After triumphantly declaring “The hand is back” at this year’s Venice Biennale, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor touched off a debate within the architectural community regarding an age-old divide that echoes back through the annals of the architectural profession, pitting the handmade against and the technologically-derived. And while today’s quarrels over parametricism and auto-construction have found new kindling, let’s remember that, with roots in the Industrial Revolution, these disagreements have been smoldering for generations.
The work of brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene in Southern California produced unambiguously handmade works within the American context of the early 1900s. Their buildings, the majestic Gamble House and the lavish Blacker House, for example, were over-wrought odes to bespoke craftsmanship that would not be out of place in today’s hipster bazaars. Built amid the bucolic environs of freshly conquered territories, the Craftsman-style Greene and Greene espoused not only represented a powerful counter to mass production, but utilized the a fluid vocabulary of vernacular Asian influences for inspiration. More specifically, Greene and Greene’s designs worked hard to profess this return to artisanship by drawing heavily from the traditional wooden architecture of Japan.
The Huntington Library, by showcasing the work of Japanese-American photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s photographs of Greens and Greene’s Pasadena architecture, aims to bring the Greene Brothers’ cultural appropriation full circle by examining the influence of American cultural appropriation from the Japanese point of view.
Ishimoto, a man born in San Francisco, California but raised in Japan, became a renowned photographer after spending World War Two in an internment camp in Colorado. His photographic interests eventually took Ishimoto back to Japan, but he returned to America in 1974 to photograph Greene and Greene’s craftsman houses for a Japanese design magazine. Though Ishimoto’s other works have been exhibited in the United States since the 1950s, this show marks the first time his Greene and Greene photographs are being exhibited in America. The 46 black-and-white photographs that resulted focus intently on the literal nuts and bolts of Greene and Greene’s designs; their wooden tectonics and sumptuous finishes are subjects of intense focus and composition. Former curator of the Gamble House Anne Mallek said in a press release for the exhibition, “Ishimoto rarely made an image of a structure in its entirety, but chose rather to examine details and create abstractions, focusing on pattern, light, and structure. All of the images telegraph his sensitivity to material, texture, form, and light.”
The exhibition, “Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Bilingual Photography and the Architecture of Greene & Greene,” coincides with the reopening of the Huntington Library’s recently-renovated, Greene and Greene furniture repository that houses period rooms from the Gamble House, and is on view until October 13 2016.