The Buddhist Temple and Modernism

Byodo-In Temple, Kyoto, Japan

One of the only influences the architect Frank Lloyd Wright ever admitted to was that of Japanese architecture. Critic Ada Louise Huxtable writes that Wright saw in Japanese architecture “simplicity, elegant craft and structural lightness” that felt “‘natural,’ ‘organic’ and ‘modern.'” It was not in Japan, however, but in Chicago, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, that the young Wright was introduced to the architecture of Japan.

When he and his then-employer Louis Sullivan visited the Exposition, the two were crestfallen by the Beaux-Arts design of the “White City;” Sullivan famously quipped that the exposition set architecture back 50 years.

The Beaux-Arts splendor of the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Wright was equally dismayed by the overall grandiosity, but he found a source of inspiration in the Ho-o-den, a Japanese pavilion modeled after the 900-year-old Buddhist temple Byōdō-in Kyoto, Japan. The scale (smaller than the original) appealed to Wright as a residential designer, but it was the interior space, open and uninterrupted that set this building apart. The only fixed structural components were the floors, ceiling, columns and outside walls. Interior walls could be moved, reshaping the interior at will. The relative lack of adornment also appealed to Wright the proto-modernist, as was the emphasis on simplicity, structural expression and material honesty.

The Japanese Pavilion, Chicago 1893

The primary statement of the Columbian Exposition was the gleam of its white exteriors built for emotional and visual impact, but not so much for the ages; most of the buildings were made of temporary plaster and were torn down (save for the Fine Arts Pavilion, now the Museum of Science and Industry) soon after it was over. A simple image search for the Columbian Exposition displays this emphasis; ironic, though, that the structure that had the greatest influence on the next 100 years or was the small, quiet pavilion that Wright found so engaging. Much of Wright’s modernism was born here, and from these ideas came Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson and really much of the 20th century.


One concept in Buddhism that I wrestle with from time to time is the concept of “no-self.” Its meaning slips out of my consciousness almost every time I read it, as if this reading is the first time, and I’m back to where I began. When I do get it, it goes something like this: the “self” in “no-self” refers to an existence that is stable, consistent (if not permanent) and exists of its own accord. “No-self” is one facet of shunyata, a word commonly translated as “emptiness.” Emptiness does not imply a spatial emptiness, but instead an absence of that which is false, and what is false is that aforementioned more-or-less permanent self. Shunyata explains that this “I,” this “you,” is both ever-changing and exists contingent upon countless conditions and situations. The existence of anything, even of emptiness itself, is contingent and dependent (interdependent really) on situations and conditions.

In a parable I have written about before, a Zen student asks his teacher what is the ultimate lesson of Zen. “An appropriate response,” answered his teacher. Why is it so often that our response to a given situation is not the appropriate one, but instead a response filtered through fear, insecurity, desire, longing or ulterior motives?

That “self,” that idea of who we are and who we’ve built ourselves up to be, the self in “no-self,” gets in the way of the appropriate response (it reminds me of a Lou Reed line – “between thought and expression/lies a lifetime”). When faced with a situation that calls for a response of, for instance, joy; love; neutrality; a simple yes or no; helpfulness; compassion or any other simple emotion, we instead filter our response through “What would ‘I’ do?”. What do I do? The “self” in “no-self” is that idea we have of ourselves, that dirty filter, that mud between our true nature and the “appropriate response.” Without this filter there is clarity, there is action, there is wei wu wei, “doing without doing.”

Architecture in the late 19th century had been searching for its own “appropriate response” to the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution. Technological progress was manifest architecturally in such works as London’s Crystal Palace and Paris’s Eiffel Tower. Structure and design were one. ornament was frowned upon.

It was against this background of architectural progress that Frank Lloyd Wright made his journey to the White City. Whereas the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris featured the Pavilion of Machines and had as its entrance gate the Eiffel Tower, the 1893 Columbian Exposition was, again, from an architectural standpoint, largely and unfortunately decorative and disposable. The emphasis on artifice and appearance for its own sake crushed Sullivan and Wright.

Utagawa Toyoharu
Interior of Shoin Style Architecture with Dancers Performing Horse Dance, 1770

In her 2004 biography of Wright, critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the art of Japan “offered lessons in the intrinsic qualities of materials and the elimination of the nonessential…” Wright would have seen and felt both in the Japanese pavilion. Here he saw a material honesty that was lacking at the rest of the exposition and an expression of space very different from the standard European model (in addition, Wright was already a fan of Japanese woodblock prints, including those with an architectural theme, such as above).

The scale of the Ho-o-den building matched that of his own residential commissions, but the open floor plan added a new twist. Gone would be the highly decorated and ornamented rabbit warrens of the Victorian era. The layout could change as needed, and doors, windows and other thresholds were unembellished by cornices or friezes. Wright would later spend many years traveling and working in Japan, but it was here, through a lens of an ersatz 900-year-old Buddhist temple in Japan, that the modern age of the early 20th-century had found a way home.

Interior of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in San Francisco

5 Responses to “The Buddhist Temple and Modernism”
  1. Brilliant, informative, and fascinating post. Thank you.

  2. Oh, I love the last space – and can certainly see the Japanese architectural elements. When can I move in?! 😉

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