Book Review on Hiroshi EMOTO, History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin 1839-1968 (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2019) 

Takeshi GOTO
Architect; Ph.D. in Engineering
Takeshi Goto architect & Associates

Translation by Hiroshi EMOTO


                Since the opening of the 21st century, the architectural culture in Japan has been swiftly receding into a nutshell. The progress of globalism enhances the influx of international information as well as the transfer of traffic of human resources more than ever; and, as a result, our own space of interests is undoubtedly being made more confined. The hustle and bustle of the happy-go-lucky Historicism of Post-Modernism has passed, and our senses of Time and Space has been scaled back into our own life-size. Near-and-dear affairs of the immediate past have already become of our main concern, and judgments are made so hastily according to these near-and-dear, immediate circumstances. No one dares a roundabout attempt to penetrate the esoteric code of architectural writings in foreign languages word by word. They are not a la pagearchitectural magazines. It is, of course, that architectural students of the 21st century don’t have that much free time to kill on their hands, to take the initiative to get lost in the labyrinth of architectural theories, already ruined by the lapse of time.

                Hiroshi Emoto, who was one of those students until recently, thoroughly resists this shrinking of Space-Time, in his History Builds: American Architecture and John Ruskin 1839-1968. His work is a documentation of the exploration in which he had been roving in the vast labyrinthian field of primary sources in various European languages, striving for the answers behind historical mystery of the making of architectural theories within American land from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century under the influence of its interactions with European countries.

                But— who in this contemporary Japan does care about American history more than a century ago? This doubt should be all the more valid, for his work, of all others, as it deals with the trifling technicalities within the sophisticated field of architectural debates. What is the use of it? No, the reviewer has to control his sense of resignation. He has to weigh the significance of reading it in this far-East Japan, in order to arrange the meeting of domestic youngsters of the 21st century with this elaborated work.

                The United States of America, seeing its emergence as an independent nation in the late 18th century after the colonization by European countries from 16th century, was a New World with losses of history and memory per avance. This amnesiatic land of America could stand as an independent nation with its own identity, but with grafting from the outside that was Europe. For the architectural sphere, they are the works of John Ruskin and Frenchman Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc that served as good clues to graft European histories and memories into its own land. Especially those of Ruskin would continue to be referred to as the establishment of the history of modern architecture in the United States.  


                One does not only appreciate literature so that he/she can purely receive what those words do convey. Language is always polysemic: its reading is often subject to the influence of its read context. One is only able to read what he/she wishes to read, or otherwise what he/she is able to read. The deed of reading is destined to get trapped into such epistemological faults. Reception of architectural theories too, like broken telephones, are processed through misinterpretation and deformation, and the multivocal language of Ruskin was quite likely to lead the reader to such multiple interpretations. Their words having ever been read and re-read as warrants supporting the ideology of the modern architecture in America at its bottom, he and Viollet-le-Duc always had to be content with being referred to as objects of American admiration and denial, of interpretations as Classicist, and as Gothicists adversely. History Buildsis an outstanding achievement of historical study on these stories of their receptions.


                This question of reception of foreign architectural cultures will be felt near home when we look at the history of modern Japan. For, even with a different cultural context than that of the United States, the design theories of Japanese architecture too have been built through continuous reading and occasionally misled interpretations of the writings of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. In the Meiji Era, the presence of those two personalities were utilized for the creation of the historical basis to build novel works of new architecture. And our value judgments in architecture are nothing but historical no matter how we are conscious about history or not, because they are but made on the premise of our historical past. It is true that, in the time of this shrinking Space-Time of our interest, our own reasoning of value judgment seems ambiguous, so that continuity of our historical past and our own day appear as non-existent. But this oblivion of history is, indeed, just a product of the volatile mood of the time. We have to reaffirm in a historical way the true identity of that which lays the groundwork for our own value judgment. For this purpose, History Buildshas the potential to serve us as a guidebook.

                America has been attempting to build its history on its vacant lot; History Buildsdocuments this construction process blow by blow and fulfills its role as a renovator of the ready-made history of the American modern architecture. The pen of the author enjoys a lyrical stream of language with the power of leading a reader to the end all in one gulp, hiding below water the burden of the exploration that must have been physically grueling. The tone of its bounding is also beautiful. Rip off the dust jacket, and you will find its physical aspect of the scrupulousness of book design, aside from the elaborated architectonics of the content. Take the reviewer’s word for it and REACH OUT.

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