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Ch. 1, pp.14–17

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  • This is the second post in this new series of posts that, when completed, will be an unauthorized translation of Riken Yamamoto’s 2015 book The Space of Power vs. The Power of Space. Hopefully, this post will get us to halfway through Chapter 1-1 and the first of its four sub-headings of A puzzling paragraph, The polis was an artificial city, Privacy means “to be separated”, and Characteristics of the polis as space.
  • I’ve kept the word threshold because it contains a sense, however slight, of a space and not just a line between public and private realms.
  • Also, there was one place in the previous post where I mistranslated 公民榷 as public authority when it should have been civil authority (or civil rights). I’ll keep amending previous posts as and when these things happen, as invariably they will.

* * *

Chapter 1: “Threshold” as a spatial concept
1.1 What is “no-man’s-land”?
1.2 The spatial structure of polis and the spatial concept of “gap”
1.3 Town and Village Survey I – The appearance of the outside
1.4 Town and Village Survey II – Housing with a “threshhold”

• • • 

Chapter 1: “Threshold” as a spatial concept

A puzzling paragraph

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) has a puzzling paragraph in the part where she is writing about the relationship between the public realm and the private realm. Rather than say it is puzzling, I should say I don’t understand it well.

What is important in a city is not the inside of this “personal” realm that, being hidden, has no public importance, but its exterior appearance. The public realm appears via the boundary lines it has with each house. Law is essentially about these boundaries. In ancient times, these boundary lines were actual spaces forming a type of no-man’s land between what was private and what was public, while at the same time protecting both realms and maintaining a gap between them. (The Human Condition, p.92)

Even if there is a limit to how much a sentence can be taken out of the context of those before and after and then analyzed, it is extremely difficult for me to understand what this sentence actually means. What exactly is meant by the terms and phrases “Exterior appearance”, “The public realm appears via the boundary lines it has with each house”, “Law is essentially about these boundaries.” What kind of place is this boundary? What is the significance of “those boundary lines were actual spaces”? What type of place is “a no-man’s land between what was private and what was public”?

Arendt’s account has to do with the relationship between the townscape of Ancient Greek cities and the houses built within them and so it is extremely difficult to read and extract the meaning of its sentences unless that townscape is imagined. The passage is like a puzzle. Or, to put it another way, the puzzle can be easily solved if one imagines the townscape of Ancient Greece – the townscape of the polis – and keeps it in mind while reading.

The polis was an artificial city

The townscape of the polis begins with houses and the inside of those houses is a private realm – the realm of the oikos, or household. The meaning of the Greek word oikos is close to that of the Japanese word “ie” [いえ, 家] with family, servants, land, the house itself, and financial assets managed as a single oikos/Ie by the head of the household. The “external appearance” of that oikos with respect to the townscape was important. This is to say that it was important how the architecture was seen. The townscape was rows of connected houses and the gateway was important in how those houses presented themselves to the street. The real importance was the relationship between the city and this gateway and not the inside of the house. The urban space including the transportation infrastructure in the form of the street outside the house, is the realm of the polis. The private realm – the oikos [house] – appears to the public as the appearance of this gateway. In reality, “the city is a single system and autonomous and closed places must exist inside it.” (Benevolo [ref. History of the City 1, p.60]) In other words, the house had to close itself off with respect to the city. “The state … also interferes with private land.” [p.60] This is why the gateway constitutes the relationship between the house and the city. House and house were connected, and had party walls. The oikos was not conceptually distinct but had a relationship with the city [polis] and so the boundary lines between houses were the relationship with the polis. These boundaries were important for the life of the city, and were called nemein. [NB: derives from ancient Greek némein meaning ‘to give what is due’.] The word nemein has the meaning of boundary but also that of living while “distributing” or having “that which is distributed”. It has its root in the Greek work nomos that means “Law”. [Arendt, The Human Condition, p.126] Securing the boundaries of a place had the meaning of living there and being part of the polis. As such, boundaries were Law itself. “ The Law of the city-state, is that of walls.” [ibid. p.93] But why were specific walls [nemein] law [nomos]? Why does that have the meanings of “distributing” and “that which is distributed”? This is closely related with the fact that many polis were built in completely new locations and that many polis were colony cities. The populace of Ancient Greece was under constant control so that the characteristic system of government could be maintained. “Once a certain limit had been reached, expeditionary forces were created to decide sites for new colonies”. (Benevolo [ref. History of the City 1, p.57]) This means that polis were planned, artificial cities and not cities that had grown naturally. City planning is infrastructure planning and the city was planned and areas of residential land allocated before the colonists arrived. Determining its possession was the beginning of law as a concept. Living on the distributed land was obeying the rules of distribution (Law) and this was the power (civil authority) of the townspeople.

This “no-man’s-land is clearly not some uninhabited wilderness separating one house from another. This next is the original text.

Not the interior of this realm, which remains hidden and of no public significance, but its exterior appearance is important for the city as well, and it appears in the realm of the city through the boundaries between one household and ther other. The law originally was identified with this boundary line, which in ancient times was still actually a space, a kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both realms while, at the same time, separating them from each other.

Arendt, The Human Condition, p.63

While the term literally says no-man’s-land it is by no means land without people. It’s not easy to understand what meaning Arendt was wanting to communicate. “No-man’s-land” is either “a place that is associated with neither place” or “a vague place attached to neither place”. It is a place between the public realm and the private realm that “shelters and protects” the relationship between them “while, at the same time separating them from each other”. It is still difficult to understand because we cannot imagine how the cities of Ancient Greece were made, or the kind of architecture that constituted its houses.

* * *

I understand Yamamot’s frustration because his problem with understanding and finding the right words becomes mine. At the beginning of this post, I said I translated the word 閾 (いき, iki) as threshold but Yamamoto has indicated that it be pronounced as shi-iki (しいき, 敷居) that also means threshold but also any horizontal wood bar used to divide a space. Yamamoto’s choice of a non-standard reading for the character indicates the presence of a wider meaning than the word threshold normally carries.

Yamamoto’s greater frustration comes from Arendt’s use of the term “no-man’s land” to indicate the existence of what we feel should be a type of space, but there is no evidence for what this space might have been. All we know was that Ancient Greek houses had those hinged, planar and often opaque things called gates that can’t be considered a type of space even though they do separate and protect. (With respect to this, I’ve read a few pages ahead and everything does become clearer. There are also some plans that help explain.)

Perhaps this no-man’s land is a kind of negative space such as the gap that separates and protects the integrity of train and platform? Or perhaps we are stuck in thinking of the word threshold as a transition space such as an entrance door threshold across which persons move between public and private realms? Or maybe it’s not about movement at all? I only think this because Yamamoto’s projects often contain a type of space that acts as an interface between the public and private realms even though nobody is using it to move between them. His 2001 Ban Building is configured as an active band with the apartment kitchens and bathrooms on the outer wall. People within the private realm can see what is happening on the outside (because that is what windows do) and people outside can have a sense of the inner life of those apartments, particularly at night when lights are switched on and off with the intermittent use of those spaces, and even if curtains and blinds are drawn.

Yamamoto’s 2008 Dragon Lily’s House has the kitchen/dining area fronting the street and without curtains. It’d be a shop window if it weren’t for the mediating patch of grass and its bench at front. Once again, the use of glass makes this kitchen space into a space of visual interaction between the public and private realms. The rightmost photograph below has children sitting on the bench outside. The Space of Power vs. The Power of Space was published in 2015 but I think by at least 2001 Yamamoto already had a sense of what he was trying to achieve. I think the word he is looking for is interface – something that links two sides in order for something to happen, although it’s not yet clear what the thing is or what is wanted to happen.

• • •

2024/04/31 Ch. 1, pp.14–18
2024/04/24 The Space of Power vs. The Power of Space: Preface pp. 7-11

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    • says:

      hhh yes, I am. It’s not unfamiliar territory because between 1984 and 1998 I worked as a technical translator in Tokyo. I never did literature. I wouldn’t have attempted this project if Yamamoto’s writing wasn’t clear and to the point. I’m enjoying reading the book and seeing the history of the ideas that shaped the buildings.