imomus (imomus) wrote,

Slow Life and Semantic Architecture

It began as an advertising slogan for the prefecture of Iwate in January 2001. 'Ganbaranai! -- Don't go for it!' By the following year the Slow Life movement had spread to Kakegawa, and by 2003 there was a 'Coalition of Slow Life Cities' across Japan. Slow Life Months were held by Tajimi City, Yasuduka and Gifu City. By May it had reached the Kansai region. The Slow Life movement's themes seem to have struck a deep chord in Japan.

'In the late twentieth century,' explains Japan For Sustainability, 'Japan valued and pursued the 'fast, cheap, convenient, and efficient' life that brought us economic prosperity. However, it also caused problems such as dehumanization, social ills, and environmental pollution. We would like to move forward, with the slogan "Slow Life," to achieve 'slow, relaxed and comfortable' lifestyles, and shift from a society of mass production and mass consumption to a society that is not hectic and does cherish our possessions and things of the heart.'

The Slow Life Manifesto contains eight suggestions:

SLOW PACE: We value the culture of walking, to be fit and to reduce traffic accidents.
SLOW WEAR: We respect and cherish our beautiful traditional costumes, including woven and dyed fabrics, Japanese kimonos and Japanese night robes (yukata).
SLOW FOOD: We enjoy Japanese food culture, such as Japanese dishes and tea ceremony, and safe local ingredients.
SLOW HOUSE: We respect houses built with wood, bamboo, and paper, lasting over one hundred or two hundred years, and are careful to make things durably, and ultimately, to conserve our environment.
SLOW INDUSTRY: We take care of our forests, through our agriculture and forestry, conduct sustainable farming with human labor, and ultimately spread urban farms and green tourism.
SLOW EDUCATION: We pay less attention to academic achievement, and create a society in which people can enjoy arts, hobbies, and sports throughout our lifetimes, and where all generations can communicate well with each other.
SLOW AGING: We aim to age with grace and be self-reliant throughout our lifetimes.
SLOW LIFE: Based on the philosophy of life stated above, we live our lives with nature and the seasons, saving our resources and energy.

Ryuichi Sakamoto picks up the theme:

'The current economic system has required people to be busy trying to achieve growth -- it's as though they're continually riding a bicycle. People have to do things fast to meet the demand for excessive efficiency. So there's no way to avoid doing things faster and faster. That's the system at the moment. I think it would be better if Japan became a beautiful third rate country. It would be nice if Japan was a place of delicious food, beautiful scenery, and abundant nature. If that were the case, I think it wouldn't matter if one had little money.'

Sakamoto used to be a Futurist, but I don't think what he's proposing in any way contradicts the theme of his early work. For there to be a future at all, we need to think about sustainability and conservation. What's more, Japan has always been a place where past and future are seductively intermingled; there's always the sense that the future might well contain ancient forms. One of my favourite Sakamoto tracks is a juxtaposition of kabuki yowls with techno sounds. More and more of the art I'm finding most impressive -- from the 'huts, treks, hikes, tents, plots and allotments' of Book and Heden to the scuffling, burbling field recordings of Alejandra and Aeron -- has some sense of slowness and greenery to it.

It's easy for me to tie this in with Shinto and its matsuri festivals marking the turning seasons, with the new folk movement (if you're in Berlin on 31st March do come to our Spring Patchwerk Party!), with Eno's ambient records and his Long Now Foundation, with books like Walkscapes: walking as an aesthetic practice by Francesco Careri, or with the ideas of Dr Nold Egenter an architectural anthropologist from Zurich who is perhaps the world's foremost authority on Japanese vernacular architecture.

I've only just discovered Egenter's writings, but already I sense that they tie in crucially and compellingly with shifts in my tastes and attitudes and will influence my thinking. His big theme is to do with the relationship between how we view the world and how we organize space. Egenter never lets us forget that folk cults are what determine the basic spatial forms of Japanese vernacular architecture. He says of the traditional Japanese house: 'The Japanese dwelling is always more or less a Shinto cult precinct and a Buddhist temple.' He sees a series of harmonious oppositions structuring space: the division, for instance, of 'high space' from 'low' in traditional Ainu houses -- they keep their high space for the anticipated yet unpredictable visit of a bear -- or the 'yamaguchi' mountain entrance gates which demarcate the Japanese village from the nearby mountain, taboo realm of spirits.

Egenter would agree with Iwate prefecture's new policy 'to conserve traditional wooden houses that stand in harmony with nature rather than to cut forests to make way for state-of-the-art buildings', but would want to stress 'human constructivity'. The sacred is consciously and humanly created in ways which are at once pragmatic and spiritual. The Shinto kami are not unreachable or ineffable, but touchably close, residing temporarily in human artefacts. 'Shinto cultic symbols made of plant materials, grasses, twigs and the like, assembled by primitive methods such as tying and plaiting, are pragmatic, they become the centre of certain ritual acts and are destroyed afterwards,' Egenter writes. He describes how a sacred tree can nevertheless be artificial and how ujigami-rituals all over Japan use artificial mountains which are no less sacred for their fakeness.

In a beautiful essay on the Japanese Garden Egenter writes:

'We find ourselves in a very mysterious domain. Just in front of our eyes, here, in these Japanese villages, very ancient cultural conditions erupt at these rites. What in separate terms we call art, philosophy and religion still form a unity in these cyclically rebuilt signs. Nietzsche would call this the 'eternal return of the origins'.'

No need to declare that 'slow life is back'. Just say 'life is back' and 'I back life'. Just lie back...

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