Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Azby Brown: Just Enough - from Edo to Us

In 2005 The International Examiner published my review of "The Very Small Home". At a time that empty-nesters call moving from mega-mansions into 2500 sq. feet homes downsizing, to see the ingenious use of space in homes of around 1000 sq.feet remains refreshing.  Now the author of that inspiring book, architect Azby Brown treats us to another gem. In "Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan"(Kodansha International) Brown points to the past to show how we can live happy, fulfilled and responsible lives today.

In my mind Azby Brown is the Rick Steves of historic time travel. Where Steves takes you to his "Europe through the back door", Brown invites us to visit Edo period Japan with him. He addresses his readers —that's us— as part of his entourage. If we're willing to go the distance, we may accompany him on a foot-trip through the 18th Century Kai province of central Japan. On our way to the village of Aoyagi (a composite of different villages in the area) we learn among other things about vegetation, foraging, the sharing of water and homesteads.

Concerned about the environment, deforestation and lack of fuel sources Brown studied what happened in Japan over two centuries ago when the archipelago suffered from similar environmental problems as our world does these days.

"Just Enough" is divided in three sections. "Part I – Field and Forest" introduces the reader to the sustainable world of 18th Century farmers in the Kai province. "Part II – The Sustainable City" addresses ways in which city dwellers in those days did their share to keep their society from going down the drain. In "Part III – A Life of Restraint" the highest accomplishment of the Samurai of Edo comes to light.

At the end of each of the three parts a section is dedicated to what may be gleaned from life in the Edo period and how we can apply those lessons in our own lives, in today's society. Brown asks us to rethink the meaning of comfort, to look for beauty in function, use water more fully and suggests to "put human waste to good use". If you're bewildered by the latter, the author mentions that the "yuck factor" was introduced by the Victorians, and that composting toilets have been in use since the 1970s and are constantly improved.
His drawings of Edo cities are idyllic, clean and green. Seeing a pen drawing of a neighborhood's "drain patrolman" really drives home the notion that waste control was very important.

Having literally illustrated his narrative with countless pen and ink drawings Brown follows the example of the 18th Century Shogun's government. "Higher-up" provided Edo period farmers with detailed manuals —visual aids that held information on anything from plant varieties, to tool design and fabrication, to climate and health. Back then it was all there was, today there's something magical about hand-drafted imagery, it draws the reader in, line by line, more effectively than a thousand words or a photograph could.

The author, a native of New Orleans, LA, is director of the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo. He holds degrees in architecture and sculpture from Yale and entered the Department of Architecture of the University of Tokyo in 1985 under a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education. He became an associate professor of architectural design at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in 1995, and currently holds a position there in the department of Media Informatics.

In lieu of presentations on 6/30 and 7/1, Azby Brown will be speaking at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth on July 2 at 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Previously published in the International Examiner 6/16/2010
this work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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