The abdication of understanding: Trialectical readings of Japanese philosophy and architecture

April/May 2017


The Plan of this Present Work

In the first chapter of The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre spells out the ultimate project of his book, namely, what he refers to as the reconstruction of a spatial code, ‘a language common to practice and theory.’1 Having established a framework for the theoretical understanding of space in the form of his spatial triad (spatial practice/representations of space/spaces of representation), he goes on to assert the necessity of a different approach to the study of space—that of an experiential praxis. This reconfigured understanding of spatial practice would, in his words, ‘recapture the unity of dissociated elements, breaking down such barriers as that between private and public, and identifying both confluences and oppositions in space that are at present indiscernible.’2 To these dualistic confluences and oppositions (public/private, or later in the text, certain/uncertain), one could argue we could add the problem of the encounter between theory and practice—indeed, much of Lefebvre’s own concern seems to be directed towards rehabilitating the understanding of space as being either a theoretical concern or a practical one. As Edward Soja shows in his reading of The Production of Space, Lefebvre is profoundly critical of binary or oppositional categories, preferring rather modes of thought that ‘respond to all binarisms, to any attempt to confine thought and political action to only two alternatives, by interjecting an-Other set of choices.’3

So what would a spatial practice that follows Lefebvre’s code look like, what would be its functions, its methods, and its aims? How could we speak of such a spatial practice’s alphabet, lexicon, and grammar, to take Lefebvre’s terms? What would distinguish such a knowledge as being, as Lefebvre writes, ‘conscious of its own approximativeness’ and capable of finding ‘a middle path between dogmatism on the one hand and the abdication of understanding on the other’?4 In answering such a question, one must consider a radically different epistemology than that we might be accustomed to in the West. Lefebvre’s is an epistemology that dwells in paradoxes, in points of crisis, in the spaces in between opposing categories. Such an epistemology, as Soja points out, invites us to ‘set aside the demands to make an either/or choice and contemplate instead the possibility of a both/and logic,’ and therefore ‘to enter a space of extraordinary openness [that] can be expanded to encompass a multiplicity of perspectives that have heretofore been considered by the epistemological referees to be incompatible, uncombinable.’5 In that respect, Lefebvre’s thought comes strikingly close to Eastern non-dualistic philosophies, and has a counterpart in the work of the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō, who developed his own non-dualistic logic of place (basho). Nishida’s basho may serve as a useful mediator in giving a “Lefebvrean” reading of two radical architectural spaces in Japan: one ancient but continuous—the Ise Shinto shrine; and one contemporary yet rooted in the unmeasurable, unconceptualizable time of crisis and disaster—Isozaki Arata and Anish Kapoor’s Ark Nova.

Creative Resistances: Lefebvre’s (Meta)Philosophy and Trialectics

Understanding Lefebvre’s thinking on spatiality necessitates taking a step back and looking first at his understanding of the work of philosophy itself, which was deeply rooted in Marxist thought. Throughout Lefebvre’s work there is a preoccupation with teasing out the philosophical implications of Marx’s work, whilst at the same time avoiding the temptation to merely turn him into a philosopher. For Marx, as for Lefebvre, the principal aims of philosophy—liberty, truth, justice, the good—are all valid and worthy. They are, as Lefebvre writes, ‘the aims of revolutionary action’. But for both thinkers, the work of philosophy as it is traditionally understood is not what is best suited for realizing them. However, the way forward rests not in doing away with philosophical thought altogether, but rather in finding ways of pushing philosophy to supersede itself. Lefebvre was well aware that this injunction on philosophy was already present in Marx’s critique when he wrote that ‘[t]he becoming-philosophy of the world is at the same time the becoming-world of philosophy. Its realization is at the same time its loss.’6 Marx understood that a purely theoretical or abstract understanding of philosophical thought belongs to the realm of ideology—that truly radical thought must actualize itself in the world, and through that actualization, supersede itself, that is, negate its own status as mere thought.

As Lefebvre notes, in Marx’s thought this notion was inextricably linked with a reintroduction of the term “praxis,” here taken to denote social activity, or the relationship between humans. It is this notion of praxis at the point where philosophy supersedes itself that Lefebvre, in his subsequent work, goes on to attempt to redefine as a radically open space of possibility. This drive to systematically problematize philosophy itself constitutes the standpoint of what Lefebvre terms “metaphilosophy,” a standpoint that ‘opens up a sphere of reflexion and meditation in which philosophy appears in all its fullness but also with all its limitations.’7 It is here that what he calls the Great Illusion of philosophy can be overcome, namely the belief that it can ‘transcend representations to reach a more concrete and complex Truth.’8  

One of the most striking ways in which the metaphilosophical standpoint manifests in Lefebvre’s thought is in his rejection of oppositional binaries which, as Soja notes, he saw as ‘the deadening of dialectical reasoning […], the construction of compelling binary oppositions that are categorically closed to new, unanticipated possibilities.’9 Implicit in the metaphilosophical standpoint, as well as in its later manifestation as trialectics, is a resolve never to let discourse fall into dogma or a complacent “buying into” totalizing arguments that close off any space for further expansion, reflection, and imagination. Lefebvre knew that binarisms, confined to the traditional rules of logic, led to such an impasse. In offering two mutually exclusive choices, they limit the field of discourse and preempt any imaginative reconstruction of their own boundaries. The strategy that Lefebvre introduces to think through these binarisms in a new way is what Soja calls “trialectics” and “thirding-as-Othering. Soja writes, ‘[w]hen faced with a choice confined to the either/or, Lefebvre creatively resisted by choosing instead an-Other alternative, marked by the openness of both/and also […], with the “also” reverberating back to disrupt the categorical closures implicit in the either/or logic.’10

It is in this way that Lefebvre comes to constitute his famous spatial triad in The Production of Space. He does this by taking the traditional set of alternatives involved in thinking about space— namely, the notion that space be thought either as a physical category (capable of being measured) or a conceptual one (abstract space, the space of philosophy)—and interjecting “an-Other” choice, to use Soja’s expression. Thus, Lefebvre opens up the possibility and the necessity for thinking about a space that encompasses both alternatives, as well as an understanding that they are not separate to begin with but rather engaged in an interrelated flow. In these “spaces of representation,” spatial practice and representations of space inform one another, provide the impetus for one another, and produce one another. Lefebvre’s move from metaphilosophy and Marxism towards spatiality is easy to trace when space is understood in this way, for as Soja writes ‘[s]ocial reality is not just coincidentally spatial […], there is no unspatialized social reality.11 Not only that, but this primacy of spatiality, as Soja explains, comes to encompass categories that are not usually thought in terms of spatiality, so that ‘[e]ven in the realm of pure abstraction, ideology, and representation, there is a pervasive and pertinent, if often hidden, spatial dimension.’12 

How might we apply Lefebvre’s trialectics towards finding modes of spatial practice and thought that are discursively open and unconfined by dualistic logic? As the reader may have already deduced, any attempt to find a concrete answer to such a question is destined to fail, for if we could imagine a concrete example of such a practice it would, in principle, be confined to the very logic that would negate its radicalness. What we can look for, however, are provocations, or in Stuart Elden’s words ‘productive tensions.’ These provocations can be seen as the more successful failures in attempting to traverse our central paradox, and we can see Lefebvre’s work as strategizing these attempts and excursions to the walls of impossibility. In their failure they might reveal to us ways of navigating the paradoxical course that Lefebvre sets forth, but in order for them to do so, we must set aside the desire to find neat and easily conceptualizable solutions. Mobilizing as a point of mediation the work of Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō, let us now look at three such provocations in Japanese architectural practice, both ancient and contemporary.

The Space of Emptiness: Nishida and Terminal Architecture

Nishida Kitarō is widely considered to be the most important and influential philosopher of 20th Century Japan. His work can be broadly summarized as an attempt to bring the methodological rigor of the Western philosophical tradition to the study of Eastern philosophy, namely Buddhism.  His work revolves around the central problem of absolute nothingness and is at heart an attempt to transcend the very same kind of dualistic thinking that Lefebvre was so concerned with. For Nishida, this meant thinking rigorously through what he termed “pure experience”—the experience of phenomena prior to the arising of any and all dualistic distinctions, most crucially that of subject/object. In Nishida’s view, one perceives the world as it is, free from conceptualization, and then the process of judgement arises to create categories and distinctions that relate the perceived phenomena to previously known categories. The standpoint on which Nishida seeks to position himself is that of a pure experience, an experience that would be ‘just as it is without the least addition of deliberative discrimination,’ and that relinquishes ‘one’s own fabrications.’13 Pure experience, for Nishida, is at once what mediates absolute nothingness in lived experience and is itself absolute nothingness. This is the fundamental field on which Nishida bases all of his later philosophy, and what itself is developed in a more dynamic way in his later concept of “basho” or place.

What is basho? We could take a primary definition from J.W. Krummel, who writes that basho ‘would be the “place” enveloping and encompassing all mental acts and their objects, all perspectival horizons of intentionality that constitute the world of objects.’14 For Nishida, all dualistic oppositions can be seen as being “implaced” in a sort of field. To illustrate this, Nishida turns to the perception of color. When we see a color, we judge it and categorize it according to previous perceptions of color. This categorization, however, is implaced in a certain basho—in this case, the category of color. Nishida’s point is that this basho itself forms at the same time one of the oppositions in a further basho (e.g. color as opposed to not-color), while that further basho forms an opposition in a further basho and so on, until we reach what is thought to be the fundamental opposition in ontology: nothingness/being. Nishida argues that since this nothingness is still conceptualized as opposed to being, it can’t be absolute nothingness but rather is still a relative category. Thus, this opposition itself must be seen as being implaced in an oppositionless basho, what Nishida calls “the basho of true nothingness.”

What this opens up in Nishida’s thinking is a more dynamic approach to pure experience, in which oppositional categories are seen as being engaged in a dynamic interrelationship, containing one another in potentiality. In this way we can come to see form and emptiness in a radically different way, as being animated by each other’s potentiality. What is more, this standpoint allows for the emergence of one of Nishida’s most striking concepts, that of “acting-intuition,” a ‘mode of pre-epistemically knowing through active engagement with one’s environment.’15 As Krummel explains, in Nishida’s development of basho there comes to be a gradual shift ‘from a look that penetrates through and beyond the interior depths of consciousness to a view that looks externally to the happenings of the world at large.’16 Basho comes to be seen for Nishida as ‘explicitly [involving] our interacting with the world.’17 Acting-intuition, then, arises in the basho of true nothingness as a mode of action that precedes any distinction between subject and object—a kind of action that is endowed with radical openness. It is here that we can see the parallels between Nishida and Lefebvre’s thought. For both authors, spatiality constitutes not just a philosophical concern, but one that includes within it the possibility for socio-historical thought and ethical action. Further, for both thinkers, there is a mode of praxis that, in its awareness of the self-contradictory identity of opposites, reveals through action something that could not be known otherwise and that transcends dualistic thought. For this reason, Nishida can serve as a good point of mediation in order for us to apply Lefebvre’s thought to the reading of two striking architectural spaces in Japan.

The volatile nature of Japan’s climate and geology has led to a very idiosyncratic conception of space, its functions, and its uses. Rather than attempting to ascribe any specific cultural significance to such idiosyncrasies, what we will seek to do is to explore the ways in which these unique circumstances have been mobilized to engender provocations and questions that can only be considered through an unfolding spatial praxis. The island’s many encounters with disaster and catastrophe have ensured that Japan’s architectural tradition is one firmly rooted in the awareness of impermanence and decay, and has led to the rise of unique architectural movements that have sought to address the impossibility of planning for a volatile future.

One of the most striking examples of a spatial practice that willingly embraces its own impermanence, and one that has had a very profound influence on later architectural developments, is the Ise Shinto shrine (Fig. 1) located in the Mie prefecture. This shrine, widely admired for its architectural qualities, is the locus of a unique spatial practice stretching back many centuries. Roughly every twenty years since the year 692, the shrine has been dismantled and rebuilt in a directly adjacent plot of land, a process that has taken place sixty-two times to date. (Fig. 2) In a practical sense, this serves the purpose of transmitting the necessary building techniques to future generations so they are not lost. However, as Zhongjie Lin points out, the ritual also serves a much more profound purpose, that of expressing ‘the deepest ideas of Shintoism, the belief in the necessity of periodic ritual renewal.’18 We see here a mode of practice that relies on the same understanding of space and its possibilities that Lefebvre proposed. It is a mode of practice in which the concept that is to be grasped is not only thought about or even talked about, but must be actualized through action—action that occurs in a trialectical space, a space that is both physical and conceptual, both a social space and a representation of space.

The shrine has had a profound influence on Japanese architecture in general, but the unique mode of spatial understanding and practice that it stands for had a particularly unique effect on the Metabolist movement, a group of young architects that formed in the post-war period led by Tange Kenzō. Tange, who co-wrote a treatise on the Ise Shrine, deeply admired its architectural form and beauty, but what had a bigger influence on his and the Metabolists’ thinking was the rebuilding ritual, which exemplified ‘a tendency in Japanese architecture to perpetuate architectural form without strictly preserving the actual building itself,’ a tendency that for them was tied to ‘an appreciation of the mutability of the nature and the recognition that the practice of building should be attuned to such natural processes.’19

Metabolism, in brief, was an architectural movement that sought to address what it saw as being the fundamental problems facing architecture in post-war Japan: the lack of suitable construction space on the archipelago, the volatility of the Japanese climate, and the promise of technological developments for going beyond these structural weaknesses. The Metabolists understood that engaging with these problems called for a radically different approach to building and the role of architecture, one that was centered around the twin notions of impermanence and the organic processes of nature. They believed that cities, and even individual buildings, should be able to grow and transform organically, constantly adapting to a changing future. To this end, they made full use of every technological advance at their disposal to design utopian architectural spaces—modular megastructures that could be expanded or contracted or even transported elsewhere entirely, as well as floating cities or cities built on artificial land to deal with the issue of the lack of space on the island. This utopian impulse, the drive towards building for a future that can’t be apprehended or even imagined, is what characterizes Metabolist architecture and what is mobilized and subverted by Isozaki Arata and Anish Kapoor’s Ark Nova. Conceived as a response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, Ark Nova is an inflatable mobile concert hall/community center that holds up to 500 people before, as Eric Cazdyn writes, ‘being deflated and transported to a future disaster, a disaster that has yet to occur but that is built right inside of our present.’20

Isozaki was closely associated with the Metabolists, but was never an official member of the movement. As Cazdyn points out, this is because Isozaki’s is a ‘radically different idea of time and space’. Whereas Tange and the Metabolists were attempting to ‘preempt the great ruptures of history’ and envision a future that could still be seen as ‘an extension of the present’, Isozaki’s conception of the future is one that is both ‘indelibly imprinted by the great disaster of Japanese modernity (Hiroshima),’21 and utterly out of reach of our present or past imagination. With this in mind, Ark Nova asks the following question: how can any action towards radical and unconceptualizable categories avoid colonizing those categories themselves under the constraints of what is, at present, imaginable? Ark Nova does not attempt to provide an answer for such a question. As Cazdyn writes,

Isozaki does not offer moralizing commentary about how space will shape revolutionary subjects, about how his work will withstand the next [disaster], or even about how the concert hall it contains will soothe the traumas of the triple disaster—but neither does he give up on the radical possibility of what can emerge in the meantime and meanspace.22

In its impermanence and transportability, Ark Nova is constantly ready to be moved to the site of the next disaster, but it also leaves the door open to the unknowability of the future, to the fact that what constitutes disaster tomorrow may not look anything like it does today. Thus, by occupying  what could be seen as a “standpoint of no standpoint,” both the Ise Shrine and Ark Nova situate themselves in the kind of trialectical space theorized by Lefebvre and Soja and attempt something akin to Nishida’s acting-intuition. By opening up a space for the unconceptualizable, while not attempting to fill it with anything, they engage in a kind of spatial praxis—a praxis understood not as being either theory or practice, but the encounter between them, the space where they both are one and yet can never be united. By opening non-discursive fissures in the order of things these spaces remind us that spatial practice can be radical and transformative, that true change can only emerge in space and from a space that is radically open. As for what comes next, well, perhaps one can only be reminded of the dictum “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”


1 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford & Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1991), p. 64

2 ibid.
3 Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford & Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996), p. 5
4 Lefebvre (1991), p. 65
5 Soja, op. cit., p. 5
6 Marx (1968), cited in Henri Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy, trans. David Fernbach (London & New York: Verso, 2016), p. xiv
7 Lefebvre (1980), cited in Soja, op. cit., p. 34
8 ibid.
9 ibid., p. 30
10 ibid., p. 7
11 ibid., p. 46
12 ibid.
13 Nishida Kitarō, An Inquiry Into the Good, trans. Masao Abe and Christopher Ives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 3
14 Nishida Kitarō, Place and Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitarō, trans. John W. M. Krummel and Shigenori Nagatomo (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 9
15 ibid., p. 224
16 ibid., p. 28
17 ibid., p. 28-29
18 Zhongjie Lin, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan (London & New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 54
19 ibid.
20 Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton, Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 118
21 ibid., p. 167
22 ibid., p. 170