Let’s reintroduce some darkness and stillness to Western design

Words:
Matthew Barnett Howland

Asked to name a favourite book of the year, Matthew Barnett Howland of CSK Architects describes the pleasure of rediscovering In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of Shadows, Junichirõ Tanizaki, 1933. Translation by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker, copyright Leete’s Island Books, published by Vintage 2001

After finishing Cork House, which I built myself, it’s all been rather a whirlwind culminating with the house (designed with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton) being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.

As I was showing people around it, a lot of the conversations were to do with modern sensibilities regarding lighting and our expectations of interiors. I found myself referring to In Praise of Shadows, which I’d first read as a student at Cambridge, and thought I should read again as it seemed so relevant to the ideas within Cork House.

On rereading, I was a bit surprised by how weird it was, in the sense that it’s not a logical or linear book and takes quite odd detours, covering everything from recipes to Japanese skin colour and blackened teeth. It’s certainly a strange mix, but I quite like this approach as that’s how architects tend to think – pulling bits of information from all over the place whether it be science, technology or art.

There are some very interesting nuggets. The book primarily explores notions of darkness. Although there’s a general appreciation of an atmospheric balance of light and shadows, the best passages are about achieving a deep darkness, which is something you don’t often find in modern buildings. Tanizaki draws a parallel between darkness, shadow and silence. This chimes for me at Cork House, especially at dusk before you turn on the lights, when the cork absorbs both sound and light, and there is a sense of deep stillness. Lower levels of light and sound create a heightened awareness of self and space, encouraging reflection and the impulse to think things through properly without distraction.

Matthew Barnett Howland with In Praise of Shadows.
Matthew Barnett Howland with In Praise of Shadows.

Tanizaki talks about visible darkness as if it’s a material. He picks up on the nuances of patina, lustre, cloudiness, tarnish, even the vapour of steam coming off a bowl of soup – it’s as if he’s using these physical phenomena to stand for mystery and ambiguity and subtlety, and somehow it feels as if he does so in a slightly mournful tone.

It feels very much like a challenge to Western sensibility and the importance we attach to bright lights and sharp surfaces, and how we associate these things with cleanliness and functionality – so often, clients will tell me they want lots of natural light and clean lines. Although it’s from another era, I think the undercurrent of Tanizaki’s writing is still relevant, and almost implies that we’re frightened of darkness and dust and ageing. This sense of the book as an anthropological study recurs throughout – for example, he also talks about how Western technology and art evolved hand in hand, and how things may have been different if the Japanese had invented their own science, more rooted in their ways of thinking and doing.

Because this book comes from outside our culture, it causes us to reflect and question, and to consider how our perception of light and dark is in the mind as much as it is in the eye. You can’t take everything in the book too seriously, but even after 80 years, I still feel it poking at what we think is right and good, and asking us to think about this anew.

Matthew Barnett Howland is director of research and development at CSK Architects

Text by Pamela Buxton based on conversation with Matthew Barnett Howland


Read about four other recommended books:

Annalie Riches of Mikhail Riches on Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree

Nick Newman of Studio Bark on On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein

Owen Hopkins, director of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University, on Radical Technologies: The design of everyday life, by Adam Greenfield

Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, on How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett