When an American Baby Architect, such as myself, thinks of Japanese Architecture, I think of how the role traditional Japanese art and architecture influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene.|1| I think of harmony. Nature. The exquisite Japanese Gardens in Portland, where an ancient samurai with tweezers delicately plucks microscopic weeds out of the lichens. I think of sitting on tatami mats in an incomparably tidy room because Marie Kondo taught everyone how to live a joyful de-cluttered life.
The exquisite craftsmanship, refined elegance, locally-sourced materials, and careful relationship to the environment intrinsic to traditional japanese architecture has always resonated with modernist architects. In 1933, Bruno Taut visited the 17th century Katsura Imperial Village and declared, “Japanese Architecture has always been modern.”
Unfortunately, the current countryside of Japan is not filled with seemingly fragile teahouses constructed by master carpenters using rattan-wrapped hand saws. Apparently, Japan is filled with dense construction, escalating land costs, hello-kitty, and neon lights.
A new book written by Deanna MacDonald called Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green highlights current residential projects in Japan that convert traditional building techniques into modern contemporary living.
Before reading this book, I thought it was just Americans who were unsustainable, don’t recycle,|2| and have a throw-away culture. Perhaps Japan spent too many resources teaching children the STEM fields and forgot about history class, because until recently they have thrown away historical building practices. In fact, Japanese houses have a depressingly low 38 year lifespan (compared to nearly 100 years in the U.S.). Land values skyrocket, as buildings depreciate and are considered worthless after a generation. Every house in Japan is apparently a Mobile home in America.
This book was inspiring as it featured many newer Japanese houses that focused on sustainability. The introductory chapters were informative and left me wanting to delve into how government, and economics influence design. The traditional minka farm houses with thick-thatched roofs were exquisite. And the pre-modern machiya townhouses, whose long human-scaled buildings were nicknamed ‘eel’s residence.’ The machiya’s narrow facades provided a tax-incentive, since buildings were taxed based upon street frontage. Unlike, the Wild Wild West with fake second story facades that have re-appeared in American buildings as a means to increase signage, the machiya traditionally placed the mercantile shop on the ground floor, with residences flowing up behind.
But mostly I learned what the word wabi sabi meant. The authors ceaselessly kept referring to wabi sabi principles – like I was supposed to inherently know what the word meant. I know what wasabi is, and I like it. But the word wabi sabi sounds too flippant – like a Japanese synonym for Hang Ten Bruh. Throughout the book, I inferred that wabi sabi was like Zen meets Feng Shui. Whereas, Feng Shui was a fad term used in 1990’s HGTV shows to trick clients into thinking that a red hallway with votive candles actually improved the house’s flow and energy patterns, Wabi Sabi is a holistic aesthetic.
Wikipedia describes Wabi Sabi as an aesthetic Japanese worldview that stands for imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion. Thanks Wikipedia. But this Wikipedia entry doesn’t leave one inspired by Japanese design. Sooooo… Basically, Wabi Sabi means to do things half-ass. No wonder why Japanese Houses only last 38 years.
That previous quote was what I was thinking I would add to the Wikipedia entry. But then I thought, how would I find time to read, edit, and contribute to Wikipedia entries when I barely make the necessary effort to write this blog every two weeks. And then I felt even worse, because I constantly reference Wikipedia, and realize there are thousands of people that relentlessly create an objective free online dictionary without advertisements, yet I never donate. I even stare at the yellow banner ad every January, and am like, “Yeah, only $3 from me and they can continue to provide a valuable resource.”
So now I feel even worse. Thanks a lot wabi sabi.
However, after re-reading Eco Living Japan, page 13 gave me all the answers. The prodigious Frank Lloyd Wright translated wabi sabi as “rusticity and simplicity that borders on loneliness” – and was considered the height of sophistication.
Rusticity and simplicity that borders on loneliness.
That is now my favorite quote. It is apparent why Modern Architects were inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. Instead of the “machine for living” Japanese architecture made the machine out of natural materials – seamlessly integrating with nature.
The book unfolds with varying projects that use traditional Japanese ideologies, and provides a smattering of great architectural projects from Kengo Kuma’s breathtakingly translucent structure in the snowy Hokkaidō countryside for Même Meadows to Edward Suzuki’s passive-house principled House of Maple Leaves with delicately thin roofs.
Inevitably, there are too many houses within this compendium to accurately reflect the scope of projects within one blog post. However, all of the projects were incomparably clean. Not just because Marie Kondo came over before the photo-shoot, but there are no fussy details; just clean transitions between materials without baseboard trim and spaces that respond to nature even in an urban environment.
The final chapter of the book features projects throughout the world that utilize these Japanese traditions – previously lost by Modern Architects. All architects should learn from these Japanese practices; therefore, I will leave you with some Japanese nouns all architects should use.
Words I learned
It is a well-known fact that Le Corbusier’s anthropometric Modulor Man slept on a tatami mat. Traditional Japanese rooms contain modular Tatami mats, where one tatami mat is considered the correct size to sleep on. Rooms then were measured based upon the number of tatami. For instance – a six tatami room.
Materials already proportioned to human scale intrinsically create a well-proportioned home. Instead of designing a house, and trying to determine if a bed can fit in a room, you could be like, “Did you scale your walls based off of a tatami? Then your bed is already in the room.”
Modernity is based upon blending exterior to interior, public to private. But I don’t think there is an equivalent English word for Engawa. The engawa is the space or threshold between interior and exterior. The modern approach to “bringing nature indoors” is to place a big-ass window in a wall. But this is a sharp border condition. You can view nature from inside, or you can view the inside from the exterior, but you can never experience the transitional space within the air gap of the picture window. Therefore, engawa roughly translates to “argon gap.”
Shou-sugi-ban is everybody’s favorite charred wood cladding. The handsome blackened siding not only looks good with a bow-tie, but is also rot and fire-resistant. Shou-sugi-ban literally translates to “burning cypress board.” But I prefer yakisugi. It sounds better, and literally translates to “burnt cypress.”
Therefore, when you are having a soirée with a flamethrower you have shou-sugi-ban. But if someone says they have shou-sugi-ban on their building, you should promptly grab a fire-extinguisher or tell them to call their insurance agent – unless they meant to say yakisugi.
Eco Living Japan is published by Tuttle – the preeminent publisher of Asian-interest and English-language for Japan books. Thus, they are a valuable resource for learning about Japanese culture. Please visit Tuttle.com for more architecture books like this one.
Architect: Studio Junction
Photographer: Studio Junction