Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? III

I was out at the Boston Children's Museum recently, to take a look at a Machi-ya (Japanese merchant house) that is installed inside the facility. The building is about 400 years old and was given to the city of Boston by Kyoto, in 1979, shortly after a sister city relationship was established between the two places. Kyoto, which teems with old architecture (and lots of concrete and glass too!) is often considered Japan's oldest and most traditional city, is fittingly twinned with Boston, which is one of the oldest cities in the US, and is the location of the first Japanese consulate in the US.

The Museum had invited me to visit on rather short notice, as a Japanese craftsman was visiting for a couple of days, and they thought it would be good timing for me to come by as well. The Japanese craftsman, a Mr. Hashimoto, is a hyōgushi (表具師), a specialist in creating and repairing papered surfaces. A hyōgushi is kind of like a master wallpaperer, but the specialty also overlaps into the field of gilding. In fact, Hashimoto-san usually specializes in the gold leaf work in temples. On this visit, he had just done a spell at the Rockefeller residence in New York, where they have a Japanese teahouse, and had swung by to do some repair work on the Machi-ya's fusuma doors for a couple of days before returning home to Kyoto. Here, Hashimoto-san is building up the door edge with a lamination of strips:

As you might well imagine, an ancient Japanese merchant's house and a children's museum is a curious pairing - I got to watch what goes on in the house when 20 kids suddenly rush in, like fish through a penstock. They basically run amok in the house, opening and closing every sliding door they can get their hands on, and bashing into things. So, compared to normal, the house receives a huge amount of wear and tear. Fusuma are a type of lightweight door similar to shoji, except that they have thicker lattice frames (kumiko) and are papered on both sides of the kumiko. The paper is in layers, which on high-class fusuma is often three layers. The fusuma in the museum were just average ones with two layers, though they did have black lacquered outside frames. Several of the fusuma, after years in the museum, were punctured with numerous holes, so those needed repair along with putting fresh paper and lacquered frames on the fusuma.

I watched the hyōgushi work, right at the house entrance, for a couple of hours and it was quite fascinating. While I have never made fusuma, I understood pretty well how they were constructed as far as the internals went but was unclear as to how the paper was serviced and worked, and now I know some more after watching a master craftsman at work. An interesting observation also, was not just of Hashimoto-san, but of the various families that came up to the house's front door to enquire about the house hours, which were 1:00~3:00 that day. In each case, the Museum staff member at the door patiently explained that the house wasn't to open until 1:00 and that they had a Japanese master craftsman at work (and pointed towards Mr. Hashimoto), a rare event, and that it was a unique opportunity to observe the repair of the doors. To my surprise, not one family stopped even a heartbeat of time to observe, they simply turned about and headed back into the rest of the museum. After some 15 separate families doing the same thing, I began to conclude that perhaps they simply didn't have attention span for something like watching a craftsperson work. It wasn't that they didn't have time, as many came back an hour or so later after the house opened, it was more they just simply didn't consider the idea of stopping for a few moments, let things slow down, and watch someone work patiently at an activity. I watched the children a lot in these multiple interactions with the staff members, and I got the strong impression that they had little to no attention span whatsoever, and I imagine their parents (who may also have limited attention spans) basically knew that, so it would appear that they didn't consider, even for a blink of an eye, the thought of pausing to watch. It was a bit sad. The museum staffer mentioned to me that she found that kids have virtually no attention span. I guess so. I had thought this was less common asa phenomenon, however now I am beginning to wonder if in fact most children (and adults) are this way. Without an attention span, it must be said, gaining depth of knowledge in any deep field of enquiry is all but impossible.

I was thinking about that fact of limited attention span, the rising rates, apparently of ADD and ADHD among the young, the type of media we have had, I suppose in particular since the early 1980's advent of MTV with the shift to media of hyper-shifting imagery and sound-bite journalism and politics and how it might contribute to this phenomenon. And beyond that, I have been doing a fair amount of reading of late on a series of books that have made extensive comments upon shifts that have taken place in N. American culture in the past 150 years. It seemed to me that it would be worth revisiting the topic of the decline and fall of the Master Builder tradition, which I first took a look at back in January, as I feel I have some fresh insights to offer.

One of this things we often read about when mention is made of the late 19th century and the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, is how it was a 'reaction' to the 'excesses' of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. I'd always taken that somewhat at face value, but without really seeing it in much depth. Indeed, I may well now be still seeing it from a relatively shallow perspective, but it is a notch deeper than previous, so I hope the reader will indulge me in this respect.

It is curious that no one seems to talk much about why Victorian architecture and material culture in general was the way it was - highly decorated and prone to sentimentality and ornament. Did that just naturally evolve, or was it in itself a reaction to something? Well, it seems like it was in fact a reaction to something, and that something, I think, was industrialism, that is the set of behaviors and methods, techniques, that were spawned by the industrial revolution. As I averred in previous posts in this thread, the largest contributor to the loss of the Master Builder/Craftsman tradition was industrialism, and I would like therefore to examine the industrial revolution in more detail, both in it's effect upon society and upon methods of work and traditions in craft. That will form the focus for postings here over the next few days.

--> on to part IV


  1. Hello Chris, I received a subscription to Sukiya Living for my birthday and somehow (looking up tenjo-ita) found myself reading a thread where you discussed roofs, which digressed into publishing and self publishing.I believe this discussion was in 2004 or 2005. First, I'm curious whether your book was published and second, I want to respond directly to this particular blog post. I completely agree with your conclusions about the families visiting the museum. My nine year old son and I live in Portland, OR and we stopped watching television four or five years ago. It's difficult to summarize everything I've observed impartially (especially since my subject is my own sweetie), but there are definite differences in behavior and interests between my son and his peers. My son and I discuss language grammar (he is in Japanese immersion while I'm a student of Arabic), we garden, watch videos on, and go hiking/camping -- among other things. This summer I am taking a Japanese joinery class and I fully expect to bring home what I learn. I only wish I knew more artisans in the area so we could learn more. We find that creating something with your own hands is extremely rewarding.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I thank you for your comment. I had made a good start on my book, with 50 pages of drawings of hip roof layout, when I ran into issues with publishing. The whole thing ground to a halt basically. The fact of the matter is that the audience for a book on such a specialized topic is extremely limited and a book on that topic would run a few hundred pages and would have many color plates so it would be expensive to print. Not a good combination from a publishing perspective. The market is really not there for it - if it were a glossy coffee-table book on Japanese joints, maybe that would sell (but it wouldn't really SAY anything, now would it?).

    I decided to change my approach a little bit to the publishing plans - I wrote three articles for the journal "Timber Framing" (it was to be 6 articles but I stopped after 3 for various reasons). The idea was that I could chip away at creating a substantial body of material for the book by writing a series of articles. Since I stopped I haven't really started again. I was to write some stuff for Woodwork magazine, but then got busy doing something else, and now that Woodwork has changed ownership, I am waiting to see what direction they head in before I commit to writing anything.

    Good thing you got rid of the TV - a revolutionary act in our times. I also haven't had a TV for about 20 years, and the odd time I do have an opportunity to see it, I find it more and more bizarre each time!




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