hardware, at http://abstract20112012.com/.

*Justin would like to point out that the combined package of app + plastic decoy may have cost less and/or used fewer environmental resources than printing a "normal" version of Abstract.  I maintain that the decoy may be relatively less wasteful, but is still objectively wasteful.


Kinne Trip: Japan!

This spring, all my fellow third-year GSAPPers and I have the privilege of traveling as part of our studio, thanks to the William Kinne travel grant provided by the school.  My studio is traveling to Tokyo, Japan!  The trip traditionally takes place the week before spring break, allowing students to extend their stay in the visited location through their break; my trip is taking place during spring break, this week, so instead we were excused from studio last week and allowed to head out a week early.  Justin came with me, making this our first international vacation together.  We've been having quite an interesting time so far!  I'll try to break up the trip into a few posts.  We started the trip in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, and home to most of the important sites from Japanese (architectural) history.  After four days there we went to Tokyo, where we are now, and will remain for the rest of the trip.


March 10-11th

We left Newark at 12:30pm and had an uneventful 14-hour flight to Tokyo, arriving, bizarrely but as expected, at 3:30pm the next day. Along the way I watched “Cloud Atlas,” which I really enjoyed, and “Wreck-It Ralph.” And tried to sleep. Apparently Benadryl has very little effect on me, so I didn’t sleep very well despite my best efforts.

After arriving at Narita, and picking up SIM cards, JR rail passes, etc along the way, we took the Narita Express (NEX) train into the city to Shinagawa, where we boarded our shinkansen (Hikari) bullet train to Kyoto. (Note: if you want to get a NEX-Suica transit card for use in Tokyo, which saves you money on the Narita Express, you can only buy it at the airport. We missed this bit of info and found out only after it was too late, and couldn't get the cards.) As a group of eight we didn’t manage to make very good time through the airport, so we arrived in Kyoto after 10pm, struggled through the subway system, and finally found our hotel. I have been surprised, pleased, and often amused to see the amount of English and/or romaji (Roman) characters used everywhere, even in places where it’s not needed and makes little sense, including for slogans of stores and banners where nothing else on the sign is in English. But at least, thankfully, all the street signs, bus stops, etc are labeled in romaji so we haven’t had any difficulty identifying our stops.

We stayed at the Royal Park Hotel “The”Kyoto, which despite its strange name was lovely and a great place to stay, well-located and very nice. I definitely recommend it. The first night there we were too tired even to leave the hotel room so we ate some granola bars and went to sleep.

March 12th

Our first full day in Kyoto, we ventured into the northwest part of the city to see an area especially rich in temples. We had pastries for breakfast, and discovered the wonder of Japanese pastry shops: you take a tray and tongs, pick out whatever pastries you want from the displays around the shop, then take them to the register where they wrap them all up for you. My favorite are the cream-filled buns. Buns with various fillings seem to be de rigeur: red bean, matcha (green tea), strawberry, cherry, cream, and more are available in every shop. There are also breads with nuts, and some European-type pastries like eclairs and croissants, and buns filled with various meats (haven’t tried any of those). We’ve had pastries for breakfast every day so far!

We hopped on a bus with our one-day bus passes while munching pastries and rode it up to our first stop, Kinkaku-ji, better known at the Golden Pavilion. (Buses in Kyoto seem to be the best way to go; 220 yen [roughly $2.20] flat fare, they run very frequently, and we’ve never had to wait for one.) Kinkaku-ji ended up being one of the most touristy places we visited, crowded with all types of people (mostly Japanese but I also heard French, German, English, and more). The entire site has a fairly strict itinerary laid out that takes you immediately to the pavilion and then through the gardens around it. The pavilion itself it indeed beautiful (and shiny!), although the gardens weren’t the best we saw.

We then walked to our next stop, the Zen Buddhist temple of Ryoan-ji, about 20 minutes up the road. Maybe next time we’d take a bus, since it wasn’t the most pleasant walk, mostly uphill. Ryoan-ji is famous for its rock garden inside the main building. The rest of the site is quite nice as well, with various landscape gardens, ponds, and scenery. We even encountered a friendly bird.

After Ryoan-ji we decided it was time for lunch, so along the way to our next stop we meandered through a suburban-type neighborhood looking for food. We didn’t see anything but asked at a grocery place and discovered that we were standing in front of an udon (noodle) restaurant. Inside there was no English menu nor any English speakers, but the prioprietor brought us a magazine and pointed to a picture of a noodle soup dish. After making sure it was vegetarian, we all ordered the same thing, brought to us by an elderly lady who seemed to be the owner’s mother. The soup was great and we managed to identify nearly everything that was in it! Then we headed off to our final stop for the afternoon, Ninna-ji.

Ninna-ji was quite different from the other two, located in a wide open area that we were free to wander, rather than a set path through a garden. Here we saw our first pagoda, or stupa, up close and a number of other impressive buildings as well. Japanese architecture is largely defined by its roofs: I will probably have hundreds of photos of roofs by the end of the trip. The enormous curved, overhanging roofs, many with gold ornaments, are very impressive up close.

After Ninna-ji we took the bus back to our hotel and crashed until dinner time, when we then headed out on our next adventure, to see the annual lantern festival, Hanatoro, in the Higashiyama district. We happened to be in Kyoto during this week-long festival, and it was definitely an interesting sight! The streets of the entire district, which apparently is normally empty after dark, were lit by (mostly metal) lanterns along the sidewalk, and there were throngs of people out, many of them dressed in traditional garb. We saw a troop of children beating drums through the streets, a take-your-picture-with-a-geisha spot, and tried some street food. Unfortunately we didn’t find a restaurant that would take all of us, so ultimately we split up for dinner. Justin & I went to an Italian restaurant since we were tired of looking for restaurants at that point and wanted to eat something we could identify. It was pretty good, actually, although the waitresses saying Italian phrases with a Japanese accent were pretty hilarious.

Stay tuned for more posts! Also check out the full photo set here.


"YES IS MORE": Kind of a BIG Deal

I finally finished reading YES IS MORE: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution (2009), which is the monograph by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) in Denmark (company website).  My overall feeling from reading the book, which is in comic-book format, complete with endless images of Bjarke Ingels himself speaking in speech bubbles, is that it's like watching a train wreck: terrifying and somewhat sickening but you can't look away.  It's organized into a series of apparently chronological chapters, each of which covers one design.  I understand that this book is directed to a general public, not to architects, which accounts for some of the vast oversimplification that occurs in its descriptions of the architectural design process; and that it's a manifesto of sorts, which explains its overly enthusiastic tone and sweeping generalizations.  And yet, there were many points at which I didn't want to continue reading any further, didn't want to look at any more of the endless number of Lego-brick swoopy skyscraper models.  The triumphalism in the description of each design, and seemingly inevitable failure of each project (the book claims that BIG has designed hundreds of buildings but only built a handful), left me feeling unsatisfied at the end of every chapter.  Every design is only schematic - there are few stories in here with any real conclusions, few buildings that actually survived the challenging process of accommodation to the real world that BIG claims to embrace.  The manifesto of "YES IS MORE" is that accepting the design constraints of the real world, like sustainability, zoning, politics, money, and marketing, can enhance rather than detract from one's design.  This is only a revelation if you are an architect who thinks the form is the (only) thing; this is common sense for everyone else.  The fake radicalism of this embrace of what everyone does anyway (ie, work within real-world constraints) continued to wear on me as I waded through all 400 pages of the book.  The (possibly cynical) disguisal of pure form-making with a veneer of accommodation to things like climate, regulation, and programmatic needs (the most annoying of which was the constant refrain of "housing needs sun!  offices don't like sun!") was most obvious in the cases where a really conscientious approach might have been to turn down the project to begin with, or to try to influence the program or approach of the client.  Far too many of the projects were designed for virgin sites, known as greenfields, which is the antithesis of sustainable design.  I suspect that the "yes is more" manifesto may be a way to avoid taking responsibility for one's design; for example, the projects presented on virgin desert sites in Dubai never questioned the need for these buildings built in the middle of nowhere - they only asked how best to mitigate severe climate concerns using formal devices (overhanging shading, etc).

I don't mind formalism per se, and some of BIG's designs in the book are quite compelling; the Maritime Youth House and Danish Maritime Museum come to mind, the latter built creatively into the footprint of a dry dock.  BIG has a distinct formal style that comes through in all of their projects.  What bothers me is the attempt in this book to conceal the formalism with a "radical" manifesto that says, in effect, "we do typical corporate architecture" while pretending that this is an amazing innovation.  Perhaps the clearest indication of this stance is the slogan of "revolution or evolution!" that gets thrown around quite often in the text.  The famous "Architecture or Revolution?" rhetorical question posed by Le Corbusier in Towards an Architecture is meant to show that architecture - by placating the unruly masses - can help us avoid revolution and maintain the conservative order.  "Revolution or Evolution?" seems to me to be the same kind of rhetorical question - it points not to a (radical) revolution but to a (conservative) evolution, that is, to formalism as a solution to all our problems.

I suppose I should be thankful to read something that prompts me to such a passionate response, but I can't say I recommend this book as general reading.  Proceed at your own risk.