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Dual role of wood in human history: a blessing & a curse

Old wood-clad houses know how to age, drawing inspiration from ancient woodworking. But why does modernity feel uneasy with weathered wood?

Due to its beauty, utility, and abundance, wood is a blessing. It helps us in construction, as tools, as a medium for art, as a material for transportation through land, sea, or air (ask Howard Hughes), and also as a fuel.

Unlike plastic polymers or metal alloys, wood is composed of natural organic materials that microorganisms can break down. This advantage is also the material’s curse: wood is ephemeral, causing deforestation and a loss of cultural heritage.

Abundant forests and seismic activity have helped Japan develop an intimate relationship with woodworking that doesn’t quite translate to any other civilization, though few bother to explore what can be learned from Japanese wood knowledge outside expert shops and artistic circles.

That thing about Japanese pop culture and GenXers

Many years ago, when we traveled to Japan, we were excited about so many things. GenXers from Europe and the US grew up watching cartoons and reading manga from masters appealing to different audiences, and I liked both the Osamu Tezuka types (the canonical manga) and the Akira Toriyama types (the new wave of talented young artists that conquered the world’s youth).

We’ve visited the place several times. August 8, 2021, at 8:05 AM. Driftwood and some houses

In the town outside Barcelona where I grew up, everyone walked to high school except a few living too far, and going to the “Insti” (from Instituto de Enseñanza Secundaria) as we called it, there were a few obligatory stops, from a bar where some bought “bocatas” (baguettes with spread tomato, olive oil and salt, and either jamón serrano and other thin-sliced cured meats, or grilled loin), or played the arcade (say, Street Fighter II), or just chatted.

Another stop was one of many stationery stores, and in the early nineties in my corner of the world, some teenagers—especially us boys—would buy photocopied images of Akira Toriyama characters to color and whatnot. Catalan television was a pioneer in Spain, buying the rights to Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball TV series, based on the initial manga, and teens revered it.

Sea Ranch, August 8, 2016, 7:30 AM

Manga, pop technology (from the Walkman to its offsprings, the Discman and the MiniDisc), and popular media franchises originated a deep appreciation for Japanese culture in the late eighties and early nineties, just at the moment when Japan was about to face a bubble bust of its asset prices, from real estate to the stock market, which would kickstart a recession that the country has barely left ever since.

Il sorpasso

So Kirsten and I didn’t know much about Japan when we decided to travel to the country as a family; it was just a lack of knowledge blessed with the familiarity of pop culture, the same way Europeans who have never visited the US are very familiar with several symbolic elements of the culture Americans export through their soft power, from Hollywood to the digital “mirrorworld” we have created on top of reality. Each of us, from our own experience and respective corners of the world, found familiarity in many aspects of the Japan we experienced.

At best, knowing a place by pop references is reductionistic, and being familiarized with, say, manga, haikus, geishas, bullet trains, kei cars, lively alley streets, the art of appreciating cherry blossoming, crazy expensive tuna, good knives, Toto toilets with bidet even at the airport, or what is depicted by a bunch of classic movies, doesn’t acclimatize you to the cultural shock that is visiting Japan —not then, not now, with the even more incomplete and deconstructed meme world, available from the smartphone.

Visiting a neighbor with Donlyn Lyndon

To William Gibson’s Neuromancer readers, Japan also contained the dystopian future represented in many kids’ rooms with a poster of the anime film adaptation of Akira. The world was a different place when I entered high school, and Japan was by far the world’s second economy, way ahead of Germany, reunified between November 1989 and March 1991. Despite their populations, China and India were nowhere to be seen yet.

In that world, Eastern Europeans were happy to listen to finally Western music unbothered. Hong Kong was still a British enclave, and China had not entered the WTO yet, while people relied on bikes to go about their day. During the seventies and early eighties, American think tanks and companies expressed their concern about the possibility of Japan overtaking the American economy one day. Those were years in which Italy overtaking Britain in GDP per capita was a source of pride, expressed by the Italian press and commentators as “Il sorpasso.”

In Praise of Shadows (or claroscuro/ciaroscuro to Velázquez-Caravaggio)

Japan seemed so advanced to the Western public, which remained ignorant of its real culture and the whereabouts of its population, that pop magazines showed Japanese electronic prototypes, early humanoid robots, and strangely clumsy appliances as a peek into the future.

Lyndon is one of the forces behind the Third Bay Tradition architecture style, a hybrid of modern and vernacular styles that flourished around San Francisco between 1945 and the 1980s

Later, as Japan entered a long deflation and maladapted to the digital transition—when hardware became a commodity and software began eating the world—Europe entered the world of mobile communications faster than the US, thanks to the GSM standard and devices by the likes of Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, Alcatel, or Symbian, but the world still considered the strange Japanese proto-smartphones sold only in Japan by NTT Docomo.

Once you arrive in Akihabara Electric Town and see the buzzing display of lights, the music noise, and the cosplay at the entry of every “otaku” venue (specializing in manga, anime, videogames, toys, or collectibles), you realize that what many youngsters around the world have known for decades about the country is a very superficial part of most locals’ lives.

Scratch a bit the surface and walk around at different times of the day, and you’ll begin to appreciate other things, from the calm yet very lively and safe alley streets to a deep appreciation of many things that won’t click automatically in the visitor’s reference more or less stereotypical references.

Looking at Donlyn Lyndon’s house from the roof deck of his office

It took me many days to begin to appreciate the veneration that Japanese culture has of certain materials of materials and how they look, age, reflect light, or feel to the touch. Walking around Akihabara with young children smiling at intense light inputs at different frequencies is probably the most different sensorial experience that one can think of from reading the short but intense In Praise of Shadows by the writer Junichiro Tanizaki, which I read more like the mourning of a culture that appreciates the subtle in-betweens of absolutes and impermanence, and not like a treaty on Japanese and Eastern aesthetics in general.

Wood ages gracefully: old-school Sea Ranch wood siding

Belonging to a half-Californian household and being now here makes me less aware of appreciating things in places and people from the US West Coast that reminded me of the book by Tanizaki, which I saw in the way some people living by the ocean, from Big Sur all the way to Manzanita and Cannon Beach, like to leave their cedar-shingle-clad cottages age with the misty fog advancing from the ocean like a bad memory. Some such cottages and bungalows may have a Japanese maple at the door, making the reminiscence even more evocative.

Go to Sea Ranch, the planned community developed by idealists during the 1960s around simple single-clad timber frame structures open to the ocean, and you’ll notice that the older cabins keep aging gracefully, just like they do in Carmel by the Sea, Bolinas, the nearby town of Mendocino, Manzanita (Oregon) or, back in the East Coast, near Cape Cod and similar now-prohibitive vacation and retirement areas. Their impermanence resonates with a sensitive, laid-back, almost Eastern aesthetic.

I took this one at Sea Ranch on August 13, 2016, at around 8:00 according to the smartphone metadata

Keep going back as years pass and Sea Ranch becomes more exclusive, and you’ll get disappointed: the newer homes going up are bigger, often taller, and boxier to increase square footage, and their shingle-clad exteriors are coated with wood treatments that shield the wood from the fog, preventing the structure from blending with the area.

The goal of such treatments may be to keep the house exterior from aging, though all it does is give the structures a plasticky look that will stay the same until it’s eaten by the sun; even metals age better than plastic polymers, a convenient and pervasive invention that only hit construction well after World War II, but it’s now everywhere.

People seem to be sacrificing long-term beauty for first-day shiny looks, and so the mentioned places seem to understand the relationship between man and wood worse than in decades past.

A walk with Donlyn Lyndon

I don’t know what Donlyn Lyndon, a co-designer of Sea Ranch who we interviewed a few years ago, may think about the current obsession for wood coatings that shield the material from the effects of the environment, but I sense he may have a thing or two to say about it. I hope we’ll be able to ask him personally.

Sea Ranch, August 8, 2016 at 7:34 AM. The light can illuminate the shore in so many ways

As one of the community founders, Lyndon helped create the following Sea Ranch Manual, a blueprint of how modern architecture can also create timeless vernacular styles. Regarding exterior walls, the manual says:

“Materials: Redwood or cedar vertical boards and wood shingles have been the traditional exterior siding materials at The Sea Ranch, but because of the decline in availability and quality of these materials, the DC encourages exploration of the use of alternative materials, either natural or manufactured. New and/or alternate materials will be considered on an individual basis based on compatibility with the visual vocabulary of The Sea Ranch and adherence to finish, color, and reflective requirements. See the DCEM list of approved finishes and colors.”

The Sea Ranch Design Manual

Redwood is expensive, while cedar isn’t much cheaper, so the place understands the situation and has no issues with experimentation, but there’s a “visual vocabulary” to preserve. Home Owner Associations (HOAs) have an often deserved poor image, though the Sea Ranch thrives when private homeowners understand that wood aging isn’t something to prevent or to fight as long as the exteriors are properly maintained and protected to avoid rot or structural damage.

Kyoto; traditional homes overlooking the Kamo River in front of Gion-Shijo train station (June 23, 2015)

In an ideal world, every individual would understand the value of patina and act on his personal benefit to encourage it so the overall outcome would be the same. In the real world, however, things work differently, and poorly understood modernity can get in the way: in Tokyo, for example, modern areas have succumbed to cold neon and LEDs, creating an impersonal ambiance, which contrasts with the warmer conventional lighting of lively alleyways and more traditional houses.

Japan’s deep relation with wood

When protected but left alone, wood gets the patina of the place it belongs, and wood—Junichiro Tanizaki would explain to us—enters a harmonious interaction with time and the natural environment. As shingles age, they protect themselves against the elements the way driftwood does by developing a weathered layer that transforms their aspect from a fresh, reddish-brown hue to a silvery-gray tone.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece with Donlyn Lyndon and his wife, artist Alice Wingwall, under the title Hippies Settled This Unusual California Community. Now Its Homes Sell for Millions. That sums up not only the evolution of Sea Ranch but the steep increase in housing prices across the US, and not only in California (where most houses now sell for over 900,000, according to California Association of Realtors).

Japanese Kei cars can really park anywhere. I took hundreds of pictures of kei cars. I’ll write an article on it one of these days

But the 10 miles of rugged coastline that constitute Sea Ranch, the beautiful enclave two and a half hours north of San Francisco, aren’t only an amalgamation of fancy and expensive real estate; even when the place felt desolate and comparatively affordable compared to Bay Area standards, it mostly represented a way of looking into the world. Or, as Donlyn Lyndon explained to us in the aged shed he still uses as his office space, the community took seriously a motto borrowed from the Pomo Indians of “living lightly on the land,” and so houses have a humane scale, letting the natural surrounding terrain in through facades overlooking the ocean. Instead of fenced-off front yards, there are miles of walking trails that give passers-by the ability to walk along the ocean shore from one extreme of the community to the other.

Perhaps the simplicity and aging of the wood-clad classic-modern structures, in combination with the trails and the raw beauty of the surroundings, give the place a sensitivity that the “sukiya-daiku” (数奇屋大工, Japanese residential carpenters who take pride in blending rustic materials and traditional joinery with high-tech, quake-proof engineering) would approve.

Wood-clad facades epitomize the idea of aging gracefully, thanks to the nuances that develop on their surfaces. Give it time, and the ocean fog will give them a timeless aspect.

Kanso is a state of mind

I’ll confess that I’ve had some of the most beautiful and inspiring walks and early-morning runs of my life at Sea Ranch, where we’ve stayed a few times, always in the (somewhat foggy, which suits the place) summer. “It’s about experiencing the place rather than following a golf ball or something,” explained Donlyn Lyndon to us.

And so, that’s what we did, heading to the incredible seashore path to experience the multiple ways in which the sun breaks through the fog and clouds to illuminate the rugged terrain with bright cannons, and the misty air brings the smell of wet grass, shrubs, and sea. You feel so close to the cliff that waves, tidepools, and bluffs occupied by birds and sea lions are a part of the experience.

Here’s a recently unveiled Japanese satellite made of wood

The integration with nature is “the” feature, and so the wood-clad low homes really belong to the place: as they age, they lose their initial uniformity and gain a more nuanced, understated elegance, aligning once again with the Japanese aesthetic of kanso (簡素, understated simplicity, absence of the unnecessary).

The original idea of Sea Ranch didn’t have simplicity, nor did it want to prioritize “process” over shiny perfection from day one. As Erika Mailman explains in her article on the Wall Street Journal:

“The original architects considered making The Sea Ranch look like a Greek town with white stucco homes, but changed their minds, opting instead for modern architecture intended to blend into the landscape, according to resident Scott C. Nevin, a software engineer who is on the board of The Sea Ranch Association.”

Just one word: Arale. If you know, you know

By going there and experiencing the place, it doesn’t take much time to feel that they got it right. They avoided a picturesque approach (say, a Santa Barbara of NorCal) and opted for wood-clad dwellings with simple shapes. They allowed materials to age and change, recognizing that time would enhance their beauty and value.

Fast train to Japan’s past: getting to Kyoto by Shinkansen

By mid-June 2016, we arrived in Kyoto aboard a Shinkansen, the bullet train that Amtrak lovers have dreamt about for decades. The trip was comfortable and reasonably priced, with plenty of wiggle room to stretch, walk a bit, and play with our then-much younger children; it takes one hour to fly from one city to the other, though the train trip doesn’t feel much longer, at 2 hours 15 minutes.

Our children had already taken several fast trains in Europe, including the quotidian Ave Barcelona-Madrid, which we took a few times, though they really enjoyed the difference in culture, urbanism and landscaping: unlike air trips, train travel—even aboard trains that go much faster than their traditional counterparts—encourage a continuous connection with the landscape, especially for kids, who feel rooted (or, as German philosopher Martin Heidegger would argue, they feel they are “within the world” at all times).

Near the Gion Tatsumi Bridge over Shirakawa canal, Kyoto (June 22, 2015)

Moving through urban areas, forests, and rice fields offers continuity and a narrative, which in Honshu, Japan’s big island, means to locate oneself at all times with respect to Mount Fuji: the gradual unfolding of the landscape tells a story, and when you can point at Mount Fuji here and there, sensory engagement is guaranteed. The windows of a train sometimes act like frames in a moving picture, showing surprises and an opportunity to let your mind wander.

Kyoto represented to us the opportunity to explore exclusive fish markets, old neighborhoods, or centuries-old Shinto shrines. We also wanted to stay at a traditional townhouse or Kyōmachiya (京町家 or 京町屋), places built of wood following a narrow and deep layout, with a front section facing the street and a rear, residential section.

Looking at the canal water from the top of Gion Tatsumi Bridge, near Gion (aka “the Geisha district”)

The old house we stayed in had a wooden framework and clay wall, a technique also used by other traditional cultures to withstand earthquakes (similarly, Mesoamerica and Central America developed the pre-Columbian “bahareque” technique, which is very similar). The roof also felt like a work of art, covered with ceramic tiles known as “kawara.”

It also used other traditional elements that don’t quite translate to Western layouts, like an extensive use of “shoji” (sliding screens) and “fusuma” (sliding doors one can move with one finger; they are so attuned despite the lack of fancy mechanisms). Wooden lattices (“koshi”) provide privacy while allowing air and light; they just made sense as the late-evening cooldown filled the narrow street.

There’s going to the WC, and then there’s Junichiro’s way

The “mise no ma,” or front room facing the street, had traditional shutters that kept the privacy while allowing the air and light in. All plumbing was exposed and so neatly executed that Kirsten made fun of me as I spent some time taking pictures of odd places and marveled at the connections and the way they elegantly and effortlessly followed what seemed to make the most sense.

Traditional building, Kyoto

As I marveled at the exposed pipes on the toilet, I couldn’t help but get my copy of In Praise of Shadows and go to the only description that has ever made me want to go to the bathroom in awe, wondering about the lack of any trace of poetry that modernity has inflicted upon us (this was a source of extensive jokes between Kirsten and me):

“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ’a physiological delight’ he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (1933)

All this feast of wood exterior construction (executed by the “sukiya-daiku,” 数奇屋大工), tatamis and built-in furniture (a work done by specialists named “sashimono-shi,” 指し物師), and interior finishings building shoji (paper) and ranma (wooden) doors and transoms, contrasted with some of our city visits, like the capsule hotel, a place originally conceived for city workers who missed their train needed to sleep in the city affordably, so a pod the size of a yoga mattress would do for them.

Inside the townhouse (Kyōmachiya) that we rented

We slept there for a few nights after staying at the traditional house. There aren’t two experiences more diametrically opposed in that city, though we enjoyed the experiment. Here’s the video of the experience.

Made in Japan: a satellite made of wood

As I finish renovating our small attic using only two elements (two by sixes for structure and two thicknesses of 4×8 birch plywood sheets, 1/4 inch for roof finishes in between rafters and 3/4 inch sheets for tongue-and-groove flooring and structural Janapese-style open furniture), I marvel at the beauty of simple, unfinished wood grain.

Inside the traditional townhouse or Kyōmachiya where we stayed (Kyoto) near the hill occupied by Awata Shrine

Wood is a magic material to humans, our blessing —and our curse, since one of its main advantages, being biodegradable, has erased so much of human history from the remote past, and only carbonized or fossilized wood fragments explain a tiny portion of the uses and techniques that our ancestors developed all over the world. A true loss we will never recover from.

Back in our Kyoto traditional townhouse; I appreciated the honesty and openness of fixtures, plumbing, and woodwork

Just by observing the Antikythera mechanism from 2nd century BC Greece, one can only wonder about what we don’t know from ancient civilizations. The device, developed to predict astronomical positions and eclipses, is a complex system of gears and dials, allowing one to track the timing of the Olympic Games and other events. It’s the first known analog computer, though other devices may have been lost forever due to the use of wood and other very convenient albeit biodegradable materials.

Japan is perhaps the place that understands wood and has developed a culture around it at the deepest level, using renewable materials to keep centuries-old shrines in shape, as well as to develop structurally sound modern buildings that include state-of-the-art earthquake-proof technology.

Wood can last a long time in buildings; walking through the “gate of the three liberations,” the most important Zen Buddhist temple, a part of the Zen shichidō garan, the buildings at the heart of a Zen complex

Wood is used in Japan to build the simplest handcrafted elements… and also high tech devices: engineers from Kyoto University just unveiled LignoSat, a small satellite that will soon blast off on a SpaceX rocket.

Wooden clogs

Measuring just 10 centimeters (4 inches) on each side, the satellite wouldn’t be news if it weren’t built structurally using magnolia wood, a choice that makes total sense to the people at JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency:

“The magnolia wood-based satellite will face the ultimate test of its strength and durability, enduring extreme temperatures and intense solar radiation from the Sun. This experimental satellite will stay operational for only 5-6 months.”

Japan: World’s 1st wood satellite ready to blast off on SpaceX rocket, Interesting Engineering, May 30, 2024

Unlike traditional metal satellites, the wooden material will burn up upon atmospheric re-entry and, hence, avoid contributing to the growing issue of metal bodies accumulating in the upper atmosphere.

A traditional exterior, Kyoto, Japan

Here’s a haiku by 18th-century Japanese poet Yosa Buson, reflecting the use of wood in daily life, a celebration of the small things:

The wooden clogs
clacking together—
winter moon.

Plumbing detail from the house we stayed in Kyoto (June 21, 2015)