The differences between cultures and nations are measurable. The colors in the landscape, the smell in the streets, the way of speaking and the way of communicating among individuals, the definitions of “nature” or “space”, people moving with different velocity and perhaps an unrecognizable number of small details that converge between one and another. My analyses create a link between two different times and places but perhaps it does not reflect all kind of edges and conditions that make them different and contradictory. Although I truly consider that some elements and concepts (that are capable of measure and definition) are cornerstones to understand how civilizations create a mutual ground where feelings and dreams communicate in spite of a natural impossibility when it comes to cultural and even local and regional differences between groups of people. Words like space, time, nature, justice or freedom, for example, could have a certain meaning or not. In this essay, the challenge was to find two architectural projects sharing these cornerstones that make them have a particular character and communicate between space and time, exactly what architecture aim to do and does.
I have chosen two buildings in two different countries: The first building is the Mitoku San, Sanbutsu-Ji Temple and the Nage-ire Doo Hall which are located in the Tottori Prefecture in Japan. It is located in the Chūgoku region on Honshū island. The capital is the city of Tottori.
The second building is the Therme Vals of Peter Zumthor. Vals is a municipality located in the district of Surselva in the canton of Graubünden in Switzerland.
The essay has three parts. The first part describes generally the location, design, brief history and surrounding as well as the aesthetic, spatial, functional and structural characteristics of the chosen objects. The second part addresses a discussion based on the similarities between the two projects concerning the relation architecture and nature, the concept of “borrow frame”, and spirituality used as a tool to create sacred places (religious architecture). The third part outline a conclusion concerning the comparison of space and time in the mentioned projects, and a critical approach to the essay as itself.
Mitoku San, Sanbutsu-Ji Temple and the Nage-ire Doo Hall:
One day, the eager mountain ascetic En-no-Gyooja (円の行者) threw three lotus petals in the air and vowed to establish temples on the ground where they fell. One landed in Yoshino, one landed in Ishizuchi Mountain (Shikoku) and one in Mitoku Mountain. That was way back in the year of 706. The temple's main deities are the Gautama Siddharta, Amitabha and Vairocana Buddhas. The temple was founded by En-no-Gyooja (also known as En-no-ozuno) in 706 as a training ground for Shugendô (the study of the relationship between human and nature, Mountain Ascetic). Shugendô is knowledge obtained on the path (dô), resulting from ascetic practices (shu) of divine natural powers (gen). Shugendô is all of the practices and rules, which are advisable to follow to reach this result, and the shugenjas are followers of this Japanese ancestral religion. They are more commonly called: Yamabushi, "those which sleep in the mountain", because it is generally in the mountains that they practice, that they withdraw to for the time of retirement, in pilgrimage and that they travel "wandering" through the country, like the hermit Indian ascetic Milarepa. Throughout his secular or spiritual life, the religious yamabushi perform initiations, which are sometimes comparable with true sacraments of Kings.
Mitoku San, Sanbutsu-ji Temple belongs to the Tendai Buddhist sect and is located in Mitoku, Misasa-cho, Touhaku-gun, and Tottori Prefecture. A mountain trail continues from the main temple (Sanbutsu-Ji Temple) to Nage-ire Doo hall, passing the Monjudo and Jizodo halls. The Shoro hall can be seen, too. One part of the shrine, established in 709, is an obscure little building known as Nage-ire Doo or Oku-no-in (奥の院) perched high upon the mountain and set into the rock face. The fact that it faces north, and receives no direct sunlight, means that it looks pretty much the same as it did some 1300 years ago. No one is quite sure who built it, or how it was built, but the recent theories suggests that the construction method began with the making of the central part of the hall to enshrine the statue of Gongen Zao. The next step was letting pillars stand in a way that made it possible to place an overhanging roof structure over those pillars. These two groups of elements form a porch on the surrounding rocks. The hall is made of cypress. The function of the hall is purifying of the six roots of perception: the ability to take charge of the six organs (the senses of the ear, the nose, the eye, the tongue, the body and the mind) and consciousness.
Nage-ire Doo Hall
Therme Vals of Peter Zumthor:
More than a hundred years ago hot springs were discovered in the village Vals. The first essential step for developing and benefiting from them was made in the 1960’s by a German property development company, which built a hotel complex with 270 rooms in five buildings and a spa built in order to provide hydrotherapy. There had already been many changes and reformations made on the complex when the community of the village decided to develop the area further, in the mid 1980’s.
The formation of the Alps, 50 million years ago, and the vast stone landscape along with the natural colors captured Peter Zumthor’s attention. His main conceptual idea is focused on the geology of the site and that the site itself comprises an extremely distant memory, almost prehistoric and archaic. This led Zumthor to see before his eyes a construction that somehow always had been there. Stone and water reflects the topography of the site and their connection is magical. The architect treats the whole construction as a volume of rock, which is hollowed into the mountain, similar to the way of a bath born of the mountains, an unstoppable wave of gushing water flowing from it and freezing in a structural form. The building on the other hand is fragmented in nature but monolithic in appearance and endeavors to assert itself as a singular block of stone. It is blended harmoniously with the landscape, having a flat roof covered with grass. The transition from the landscape to the building is barely discernible. Only the geometrical patterns on the roof reveal its presence. The only facade facing the village is built in gneiss stone from a local quarry used for centuries and reveals the style of the construction of the building as a whole. Wide openings, windows and terraces interrupt the facade. There are no doors. The entire journey, from the entrance to the internal spaces is a peaceful narration of the senses. A stone made of stone, which tries to represent most of the conditions of water and earth. Zumthor believes that in the end of every conceptual thinking starts real architecture, which is based on structure and materials. Materiality is a critical feature in all of his projects. In this case the architect not only blends the building with the landscape by sinking the building into the slope but also uses genuine local materials. 60000 individual slabs of that special local stone, now exported almost everywhere thanks to the latest massive use of it for the baths, was used in the project. The whole construction, inside and outside, is made of the same quality of gneiss stone brought 1 km from the site. Light in Zumthor’s architecture plays an integral part and especially natural light. What catches the attention of most visitors is the indirect lighting of the main indoor bath. Light also enters the mass through the slits in the ceiling. The experience one gets through the misty and humid environment lit by stripes of light from above is playful and mystical. Therme Vals building has a strong timeless presence.
The Thermae of Stone - Peter Zumthor's documentary Part 1
The Thermae of Stone - Peter Zumthor's documentary Part 2
Architecture and nature, the concept of “borrow frame”, and spirituality:
The nature is present in these two examples. There is no concrete line between the inside and outside these buildings. The relationship between inside and outside is vague and flow in both ways giving a sensation of unit with all layers of spatial experience. The moment when the physical place joins a metaphysic dimension is when the place becomes sacred and glorified. To take a journey into the proximity of the mind and purify the senses is a shared quality in these two architectonical concepts. For the monk who was the brain behind the Nage-ire Doo Hall the search through spaces, movement, lights, and every part concerning architecture, of the harmonious meeting between humans and the total perfection (Buddhism’s beliefs are based on an idea of dissolving the mind and the senses into the whole creation, the whole universe) is the function of the program and architectonic object. The Therme Vals also has the clear idea of purifying body and mind through spaces according to meditation and relaxation, which makes it possible to talk about both examples as sacred places and define them as religious architecture (without dedicating them to a god).
In both objects it is possible to find a sort of “borrow frame” which is a common feature in Japanese architecture. Architects like Tadao Ando and Arata Isosaki both have experimented with these methods. Not only the architectural work in Japan borrows images from the nature; also the Japanese film industry has been part of this tendency during the XX century. Akira Kurosawa was a specialist in finding the perfect spot that nature could offer to his lenses and cinematic eye. In fact architecture and shooting images to create sequences holds a profound relationship and share the same kind of tricks (manipulation of light, space, movement, among a bunch of other features). To reach the Nage-ire Doo Hall from the Sanbutsu-Ji Temple takes 1 hour and 40 minutes walking and climbing through the forest. In this procession the monks and ascetics were able to find a path to purifying the six roots of perception. When the Yamabushi is in front of this “borrow frame” from nature, then it is time for the final meeting with the real emptiness, nothingness, just being part of the whole, the final dissolution of the seeker in Buddha’s palm. In Zumthor’s project the same need of borrowing an instant of the landscape is present. Through the whole experience in the baths the user can follow a path of recognition, an auto-analysis, some kind of Freudian exercise, so that at the end of the course the meeting of nature and mind is a reality. The 6 senses of Human are ready and blessed.
Conclusion and critical approach:
Space and time converge in different places and different cultures. Can we say that architecture defines its culture? Can we suggest that the ways that people think of spaces are part of the culture in certain ways? Is it possible to believe in a group of cornerstones that could guide mankind? What happened with the international style in the beginning of the XX century? Have we not learned yet from that experience? What has modernism brought with its ideals of progress? Does globalization has something to do with the actual approach of architecture in the world? What about media and information? What means “nature” for the western dominant cultures and what does it mean to the east cultures? Are the societies around the world ready to face the turn from homogeneous to heterogeneous societies? Eventually, do we have to be more inclusionary? Could it be possible that through homogenizing some cornerstones for mankind, we would bring more equality between us? What are the lessons in the Therme Vals and Nage-ire Doo Hall that we should really look for? Time for proposals …
• Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, director Richard Copans, Arte France and Centre Pompidou. 2000
• Karaiskakis, Dimitrios (Kingston University) ARM909 Research contexts in architecture, Therme Vals and the Concealment of Complexity.2000
• Nishi, Kazuo. What is Japanese architecture?. Kodansha International.1985.
• Paine, Robert Treat. The art and architecture of Japan. Penguin Books. 1955.
• Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres. Architecture Basel. 2006.
• Zumthor, Peter. Therme Vals. Essays. Scheidegger & Spiess. 2006.
• Therme Vals official website http://www.therme-vals.ch/en/spa/
• Nage-ireDoo Hall webpage. Blog: http://darumapilgrim.blogspot.com/2006/10/mitoku-sanbutsu-ji.html
• Nage-ireDoo Hall webpage. Blog 2: http://harropage.blog39.fc2.com/blog-entry-794.html
• Nage-ireDoo Hall webpage. Blog 3: http://nippon- kichi.jp/article_list.do;jsessionid=BE25813DCA33795718319ADBCD435FA5?kwd=2399&ml_lang=en
• Nage-ireDoo Hall youtube video 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3An7b_JAVQ&feature=related
• Nage-ireDoo Hall youtube video 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_-ffKV-FYI&NR=1