Tropolism Books: Minka: My Farmhouse In Japan


Title: Minka: My Farmhouse In Japan
Author: John Roderick

Publication Date: November 1, 2007

Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press

ISBN: 978-1-56898-731-6

John Roderick leaves his metier of journalism (he was an Associated Press correspondent in Asia for almost forty years) and enters the much trickier realm of architectural memoir with Minka: My Farmhouse In Japan. It is his experiences as an American journalist in post-war Japan who purchases a minka, reconstructs it, and makes new home out of it.

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Like most of architectural book writing, this form creates its own problem. Each architectural memoir poses the problem of architectural perception, or, more specifically, what the role of memories are in understanding buildings, cities, and places. Many architectural memoirists jump in headlong to the vast sea of memories and emotions that particular places, mostly houses, tend to evoke in them. This leaves the architectural space in question as little more than a diving platform left behind as the swimmer paddles away.

John Roderick has been around a while--he was born in 1914--and the author clearly is jotting down a life's worth of experiences concerning a particular building. The book wanders at times. He is also not immune to the charms of sentimentalism. Yet perhaps as a result of his time in Japan (he has lived there since the 1959) he has grown accustomed to keeping a lid on the western tendency to create a Proustian flood out of house-home memories and sticks to the story. He makes the building matter. More to the point, he brings the specifics of the building--through purchase, relocation, reconstruction, and occupation--back into the story as a reminder of how important the physical being of these things are to our lives.

And what a story it is. He purchases the bones of a minka in Ise in 1965 for the equivalent at the time of fourteen United States Dollars. The sale was arranged by a Japanese family who had befriended Mr. Roderick, who relates that he agreed to the purchase out of respect for their efforts, thinking that the large, dark, smoky farm house would never be able to be reconstructed elsewhere. Unfortunately for him, his adopted Japanese family creates the circumstances by which he is able to reconstruct the house. Fortunately for him, he finds a home for the first time in his life, created out of an old, wooden, drafty, vernacular structure built twenty-two years before the birth of Mozart. It is an architect's fairy tale.

The 1734 Nomuras would have scratched their heads in puzzlement if they had been told an American journalist would inherit it. In 1734 there was no United States.

They would have been equally confused to learn that the new owner would take it down, move it to Kamakura, the capital of their hate enemy, and do nothing but live in it...What would have astonished them most, perhaps, were the people who, in the next three decades of its existence in Kamakura, would come to praise and admire what they had created as a matter of course.

The book is at its best when it relates these historical pieces without killing them with self-importance; Mr. Roderick has run with too many 20th century world changers to assign his quaint domestic memories with heavy significance. I found this refreshing. The book also shines when it describes the methods used to reconstruct the house. For a full accounting of the ancient art of minka building, the architect will have to look elsewhere. But Mr. Roderick does an admiral job of capturing some details that the general reader will be fascinated by. Here he describes a tool called the sumisubo:

Not easy to describe, it looks like a wooden Dutch shoe with an inkpad in the sole and a spool wound with a thin line high up in the heel. When it is drawn out, the line runs over the inkpad, emerging as black as coal. Pulled out to the desired length on the piece of wood it is to mark, it is then pinned to the spot with a thumbtack. What happens then is more like music than carpentry. The daiku-san plucks the taut string as a cellist would to create a pizzicato and in so doing leaves a perfectly straight black line on the wood.

His solution to the problem of the architectural memoir does not delve too deeply into oriental architectural fetish, nor does it swim aimlessly in memory. John Roderick instead composes his home in the text between these extremes, and invites us all in.

This book is available at Amazon.


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