In Praise of Shadows

If it weren't for the fact that you're reading this on some electronic device, I'd be inclined to ask you to leave it and walk away (though I'd prefer you read this first). It's not to say that these devices are bad, because they aren't - though how and what we allow them to become or do to our lives and appreciation of things can sometimes present a challenge. Our buildings do not all need electronic signs posting who we are and what we do to everyone within a 50 mile radius. A simple identity can both capture and involve, illustrate and entice, exist and inspire.

In Praise of Shadows (陰 翳礼讃 In'ei Raisan) is an essay on Japanese aesthetics by the Japanese author and novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. Originally published in 1933, this book is a small meditative work of 73 pages, that discuss traditional Japanese aesthetics in contrast with change. Comparisons of light with darkness are used to contrast Western and Asian cultures. The West, in its striving for progress, is presented as continuously searching for light and clarity, while the subtle and subdued forms of oriental art and literature are seen by Tanizaki to represent an appreciation of shadow and subtlety.

The essay acts as "a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age." It is in fact a contemporary take on an ancient aesthetic concept that favors obliqueness (shadows) over brightness, weathered naturalness over functional novelty, the crude over the polished, and - ultimately - irrationality over rationality.

Tanizaki selects for praise all things delicate and nuanced, everything softened by shadows and the patina of age, anything understated and natural - as for example the patterns of grain in old wood, the sound of rain dripping from eaves and leaves, or washing over the footing of a stone lantern in a garden, and refreshing the moss that grows about it - and by doing so he suggests an attitude of appreciation and mindfulness, especially mindfulness of beauty, as central to life lived well.

He guides us towards an understanding of "Wabi Sabi", which stands for a simple and natural impermanence. Wabi Sabi encourages a profound feeling of inner melancholy, and an appreciation of quietly clear and calm, well-seasoned and refined simplicity. It is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, the rustic, the imperfect, or even decayed. It is an aesthetic sensibility that finds beauty in the impermanence of all things.

Tanizaki's essay discusses everything from the theater to the bathroom, gold and lacquer, to women and race. One cannot help but read the essay without feeling some loss at the erosion of traditional society and the innate beauty within it. At the same time, it causes reflection - for us the reader to look around and notice the lack of beauty in our everyday lives (in terms of art and architecture). America, too, was once a land of shadows and a people who were probably able to appreciate their simple beauty.

Simple is good, simplistic is bad.

Complex is good, complicated is bad.

We now tend to gravitate too quickly and too often towards pomp and circumstance. We want more, and we want it big and shiny. Even with a new generation placing emphasis on different things then the previous, we still as a society struggle with the notion of simplicity - especially in our architecture. We do not allow for humble buildings that bring us beauty and spaces that bring us life, love, experience. We instead opt for 'showy' and 'glam' - we want the latest and greatest and we want it all connected to our mobile devices so we can plug in or disappear at a moment's notice - versus becoming immersed in what is in front of us.

Simple is challenging, though simple reigns supreme in a world muddled with so many distractions and so many complicated and simplistic attempts for our attention. Simple is challenging to achieve, though when done so, provides so much varied opportunity for beauty that a lifetime can be spent enjoying its presence.

Unplug, look around, and spend a moment to praise the shadows....