What I brought home from Kanazawa

My journey to Japan this past spring with the UW Architecture Department’s Japan Studio study tour, led by Professor Ken Oshima, was an incredible one. It was my first visit to Asia, and in less than two weeks I experienced both an urban metropolis and traditional villages, thickly falling snow and cherry blossoms.

We spent about three days of this whirlwind tour in Kanazawa, an ancient castle town where once lived samurais and geishas. For the purposes of this post I will focus primarily on Kanazawa due to its commonalities with Seattle. The cities’ populations and land areas are comparable, as are their surroundings of saltwater and mountains.

While in Kanazawa, our group was offered the very special opportunity to visit Kanazawa City Hall to attend an informative presentation by historic preservation planning staff. In the presentation and throughout my days in the city, I was impressed and inspired by the confluence of old and new throughout Kanazawa. During my time in Japan I discerned a pattern of layering – in such elements as the language, building tectonics, thresholds, clothing, and food. Spatial layering – I’ve heard this concept is called “Oku” – is no exception to this pattern. In Kanazawa a step down a side alley might bring with it a new world of textures, sounds, sights and smells.

In this post I will identify two city planning attitudes I encountered in Kanazawa that I believe could benefit Seattle’s planning process.

  1. Human systems – tradition and craft – are as essential to historic preservation as the maintenance of structures and spaces.

Sustained sense of place requires the activities that make that place unique.

In putting together this post I have considered the prevalent fragment-expression “the lost art of…” I feel like this subject comes up not infrequently. In architecture studio we often lament the lost arts of sketching and hand drafting. Do any of the following quotes sound familiar? “Have you heard they don’t teach cursive in elementary schools anymore?” “Thanks to texting, kids these days don’t know basic grammar conventions.” “I don’t think these Millennials could get around without GPS.” You get the picture.

None of these familiar phrases are usually mentioned in a positive light. People seem to generally disdain the idea of lost culture. Though they are important, cultural preservation goes beyond museums and retrofitted buildings. It encompasses collective memory and oral tradition.

How should that impact city planning?

In Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness authors Thaler and Sunstein address the human tendency to conform or engage in “herd behavior” (66). I think it’s appropriate to revisit this concept in this discussion, because it provides an excellent mechanism for encouraging new generations to carry on cultural traditions and crafts. The more people who take up these traditions, the more sustainable they will be.

Kanazawa has managed to do just that. In 2009 the city was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) “City of Crafts and Folk Art.”

  1. Biodiversity plays an important role in historic preservation. The two are inherently linked.

Crafts, culture, and traditions associated with sense of place are embedded in local biodiversity. Each new season brings with it new activities.

Here are two websites that expand on this topic:

Biodiversity conservation is essential, and is possible when traditions are understood in light of the environmental contexts that produce them. This realization obviously impacts city planning principles, as a city is only as healthy as the systems that sustain it. This adds another layer to the importance of biodiversity in cities. With this in mind, the strategies that Hurd and Hurd address in the “Spaces for Nature” chapter of The Carbon Efficient City, such as TDR programs and investing in national and state parks, are even more essential to city planning procedures.

I believe both of these principles are important to consider in regard to Seattle planning. Historic districts such as Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, and the International District are embedded in the traditions and crafts of our region. Those traditions are largely rooted in our natural environment – our waters, our mountains, our forests, and the other species that reside here with us.

On our journey from Takayama to Kanazawa we stopped at the historic town of Shirakawa-go. The dramatically pitched thatched roofs speak to the heavy snow loads that winter brings. This vernacular architecture is a product of the climate. Of course, the conversation gets more complicated in the face of a changing economy. In Shirakawa-go, for example, the staple economy has shifted from silkworms to tourism. Yet the town remains, and with it it’s sense of place.

On our journey from Takayama to Kanazawa we stopped at the historic town of Shirakawa-go. The dramatically pitched thatched roofs echo the heavy snow loads that winter brings. This vernacular architecture is a product of the climate. Of course, the conversation gets more complicated in the face of a changing economy. In Shirakawa-go, for example, the staple economy has shifted from silkworms to tourism. Yet the town remains, and with it its sense of place.

While visiting Kenroku-en, Kanazawa’s celebrated historic garden, we saw vegetation almost as “designed” as the city and its architecture.

While visiting Kenroku-en, Kanazawa’s celebrated historic garden, we saw vegetation almost as “designed” as the city and its architecture.

Cherry blossoms in Kenroku-en.

Cherry blossoms in Kenroku-en.

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