Paper Houses: On Writing About Japanese Architecture

August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma's Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Although I started Under the Hollywood Sign to write about film, both the ones I’ve made and those I admire, from time to time I’ve written about architecture, particularly that of Los Angeles as seen in “Blade Runner,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Mad Men.” Recently I finished a novel whose protagonists are both architects. And this month I’ve been writing about Japanese architecture for the online design magazine HOUZZ (

Although I have no formal training in architecture, I’ve been studying it my entire adult life. I also had the good fortune to grow up in an architecturally significant mid-century house in Tokyo. Designed by the French-Czech architect Antonin Raymond, the house was a hybrid, a mostly western-style house that contained such Japanese features as a genkan (step-up entryway) a tokonoma (display alcove) and tsuboniwa (courtyard gardens). It was the only house I knew and I loved every inch of it, but it didn’t belong to my family. After we left Japan, it was torn down and replaced by an apartment building, which was later torn down and replaced by a much larger apartment building that obliterated what remained of the garden. Today the only reminder of my childhood home is its driveway. Yet the house lives on in my mind, indelible though it was demolished forty years ago.

During our years in Tokyo, my family made biannual visits to the United States. Each time someone would ask me, “Do you live in a paper house?” No matter how strenuously I said no, that person would insist, “we learned it in school–Japanese houses are made of wood and paper.” Somehow shoji, the wood and paper room dividers of traditional Japanese houses, were interpreted as structural materials to generations of American children.

While it’s been a long time since anyone has asked me whether I lived in a paper house, today I’m constantly confronted by “zen.” Used in English to describe anything even vaguely Japanese or minimalist, the term is as wrong as it is ubiquitous. Zen is an esoteric sect of Buddhism, and its use beyond specific temples and gardens is as discordant as “Jewish” and “Christian” would be if they were used to describe architecture and interior design.

Of course I realize the odds against my stopping the misuse of Zen. But in writing about real Japanese architecture–as opposed to “japanese-y” architecture–I can at least try.

Links to my first two articles for HOUZZ:

Other writing on architecture:–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook

“The End of the Tour”: The Best Cinematic Portrayal Of A Writer To Date

August 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in "The End of the Tour"

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in “The End of the Tour”

There’s nothing more boring than watching someone write, yet that’s what movies about writers invariably do. Whether the work is done in longhand, on a typewriter or (most boring of all) a computer, showing a writer at work is an instant cliché, a visual dud that directors employ at their peril.

The scene that always springs to mind when I think about portrayals of writers is Jane Fonda as the blocked Lillian Hellman in “Julia,” ripping pages out of her typewriter before hurling it out a second-story window. This ridiculously improbable act at least looked good. And because (as it later came out), Hellman not only appropriated the story but the character of Julia, it’s no less false than anything else in the movie.

The Nineties brought two somewhat better portrayals of writers: David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” and Philip Kaufman’s “Henry and June.” In “Naked Lunch,” William Burroughs’ surrogate Bill Lee sells his pistol for a typewriter, an act whose significance can hardly be overstated. Once home, the typewriter becomes a large scarab with a talking anus that encourages Lee to confront his paranoia and repressed homosexuality. Thus the physical act of writing becomes a vivid journey of exploration, abetted by talking insects.

The more straightforward “Henry and June” concerns two very different writers: the working-class American expatriate Henry Miller, and the haute bourgeois matron and erotic diarist Anais Nin. Although I haven’t seen the movie in a while, I recall a mercifully small amount of physical writing. Instead, there is a lot of talking, sex, partying and bicycling, which in combination make a more convincing portrayal of writers than any amount of typing.

James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” concerns the five-day encounter of two writers named David: the novelist/journalist David Lipsky and the novelist/ essayist David Foster Wallace, in 1996. At the time, Wallace was at the crest of literary fame after the publication of his thousand-page masterpiece Infinite Jest, while Lipsky, whose first novel had just been published to little acclaim, was on a try-out with Rolling Stone. Lipsky joined Wallace on the last leg of his book tour to profile him for the magazine, whose editors clearly would have preferred a musician of any stripe. The article never ran, but after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 Lipsky turned the experience into a book called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. This in turn became the source of “The End of the Tour.”

Both Jason Segel, as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, give masterful, nuanced performances, but the real success of the film is that Wallace is never shown in the dreadful act of writing, even in flashback. (Lipsky is occasionally shown at his laptop, but that’s journalism, and thus forgivable.) Everything about Wallace the writer is revealed in their conversations: his free-form philosophizing; his flashes of prescience; his crippling self-consciousness; his ambivalence over fame; and, most of all, his desperate desire to come off like an ordinary guy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Because Donald Margulies’ script manages to convey all of this, viewers who’ve never read Infinite Jest will find the movie just as illuminating as those who have, a nearly miraculous feat.

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