Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows focuses on an aesthetic which moans the pleasures of darkness and patinaridden objects, while rejecting the bright, new and pristine. In 42 pages of elegantly crafted prose, Tanizaki creates imagery that feels as though it is being seen through a warm smokey room, with only the soft glow of candles off in the distance as your guide. However, doubt is cast over the allure of shadows with one anecdote, tucked away at the very end of the afterward. Mrs. Tanizaki recounts an instance where an architect was hired to build the Tanizaki’s new residence:

The architect arrived and announced with pride, ‘I’ve read your In Praise Shadows, Mr. Tanizaki, and know exactly what you want.’ To which Tanizaki replied, ‘But no, I could never live in a house like that.’

This tiny reveal brings to light nuances which allude to a satirization of the aesthetic throughout the essay. Perhaps Tanizaki wasn’t completely serious in his analysis; instead, he is poking fun at the absolute rules upon which some dictate design and emphasizing a conflict of theory versus realistic application.

Taking Tanizaki’s discussion of the bathroom, Japanese food, or art hanging in a temple and applying some levity to the analysis simultaneously showcases Tanizaki’s wit and adds complexity to the concept. Considering the toilet/bathroom:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. […] Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.

Or displaying artwork in a dimly lit temple:

So dark are these alcoves, even in bright daylight, that we can hardly discern the outlines of the work; all we can do is listen to the explanation of the guide, follow as best we can the all­but­ invisible brush strokes, and tell ourselves how magnificent a painting it must be.

If Tanizaki can approach issues such as the clash of Western and Eastern cultures and traditions, beauty, and architecture while maintaining a lightness, perhaps we could follow suit in our approach to architecture and the work we produce. Fears of distraction from our intent is one which should be pushed aside; as opposed to detracting from our work, perhaps a mixture of seriousness and silliness can add to the nuances we create. Ideally, seriousness and levity would stroll hand in hand, walking a line so fine that earnestness and wit are blurred into one. It’s the amalgamation of the two traits which creates complexity and an open-ended interpretation of our work. Perhaps there lies a duality of seriousness and humor in all architecture, where one cannot exist without the other.
In Praise of Seriousness and Levity

Erika Viado
April 2016