Eavesdropping while traveling abroad, part 1


I’ve had the recent good fortune to go on some pretty amazing trips. Last September, we went to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and last month, we went to Japan. Besides the obvious enrichment and inspiration that comes from traveling abroad, I’ve realized another benefit.

When you’re in a foreign country where English isn’t the native language, people speaking English stand out to you. When you hear something familiar among otherwise unfamiliar sounds, you listen closely. What would be background noise at home can sometimes resonate.

During my recent travels, I learned some interesting lessons, simply from eavesdropping.

“You can’t call yourself a Modernist if you haven’t been to Japan.” I overheard this conversation while visiting Naoshima Island in Japan. Naoshima is known for its contemporary public art collection, and its art museums and resort designed by Tadao Ando. It attracts design-types, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear this conversation considering the context. But it got me thinking more about what I’d seen the previous week in Kyoto. The debt that Modernism owes to Japanese design is undoubtable.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously credited Japanese art as informing his aesthetic. But it’s more than aesthetic. The Japanese were separating structure from enclosure long before le Corbusier wrote about it in his manifesto “Towards a New Architecture.” And the poetic sparsity of 15th century Japanese temples and gardens happened long before Mies uttered the infamous phrase “Less is more.”

Elizabeth Qi