Kyoto has been the source of so much of what is now considered to be quintessential Japanese culture. Yet sadly, the city's pool of traditional artisans is becoming increasingly smaller, older, and underutilized. This is particularly true for those carpenters specializing in sukiya architecture, a style that originated in the traditional teahouse and has dominated residential architecture for most of the last four centuries. In its materials and assembly, sukiya is inherently fragile, requiring frequent repairs and replacement of parts. To maintain this architectural heritage requires simultaneously maintaining its specialized techniques as living traditions.
From 1994 to 2005, many of Kyoto's artisans were kept occupied by the construction of a major work of modernized sukiya-style architecture: the Kyoto State Guest House. An asymmetric ring of pavilions around a landscaped pond set within the grounds of the old Imperial Palace, the Guest House is used for hosting foreign dignitaries (the first overnight guest was George W. Bush). It was designed by Nikken Sekkei, Japan's largest architecture and construction firm, but also relied heavily on the skills and knowledge of local sukiya carpenters, and incidentally provided the opportunity to instruct a new generation of apprentices in the materials, techniques, and respect of tradition.
A number of those involved with constructing the Guest House also participated in the recent weeklong exhibition "Shokunin Event Vol. 2." Held at the A-Bands gallery (a multipurpose building designed by Kiyokazu Arai, located in the north part of Kyoto), this was the second in an ongoing series showcasing the work of Kyoto's younger artisans. Most of them are sukiya carpenters, or are involved in related trades such as making earthen walls, tile roofs, and landscape gardens. The exhibition also extended to textiles, calligraphy, flower arrangements, Noh masks, and wagashi traditional sweets, along with experimental designs that made innovative use of historical materials -- light fittings made of tamped earth and eyeglass frames made of polished wood, for example -- and some student work from Kyoto Seika University that focused on the modernization of Kyoto's traditions. All were displayed among furniture and fittings designed by Kiyokazu Arai, also fine examples of modern interpretations of older craft techniques. Whatever their respective aesthetic merits, every item on display was a manifestation of extraordinary technical skill and a deep love of materials.
Organized by architect Esther Tsoi (a Harvard GSD graduate, originally from Hong Kong and now living in Kyoto) together with Kunimitsu Hata and Katsuo Mae, two young sukiya carpenters, the exhibition was essentially a gathering of the work of their friends and colleagues. According to Tsoi:
"All our friends are passionate about 'creation' -- creating art besides their everyday work. We have a dream about creating a platform -- temporal, physical, as well as virtual... to show new creative works and find new possibilities from Kyoto."
The richness of Kyoto's architectural history is clear evidence of the city's ongoing cultural inventiveness, and the future of Kyoto's building and craft tradition no doubt lies in this younger generation of artisans simultaneously maintaining and extending their techniques. But it's not limited to the professionals: the organizers insist that anyone is welcome to contribute to their future exhibitions.