Happy Friday everyone! Today’s post is from the Philadelphia leg of the recent trip Ash and I took. While we were there, we visited West Fairmount Park, and Shofuso specifically. Shofuso, which translates to “pine breeze villa”, is a 17th century style traditional shoin-zukuri home commissioned in 1953 for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, designed by the Japanese Modern architect (yes big M in Modern folks, as it was the style he worked in) Yoshimura Junzo (I put his name in Japanese order because I felt it was only right). The house design was based on two Buddhist guest houses in Kyoto. The frame of the house was assembled in Nagoya in 1953, and was then disassembled and shipped to NYC, where it was reassembled in the courtyard at the MoMA. The home was on display from 1954-1956 and was placed in storage in New Jersey until a permanent home could be found for it. The house ended up in West Fairmount Park in 1958, on a site with connections to Japan stretching back to 1876, when there was a “Japanese bazaar” and gardens installed for the US centennial celebration.
Following a period of budget troubles for the City when the house was closed to the public, it was rehabilitated for the 1976 bicentennial and opened to the public once more. In 1982, the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden was founded to manage and maintain the site. It is a non-profit group, set-up with a public/private funding structure between the city of Philadelphia and donations from the public dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the house and grounds.
The house itself is constructed in a traditional manner, built with a frame entirely made from wood with mortise and tenon joinery held together by bamboo pegs. It is built out of Japanese cypress, called Hinoki . Hinoki is a protected species of tree which makes up somewhere around 90-95% of the lumber within the house, including the verandas, support beams, and most interior ceilings. About 1 ton of hinoki bark makes up the roof, held together with bamboo pins and layered up to the terra nigra ridge tiles on top of queenpost-supported roof frame. This style of construction allows the roofs to act as an air-foil, reflecting the wind rather than providing resistance, which allows the house to weather storms better than most Western architecture. Interestingly, only about 100 craftsmen are alive in the world today who have learned how to build a layered hinoki bark roof, and many of them learned the skill while replacing roofs at buildings associated with temples in Japan. The photo below is a profile view of the finished roof, which gives you an idea of exactly how thick it is.
Below is a photo of a boss that covers one of the bamboo pegs used in construction. Each peg set into a joint along the length of the wrap-around veranda is covered with a boss. Normally this boss would have depicted the family crest of the family who lived in the home, or a flower with eight petals at a Buddhist temple. Since this home wasn’t built for a family or a Buddhist temple, it is a flower blossom with six petals instead.
The floors in the house are covered with traditional tatami mats, woven of rush over a core of rice straw. These mats are twice as long as they are wide, and each mat was traditionally considered to be the minimum space required for one person to live.
This guest room has a lot of interesting features. Notice the shoji screens that act as walls. Shoji screens are often thought to be made of rice paper, but that is in fact a common misconception. They are actually made of mulberry paper, and the term ‘rice paper’ in English either came from the fact that the paper was used to make containers to carry rice, or from its pale white color. Shoji screens function much like pocket doors and act as both the interior and exterior walls of the house. They are used to admit light and airflow without sacrificing privacy. Sliding hinoki shutters can be closed in front of the shoji screens on the outside of the house, and these afford the house more protection from the elements. The low shelf boasting the flowers is actually one of the most important features of the room. It is a writing desk called a Shoin which is built into the wall. This desk is a very important status symbol for the owner of a house like this, as it serves as proof that the family are members of the educated elite. It is so important that it actually lends its name to the room (shoin no ma) and the style of architecture (shoin-zukuri) of the house.
Another interesting feature of the rooms in Shofuso are the Fusuma, which are interior screens seen here. they too are made out of the same mulberry paper as the shoji, only with many more layers, all layered over a central wooden frame. The layering allows the screen some moisture control, absorbing and releasing moisture depending on ambient humidity. These particular fusuma are not original to the house but instead date to Senju Hiroshi’s (again, named in traditional order) visit to the house in 1999. Senju is a famous contemporary artist, who came to the house looking for ideas for his next series of paintings. His original thought was that his painting would be of trees in nature, but he came to feel that they were too static, instead taking inspiration from Shofuso’s waterfalls (seen below). He painted 20 fusuma screens between 1999 and 2006 using acrylic paints. The brown background color was made specifically for Shofuso, and the white was done on an incline to achieve the natural flowing effect of the waterfalls. The screens were installed in 2007.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this insight into Japanese architecture and can visit Shofuso for yourself when it opens again in April. It truly is one of the most beautiful, tranquil places I have had the pleasure of visiting. A HUGE thanks is owed to our friends CJ and Brian. CJ for suggesting the visit and letting us use her camera and Brian for his invaluable knowledge on the house and Japanese culture, and for the great tour he gave us, as well as the vocabulary tutorial and timeline he provided me with. Any mistakes that appear are of my own lack of understanding and not his fault, as his knowledge of Japanese studies is staggering and has been an amazing asset. Also, thanks to Derek, Shofuso’s site and program manager for being so welcoming!
Make sure you come back next week for our special Halloween post! Have a great weekend!