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ARCHITECTURE AND NATURE: An Aspect of Asian Landscape Aesthetics

Haruhiko Fujita
Professor, Osaka University Graduate School of Letters

Chapter 1: ARCHITECTURE ORNAMENTING NATURE, Learning from Athens

"Aurora and Cephalus" by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, first exhibited at the Salon in 1810, is now in the Louvre. Aurora is the Greek goddess of dawn who supposedly has "fingers of rosy color" (Homer). She fell in love with a beautiful young man, Cephalus. In this picture, she is raising a purple veil with her rosy fingers to see and perhaps hug Cephalus. Aurora is a sister of the Greek sun god, Helios, and in the role of guiding the start of his daily travel every morning. After her falling love with Cephalus, however, she neglected her morning duties, and the universe was thrown into confusion. Then, a Cupid or Amor (Eros in Greece) made Cephalus' love for Aurora awaken. She took him to the heavens in her chariot. Then, the universe returned to normal.

This story was not originally in Greek mythology, but later made by an Italian dramatist in Baroque period, as Il rapimento di Cefalo. The painting of "Aurora and Cephalus" in the Louvre is a further reinterpretation of the Italian story by a French Neoclassicist painter. The perception and image of dawn in this painting is very Mediterranean, formed in Greece, reformed or expanded in Italy, and further reinterpreted in France. This painting seems to be an almost literal description or even a very real delineation of a dawn of Athens or somewhere else in Greece, if there is no erotic Aurora, Cephalus, and Eros in the sky. It is very understandable that Homer had described it as the "rosy fingers of Aurora." In my personal experience, the morning light of Athens did not come from the east. It was neither bright white nor yellow light beam from the east, but rosy purple layers of light falling down from the heavens.

On the Acropolis, the very first place lit by the morning sun, or touched by Aurora's rosy fingers every morning is naturally the eastern pediment of the Parthenon (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 The eastern pediment of the Parthenon, AthensFig. 1 - The eastern pediment of the Parthenon, Athens

The pediment located at the supreme position was decorated with a group of very appropriate statues. In the center, Zeus attended by his daughter Athena and his son Hephaistos who helped the birth of Athena by breaking the head of Zeus with his axe. Around these three central figures, eighteen Greek gods and goddesses were symmetrically placed, standing near the center and gradually laying down near the both edges.

However, those twenty-one Greek statues made in the 5th century BC all disappeared. The central statues were destroyed in the 6th century AD when the Parthenon was converted into a Byzantine Christian church. The other statues that saw another millennium of cold winters and hot summers finally disappeared at the beginning of the 19th century, when Greece was under the Ottoman Turks' rule. Who took away those statues was, however, not the Turkish Sultan but a British diplomat, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. In 1801-03, he carried away the best parts of the Parthenon including statues of the eastern pediment from Athens to London. Afterwards, those statues and architectural details were called the "Elgin Marbles" owned by the British Museum since 1816.

While the western pediment was considerably restored in the form of pediment by a restoration work executed in 1900, the eastern pediment was left in the condition of the 19th century except for both its north and south ends. Therefore, the eastern pediment is not in an original pediment shape at all. If we fix our eyes on the both ends of it, however, we see several heads of horses. On the southern end, there are a few heads and an arm.

It is an arm of the sun god, Helios, whose chariot is carried by four horses. On the northern end, there are two heads of horses that pulled the chariot of Selene, the moon goddess and another sister of Helios. Most of them are copies of "Elgin Marbles" at the British Museum, including the arm of Helios and Dionysus (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 “Elgin Marbles”, the British Museum, LondonFig. 2 - “Elgin Marbles”, the British Museum, London

They are newly made and installed in 1931 on the both ends of the eastern gable. Those statues are really miserable and fragmental copies, nevertheless, they stimulate our imagination. They take us to the world of Greek myth. They make us imagine the cosmos of Greek mythology.

Helios is the sun god driving the chariot and jumps up every morning from an eastern part of the Oceanus, the huge ocean and river in Greek mythology. He dives into a western part of it in every evening after his one-day travel. On the east pediment of the Parthenon, ancient Greek architects and sculptors likened the lower geison (corona) to the surface of the Oceanus. After four houses, Helios is just jumping up from the Oceanus to join the line of other gods and goddesses.

On the surface of the lower geison (corona) as well as on the shoulder of Helios, kept and exhibited in the British Museum, waves of the Oceanus are carved. A whirling wave is clearly visible on Helios' shoulder (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Helios, “Elgin Marbles”, the British Museum, London.Fig. 3 - Helios, “Elgin Marbles”, the British Museum, London.

 In its original place high up on the Parthenon, those waves are almost impossible to be observed from the ground level. Therefore, those details were not for human beings but for the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, as well as for an irreplaceable place, the eastern gable of the Parthenon that receives the first sunlight every morning.

On the northern end, the moon goddess Selene who has just finished her one night travel is sinking under the surface of the Oceanus (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 The northern end of the eastern pediment, the ParthenonFig. 4 - The northern end of the eastern pediment, the Parthenon

In the blue sky of Athens, suggested by the direction of powerfully running horses, we can almost draw a great imaginative segmental arch connecting Helios and Selene over other gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. Central statues have long been lost through the ages of battles, religious conflicts, and modern European colonialism. But, the great design of the eastern pediment by Greek architects and sculptors won. Facing the cosmological design in which the instant of Athena's birth is told in an eternal cycle on the eastern pediment that receives the first sunlight every morning, we can almost forget the fact that those remaining statues on the pediment are copies. Though its major statues carried away to London, the place high above the Acropolis cannot be taken away by any power. It is really an irreplaceable place in the sky. Marble sculpture cut off from its original place turns into dead stones in the museum, and a heavenly design wins a victory over an earthly destruction.

The Acropolis, a prominent limestone hill rising in the middle of Athens is a good example of "Architecture ornamenting Nature." The hill itself was a kind of natural crown given to Athens. The Acropolis is further crowned or decorated with numbers of splendid Greek temples of marble including the Parthenon and Erechtheion. Some neoclassicist or romantic architects or architectural connoisseurs of the 18th and 19th century tried to adorn summits of some European hills and mountains with their romantic edifices. Even some 20th century architects such as Bruno Taut had a vision of "architecture decorating nature." In Western garden, particularly English landscape gardens, we may see a different relationship between nature and architecture. For instance, we may think of a picturesque garden pavilion. However, Chinese garden pavilions are adornments to English landscape gardens.  "Architecture ornaments Nature." This phrase could be almost universally understood.

Chapter 2: NATURE PROTECTS ARCHITECTURE, Leaning from Seoul

"Nature protects architecture, and architecture ornaments nature." This passage is from a magazine article written in 1922 by Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889-1961) who is better known as Soetsu Yanagi in the Western world.

Yanagi was an art critique and becoming the leader of the folk-craft movement of Japan. After graduated from the Imperial University of Tokyo, he first visited Korea which was under Japan's political control in 1916. However, he was deeply impressed by its artistic tradition. In political side, he took a stand in support of Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule.

Yanagi wrote an article as a protest against the impending demolition of the Gwanghwamun, the main gate of the Gyeonbokgung palace by the Japanese colonial government in Korea. It was published in Korea in August 1922, and in Japan a month later. His article published in a Japanese magazine Kaizo was exhaustively censored by police authority (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 Yanagi Muneyoshi, "Ushinawarentosuru ichi chosen-kenchiku Fig. 5 - Yanagi Muneyoshi, "Ushinawarentosuru ichi chosen-kenchiku

The last phrase of that passage "architecture ornaments nature" is, as I mentioned before, an idea that may be almost universally understood. On the contrary, the first phrase "nature protects architecture" is perhaps an idea that may not be fully understood in the Western world where architecture is an art to construct a building that protects its owner and property against nature since the days of Alberti or even those of Vitruvius.

Yanagi seems to have learned this very Asian principle of nature and architecture from the environmental relationship between the natural landscape of Seoul and the Gyeongbokgung palace. Guided by Fung Shui belief, the palace was laid out with the Bukhansan mountains in its background (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 The Gyeongbokgung palace and Seoul Fig. 6 The Gyeongbokgung palace and Seoul

 One of the main reasons why we now aesthetically appreciate the palace is also in its supreme relationship with its natural landscape, particularly with nearby Mt. Bukaksan (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 The Gyeongbokgung palace (Guenjeongjeon hall) and Mt. Bukaksan Fig. 7 The Gyeongbokgung palace (Guenjeongjeon hall) and Mt. Bukaksan

In Yi dynasty, Feng Shui, which had been introduced from China and literally means "wind and water," was a very important tool to choose a location and orientation as well as to decide a layout of city, house, tomb, etc, based on its relationship with its natural surroundings such as mountains, rivers, lakes or ponds. Feng Shui is known even in the Western world since the days of Ernest Johann Eitel who published Feng-shui: or The Rudiments of Natural Science in China in 1873 in London.

Now, we see the main gate Gwanghwamun and the Gyeongbokgung palace as well as the blue tiled presidential office on the plains at the foot of Mt. Bukaksan. Seoul and the Gyeongbokgung palace laid down with the high Bukhansan mountains for the background and facing much lower Mt. Namsan and the river Hangang to the south is one of the most representative cities based on Feng Shui. Yangagi did not mention Feng Shui at all in his article, but he highly appreciated the beauty of the city and its relationship with background landscape. Yanagi wrote as follows in his article:

 "Unforgettable are the sceneries of the palace with lines of governmental offices of particularly Korean in their style, with the Bukhansan mountains for its background, and the Gwanghwamun for its foreground from which a principal street runs. There is a twofold beauty in its architecture, planned with a careful consideration of the relationship with nature. Nature protects architecture, and architecture ornaments nature. Any people should not destroy the organic relationship between nature and architecture without proper reason. But, now, alas, an unsympathetic power is going to destroy its harmonious relationship between nature and man-made. I'll be happy, if it is a daydream. But, it isn't." Yanagi was of course referring not only to nature and architecture but also to the whole situation of Korea by writing "any people should not destroy the organic relationship between nature and architecture."

It is noteworthy that Yanagi found an Asian principle of nature and architecture in Korea which was then colonized by imperial Japan. Before the demolition scheme of the Gwanghwamun, imperial Japan had almost lost their identity with Asia. They were almost completing their new building for government-general in Seoul in a Western style. The building was designed by a German architect, Georg de Lalande, who deceased before its completion.

The gradual demolition of the Gyeongbokgung palace and the construction of the government-general building on its site were criticized by a few Japanese intellectuals such as Yanagi Muneyoshi or Kon Wajiro as the destruction of a very important culture heritage of Korea. Some Korean also criticized it from a different point of view. Some criticism was based on Feng Shui. They asserted that the government-general building cut off some crucial lines of Feng Shui system which protected Seoul and the whole country of Korea. This kind of criticism based on Feng Shui belief became much severer after the war.

Even if not based on Feng Shui, the government-general building was destructive in several meanings. Firstly, it destroyed the stylistic harmony of the Gyeongbokgung palace. Secondly, it destroyed the vertical scale of the palace by soaring high above its original buildings. Thirdly, it destroyed the materialistic harmony of the wooden palace with its masonry surface. Fourthly, it destroyed the main axis of the Gyeongbokgung palace by rising in between the main gate, Gwanghwamun and the main hall, Geunjeongjeon. And, at last but not the least, it was destroying not only the Gyeongbokgung palace but also the whole city with its slight but obvious deviation from the existing city grid of Seoul and the palace.                        

In search of proper words to protest against his own nation's sinful destructive deed in Korea, Yanagi rediscovered a common environmental philosophy of East Asia, "nature protects architecture," in Seoul on the verge of death. It is very meaningful that he rediscovered it when a modern and westernized country to which he belonged was going to destroy more traditional and more important culture of East Asia to which he also belonged. He wrote back to the center of imperial Japan. He protested against it with his article for a Korean newspaper and a Japanese magazine, "For a dying Chosun architecture."

If I could use the term "postcolonialism" in this paper, I would like to say that Yanagi was one of a few forerunners of "postcolonialist" theory and movement in aesthetics. Of course, there is a certain limitation for Yanagi in this regard, because he was a Japanese from Tokyo. He was son of a military officer, though deceased when he was young. He is perhaps one of the last persons who could be a forerunner of "postcolonialism." However, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum he later founded in Tokyo was a protest against the Imperial Museum of Japan where people's work was excluded from its collection. His Folk Crafts Movement was started in Seoul where he learned or rediscovered the basic principles of the aesthetics of East Asian peoples.


It is rather contradictory to hold up the idea "nature protects architecture" as a basis of East Asian landscape aesthetics, because traditional Asian architecture is often vulnerable to violent weather or strong earthquakes. But, with various devices such as flexible structure or Feng Shui, East Asian peoples have been constructing their own buildings and cities not opposing but adapting to the nature. The idea "nature protecting architecture" is more important in aesthetics and ecology rather than in construction technology. It could guide us to a more ecological and aesthetic architecture and urbanism.

Feng Shui is a kind of popular belief. But, it has been exerting considerable influence on contemporary architecture. When the headquarters of the high-tech HSBC, Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation, was designed and constructed in the mid-1980's, Feng Shui was reportedly much used. Feng Shui's beneficent and even malevolent powers were perhaps taken into account by its architect, Norman Foster. It was probably more important for the architect to show that he appreciated Feng Shui to the people of Hong Kong who strongly believe in it.

When the headquarters of the Bank of China was designed and constructed near the HSBC building at the end of 1980's, Feng Shui was again reportedly much used. Its sharp edge was considered to cut off a Feng Shui stream flowing into the HSBC building, its triangular glass surfaces reflecting back an unfavorable stream in the air. It is not clear if its architect, I. M. Pei, intended something like that. But, both Foster and Pei were wise enough not to deny the powers of Feng Shui in Hong Kong.

The so-called Feng Shui war in Hong Kong was a rather extreme example, using Feng Shui ideas for various relationships between two man-made structures. Feng Shui is chiefly concerned with relationships between nature and man-made.

Though a popular belief or possibly a kind of superstition, Feng Shui tells us that we should still adapt ourselves to nature rather than opposing it. It also tells us that the happiness and prosperity of human beings in this life and the next life necessitates the maintenance of a harmonious equilibrium of the forces of nature. Though the "next life" may sound superstitious, we should reinterpret it as "the next generation." So, it tells us that the happiness and prosperity of human beings in this generation and the next generation necessitates the maintenance of a harmonious equilibrium of the forces of nature. This is a teaching of sustainable design of the world.

To establish our own landscape aesthetics, we should introduce a time scale with which we can measure the preciousness of man-made as well as natural things. We should also consciously introduce the concept of the "second nature," which is another word for historical buildings or historical cities. A building already existed when we were born, and still existing when we are dying is virtually a nature rather than a man-made building.

A city keeping its forms, colors, and textures longer than our individual life is also a nature rather than man-made environment. Why should we cut down a tree of 200 years' old, to make a house which may not last 100 years. The same is true in the case of our second natures such as historical cities and buildings. Why should we demolish a house of more than 100 years' old to make a parking lot that will not be in use in 10 years.  These questions are almost always forgotten in front of economical pressure and/or bureaucratic judgments. The aesthetic criteria of landscape, natural as well as man-made are much needed not only by the specialists of aesthetics but also by our society, both in the East and the West.


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