Landscape and architecture in the modern West - is it valued enough?
Originally published on February 15, 2017.
Does modern Western culture appreciate depth in architecture and landscape? I ask because recently I heard that my employer is going to change buildings, after decades in one place. The current location is a beautiful Art Deco building, and sits in a quiet landscape of parkland and gardens. It's a very relaxing place to have lunch during the warmer half of the year. As a result of this, people leave their desks to go for a walk, and to get some sun.
The current building has various problems, so this may be a decision that has been put off for years until it became inevitable. The new place we are moving to is only a few years old, and fits the "corporate chic" style. Everything is shiny and angular, it is climate-controlled, and is right in the middle of the city. There are many more choices for shopping and socialising etc. However, there is no parkland nearby, and there will be no escaping the noise.
Recently, I undertook a meditation class. The monk told us to try to imagine a place of peace as we slowed our breath. The first one which came to me was a temple I'd visited with a local friend in Japan. The temple was on top of a hill, and it looked down over its village on a summer evening. We sat on the tatami mats, and looked out from the large aperture created with the shoji screen doors opened. Everything was green - trees everywhere, and blue - the sky, and the distant mountain ranges on the far horizon. We could hear the persistent shrill of cicadas and only the occasional traffic noise. In the temple grounds was a cedar tree hundreds of years old.
Permanence brings its own beauty
Anyhow, when I returned home from the meditation session, I wondering why the Japanese temple came to mind. When I visit my father's village house, I need only walk a few hundred metres for human noises to vanish. Birdsong and the swishing sound of leaves moving in the wind dominate the soundscape. It's a quiet and peaceful landscape too, most of the time.
I think there was something about the Japanese temple that must have touched me subconsciously. When I thought about it, the answer I came to was one of depth. The temple has been there for close to 1000 years. Rulers and governments of all types have visited to ask for divine blessing from its monks. It has seen military fights outside its walls, and hosted generations’ worth of funerals, weddings and festivals. Having survived through earthquakes and fires, it has also possibly been bombed. Through all this, it has provided the background to people's lives, a quiet, yet almost eternal presence in the landscape. And this is despite Japan having had such turbulent history, especially in the last century or two.
It comes down to what we value...
What I think the difference might be is that in Japan, some things are not for sale at any price. There is an understanding that some things stand above and apart from the hurly-burly of everyday life. As such, I cannot imagine some Japanese firms being moved the way that my employer is. I sometimes wonder if Western cultures miss this understanding with our emphasis on freedom and markets. In Australia, many Christian churches have falling congregations, and many beautiful old churches are now houses, cafes and the like. It's certainly better than having such beautiful buildings pulled down. But at some level, I miss the depth I sensed in the temple in Japan....