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    Postcard from Nara

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    The main building at Tōdai-ji, in Nara, Japan, is Daibutsu-den, the Hall of the Great Buddha, a massive 18th-century temple. Photography by Nancy Novitski.

    Dear ArchitectureWeek,

    The city of Nara, Japan, brims with landmark buildings from the Nara period (710-784 A.D.), when it was the capital. A particularly striking one is Tōdai-ji, the Great East Temple, founded in the mid-eighth century to house Daibutsu, the Great Buddha statue.

    On approaching from the south, your first glimpse of the Tōdai-ji complex is of a tall building that turns out to be the imposing Great South Gate, Nandai-mon, completed in 1199. Towering guardian statues flank the gate, their fierce expressions designed to protect the temple grounds from evil.

    A few minutes' walk away is the main building, Daibutsu-den, the Hall of the Great Buddha, sited in a large courtyard framed by a colonnade. Stretching 160 feet (49 meters) high and 187 feet (57 meters) wide, this building is said to be the largest wooden building in the world. Once you climb the front steps and peer into the dim interior, the central purpose for this vast building comes into view: a 52-foot- (16-meter-) tall bronze Buddha statue, flanked by two smaller bodhisattvas.

    Even more impressive is the fact that the existing building the third iteration of Daibutsu-den, dating to the beginning of the 18th century is only about two-thirds the size of the building that preceded it, which was completed in 1190 after the original Daibutsu-den was burned down. The design and construction of that massive twelfth-century structure, overseen by the monk Shunjōbō Chōgen during a turbulent time in Japanese history, represented a noteworthy feat of engineering and a significant departure from the standards of Japanese architecture of the time. The design was heavily influenced by Sung Dynasty Chinese styles, in contrast with the prevailing Japanese aesthetic.

    So short-lived was the style, and so specific to temple construction, that it is known as daibutsu-yo, or Great Buddha style. It was marked by immense size, basic geometric forms, and open, unpartitioned interior spaces that left structural elements open to view. One characteristic feature was the use of huge, intact logs for the many support columns.

    Chōgen's twelfth-century masterpiece burned down in 1567. The Daibutsu-den that exists at Tōdai-ji today represents a blend of features from daibutsu-yo and later styles. Though smaller, it is nonetheless awe-inspiring.

    On the road in Nara,

    Nancy Novitski

     

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