Gazing out of a window, we hardly notice how it puts a frame around our landscape. But windows shape our perception of the world in a myriad of subtle ways. They tell us where our horizon is, what stands out in our field of vision, and how light dissipates throughout the day. Windows are also in a sense dialectical, both protecting and revealing us at once.
In Japan, the significance of windows has been widely recognized by artists and architects for centuries. Windows are hidden cultural gems, with layers of meaning that continue to unfold the closer you look. They represent a Japanese penchant for sensible, intuitive designs, alongside minimal and elegant aesthetics. In their new virtual exhibition, Windowology: New Architectural Views From Japan, JAPAN HOUSE in Los Angeles explores the impact of windows on art and culture in Japan, and illuminates the quiet power that windows wield in our own lives as well.
The exhibition is a research project conducted by the Tokyo-based foundation, the Window Research Institute, and is curated by the architectural historian and critic Igarashi Tarō. This show was initially exhibited in Tokyo in 2017 to celebrate Windowology’s 10th anniversary, and has been redesigned for an international audience. JAPAN HOUSE plans to open the gallery to the public on a later date, but for now visitors are welcome to wander the gallery virtually, and enjoy the brief videos, stunning photographs, and creative interactive elements that bring the exhibit to life.
The exhibit is divided into 10 themes: Windows on Craft, Windows on the Environment, Windows on Stories, Windows on Film, Windows on the Teahouse, Windows on Manga, Windows on How We Live Now, Windows on Motion, Windows on Words, and Windows on Art. Some themes focus on the functionality of windows, others draw out the more artful aspects. But even as the emphasis shifts, they all find ways to weave together the concepts of form and function, with a nod towards the cultural influences throughout.
The theme that perhaps most strongly demonstrates how windows bridge the realms of art and functionality is Windows on Craft. Windows on Craft shows how craftspeople must consider the placement, size, and type of window as they create their handmade goods, as windows play an essential role in how environmental elements interact with the materials they are using. When long strings of striking orange persimmons are hung in front of windows, the fruits will dry out faster. When a potter places their wheel in front of the window, they must consider how the clay responds to the amount of sun streaming through. Izumo washi—or handmade paper—is merely pulp until it is stretched out in front of a window to dry.
But even office workers can use windows to bring elements of the environment indoors in a beneficial way. As we become more environmentally conscious, we are looking for non-mechanical ways to control heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation. One way we can do so is through windows that work with the outdoor environment to act as an indoor environmental controller. With a series of diagrams and models, Windows on the Environment shows the way this method can work.
The other practical, functional components of windows are also explored in Windows on Motion, where a short video shows how windows open and close in different cultures. What we find out is that window design is hardly universal—for example, windows that open from the middle, called French windows, are named after their place of origin.
The influence of culture on windows are strong, and this concept is delved into even further in Windows on the Teahouse. A Japanese teahouse, or a chashitsu, features many windows in a small space where tea ceremonies are held. These complicated structures are planned out using paper models called okoshi-ezu. This exhibit displays a series of these models, along with a video showing a life-size okoshi-ezu being constructed in the gallery.
Functionality and meticulous attention to place and purpose is paramount in window design, but ultimately all roads lead back to aesthetics. The design of the window itself can be exquisitely crafted, but windows are transparent—they are what you look out of, your main interface between outdoors and indoors. Windows on How We Live Now shows through a series of photographs how architects have been adjusting the size and position of windows in response to the surrounding landscape, whether you’re in a bustling city like Tokyo or a more provincial area.
How windows shape our perception of the world is beautifully expressed in the short film Transition of Kikugetsutei, which is featured in Windows on Film. The film is a meditative glimpse into the day in a life of a prominent teahouse in Japan called Kikugetsutei. The word kikugetsutei literally translates to “scooping the moon,” which is taken from a passage from a poem called “Spring Moonlight at Night.” The passage goes, “looking at the reflection of the moon on the lake, I feel like I can scoop up the moon with my hands.”
This literary take on windows also appears in Windows on Words and Windows on Stories. Windows on Words collects reflections on windows in the form of quotes from various architectural texts. Some appear as observations about the nature of windows, others read like short odes, such as the quote by Tsukamoto Yoshiharu, “The timeless essence of the window lies in how it is practical and, at the same time, inspires poetic imagination.” Windows on Stories shows how windows appear in Japanese fiction.
You also get a chance to observe how art and culture use the concept of windows in storytelling in Windows on Manga. Since manga often portrays daily life, Windowology uses it as study material to better understand the relationship between people and windows.
The final theme in the exhibition is Windows on Art, a site-specific installation piece by artist Tsuda Michiko that uses camera footage, mirrors, and frames to create a disorienting viewer experience. It has been set up in the main gallery and along the public passage, and can best be understood through the videos and images provided online.
One difference between this exhibition and the version that first appeared in Tokyo in 2017 is that our world has changed significantly since then. Peering out of a window is a practice we have become well-versed in, and our relationships with windows have taken on new layers of complexity as well. Igarashi Tarō makes this observation:
“During times of crisis, windows reveal much about culture and humanity. As we restrict our activities and stay in our homes for longer spans of time, we spend many more hours in front of the ‘windows’ of the new era such as our personal computing devices, which offer hope in an alternative state of connectivity. Windows also have played a unique role during this crisis in ways that often express the richness of the world’s diverse cultures, such as singing opera to each other across balconies in Italy and sharing messages of gratitude with medical workers through windows.”
This show draws out the artful and understated significance of windows in Japanese culture, but it also gives us insight into how windows are meaningful in our own lives, and how that meaning evolves even today.
Windowology: New Architectural Views From Japan continues through January 3, 2021.
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth generation Japanese and a third generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo Japan.