In praise of shadows

Although there are clearly constant qualities that each of us carry from place to place, relationship to relationship, there’s also much of us that gets expressed – drawn out of us – by the places we’re in and by who we’re with.

The offices, public areas, homes, living spaces, kitchens and meeting rooms we inhabit, each with their lighting and decor and furniture and equipment, afford us certain possibilities and deny us others. Some places bring out the possibility of being focussed and diligent, others bring out our playfulness, and in yet others we get attuned mostly to our boredom or agitation.

As we move from place to place, situation to situation, we might notice the different possibilities that are brought forth. But we rarely see that the entire cultural and architectural background in which we live is shaping us all the time. The very kind of people we come to be is, in large part, being produced by the built environment in which we live. And because it’s all pervasive – we’re born into it and, unless we immerse ourselves first-hand and deeply in other cultures we rarely escape from it – much of its shaping effect is completely invisible to us.

I have been reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows this week, which is all about this. Tanizaki shows us how, in the west, our contemporary buildings emphasise light. We build large windows to catch the sun, and where this is impossible we add bright electric lighting – fluorescent tubes, halogens, bright white bulbs – to illuminate and to banish darkness. And while this can be beautiful, and is at the least enormously practical, there is something profound about the possibilities of deep shadow that we rarely encounter, and so barely know.

On the traditional Japanese way of building a toilet, for example – so different from bright white, tile and porcelain constructions – he writes:

“There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and a quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”

It is shadow around which the traditional Japanese interior world is constructed, and which Tanizaki describes so beautifully in his book. His attention ranges from the design of living rooms and bathrooms – and their affect on us – to the experience of eating steaming rice in the dimness of low-eaved, paper-walled dining rooms; from the practicalities of cleaning and heating our living and working spaces to the possibility of ordinary, everyday buildings as places of spiritual repose.

In Praise of Shadows is readable in one short sitting, and an exquisite way of seeing in a new way what’s possible for us, and hidden from us, in the contemporary world of work and home.

Photo Credit: jpellgen via Compfight cc