Recently, browsing the unremitting, unceasing id of the internet that is Twitter, I stumbled across an interesting gem posted by the good folks over at Houslets. It was a link to an obscure 13th-century Japanese text by a Bhuddist ascetic, Kamo no Chōmei. Once a successful and wealthy poet for the imperial court, a series of political setbacks and natural disasters gradually pushed Chōmei into seclusion. The essay, The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hōjōki), describes his sequential downsizing, from his father's house, to a cabin by the river, and, eventually, at the age of sixty, a hut just ten feet to a side.
Often described as an Eastern analogue to Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Hōjōki is similarly famous for its opening lines:
"Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing."
Chōmei goes on to describe the elaborate houses of Kobe, then the capital city, being laid waste by catastrophic fires, whirlwinds, and earthquakes. His dismissal of elaborate architecture goes in on in a religious vein, based in the Bhuddist principle of right thought, which holds that everything earthly is impermament, and the illusion of individuality is a cause of suffering.
Thoreau, on the other hand, was interested in a simple dwelling for more secular reasons. He believed that painstaking analysis of the world around him, and the shedding of responsibility, would open his mind to new intellectual and moral paths through the concentrated power of thought. In later years, many scholars would draw parallels between Transcendentalist and Bhuddist thought, though there is little evidence that Emerson and Thoreau were much aware of Eastern philosophy.
After many years of disappointment and regret, childless and unmarried, Chōmei began his retreat from the world. "It was difficult to find a satisfactory place to live, as I struggled with the problems of this world for over thirty years," he wrote. "Now I am sixty years old, and again changing my way of life so late in life, have constructed a house to which to entrust my last years. It was like a silkworm diligently making a cocoon, or as if designed to provide a single bed for a traveler for a single night."
It held little but a mattress of wheat stalks, a brazier, a shelf for a box of poems, and two instruments. Compared to Thoreau's rather rude, shingled shack, Chōmei's bamboo house is refined and compositionally complex. He even designed it with metal fittings (surely a luxury at the time), so it could be broken down and the "pieces piled in two carts" to be set up in a better location. The house, then, became an active extension of his religion, discarding even the idea of a permanent foundation as too worldly and distracting from spiritual matters.
Thoreau is well-known in American culture today (I had to read him in high school), with a fame born of both a romantic notion of running away to the woods and the idea of living in a tiny, simple house. Chōmei's strain of Japanese asceticism is less well-known, overshadowed by the elaborate joinery and sprawling forms appropriated by Frank Lloyd Wright and incorporated into the American idiom. However, little bits of that culture have leaked through in various forms over the years from unlikely sources.
Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums in 1958. It centers around his friendship with Japhy Ryder, a loosely fictionalized version of poet Gary Snyder, who takes him mountain climbing, teaches him about Bhuddism, and tries (unsuccessfully) to wean him off of booze. "Japhy lived in his own shack which was infinitely smaller than ours, about twelve by twelve, with nothing in it but typical Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life—no chairs at all, not even one sentimental rocking chair, but just straw mats. (p. 18)" Except for books, his possessions fill just one backpack, ready to disappear into the mountains at a moment's notice.
I have written about tiny houses before, and, if Google is any evidence, the romantic notion of a tiny cabin on a carefree piece of property has again grabbed hold of the popular imagination. Each story of someone moving into such a house begins with a surface-level discussion of asceticism, recessionary circumstances, and "downsizing" (an Orwellian term to beat all Orwellian-isms), but tends to turn back to the material rather quickly. Contrary to Chōmei's retreat into pure introspection, they cram their now-tiny dwellings with flat-screens and solar panels and clever cooking gadgets. Eager to share, their retreat from consumerist culture is documented online, the house now a vehicle for basking in virtuous admiration of those too chicken-shit to take the plunge into minimalism.
By the same token, Thoreau, Chōmei, and Japhy Ryder play into the same escapist notions. All are pieces of a past that is un-reclaimable, and we admire their lifestyles more for their discipline and eloquence than the actual mechanics of their life in a tiny house. In fact, Thoreau suffered acute waves of cabin fever and often escaped into town to enjoy worldly comforts.
The archetypal American narrative is aspirational -- the humble beginnings of Abe Lincoln splitting rails in a tiny cabin to the grandest house in the land, or Barack Obama climbing from an itinerant, single-mother childhood to best-selling author and Presidential barrier-breaker. Working that narrative backwards is an upper class privilege (and, judging from the blogs an overwhelmingly white one). No one who grew up in an actual tiny house is terribly eager to return to one, no matter how many clever storage solutions and Apple products it may be stocked with.
The obsession with size, and cleverness, obscures the more important debates around tiny houses. Are they useful? Are they equitable? Are they able to be integrated into a dense, urban fabric instead of sequestered in the country? Can they be beautiful instead of weirdly-proportioned gingerbreaded dollhouses?
I think the answer is yes, mostly, maybe. Tiny houses, as an idea, are both ancient and new. This latest resurgence, for all its homogeneity, is hard to parse. There is abundant room for it to grow into something more durable and contributory, but those pursuing it have to shed the notion that small is unilaterally better or universally aspirational. It is a piece of solving problems with housing, inequality, access, equity, and carbon, but it is no panacea.
Philosophically, Hōjōki does its best work by deflating the self-importance of architecture and undercutting the notion that buildings are permanent. This year's Pritzker winner, also Japanese, was Shigeru Ban. He builds buildings of paper, a sly comment of the nature of permanence and decay. But Chōmei said it best:
"Nor is it clear to me, as people are born and die, where they are coming from and where they are going. Nor why, being so ephemeral in this world, they take such pains to make their houses pleasing to the eye. The master and the dwelling are competing in their transience."