I’ve never understood architecture. Like fine art, architecture seems like one of those subjects that requires years of training and study to be able to really, fully appreciate. But to plebes like myself, it remains a mysterious topic, out of reach and beyond my comprehension.
Despite my ignorance, there’s something about Japanese architecture that stops me dead in my tracks. I don’t always understand the history, engineering, theory, or artistry behind it all, but I’m always fascinated by Japanese architecture.
If you’ve read Tofugu for a while, you probably already knew that. I’ve written a lot of posts about architecture, mostly as an excuse to post pictures of these really, really cool places.
Tadao Ando’s Hundred Step Garden
Obviously, I’m not the only one who’s in love with Japanese architecture. For hundreds and hundreds of years, Japanese architects have received global recognition for their very distinctive work.
And as recently as just last month, Japan has captured the world’s attention. This year, Japanese architect Toyo Ito was awarded architecture’s greatest prize. Ito the sixth in a line of celebrated Japanese architects to win the Pritzker Prize, more than any other country except for the United States.
Toyo Ito’s Sumika Pavilion
As I heard more and more about Japanese architects and spent hours scrolling through Google image searches, I began to wonder: why are Japanese architects so revered, so distinctive?
What separates the Frank Lloyd Wrights from the Toyo Itos of the world?
The Japanese Aesthetic
The Japanese aesthetic—the qualities that Japanese culture values in art—has always sort of been a mystery for the rest of the world. Westerners usually see it as yet another aspect of the mystical Orient they don’t understand.
In reality though, the Japanese aesthetic makes a lot of sense. A lot of the Japanese aesthetic, like a lot of Japanese culture, has its roots in religion. Shinto and Buddhism are the two biggies in Japan, and once you understand that, it begins to click into place.
Shinto is a set of beliefs that puts a lot of emphasis on nature. Probably the thing that most people know about Shinto is that it believes that spirits, or kami, live in everything. That tree? He’s got a little spirit inside it. Yeah, just like those Miyazaki movies you like so much.
Ito has gotten a lot of attention in recent years in part because of his work on the Sendai Mediatheque, a library in Sendai. Located in the middle of the city that bore the brunt of the 3/11 earthquake, the Mediatheque came away from the disaster practically unscathed.
Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque
The Sendai Mediatheque is essentially a huge glass cube, which makes it look very, very fragile. If you looked at the Mediatheque and imagined one of the largest earthquakes in history hitting it, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the building shattering into pieces.
But the Mediatheque held steady. The structure of the building allowed it to brave the storm; or as one architecture critic put it: “The Mediatheque has these tubular-like things that look like trees, or look like waving grasses in the wind . . . They allowed the building to move with the earthquake and survive.”
Like trees or grass. Ito’s often says that some of his biggest inspirations are in nature — usually air, wind, and water. He doesn’t explicitly talk about Shinto, but it’s not so far-fetched to make that connection.
A lot of other architects use nature much more explicitly in their work. Another Pritzker winner, Ryue Nishizawa, created a very unique house in Tokyo aptly named “Garden & House.”
While the elements of nature aren’t built directly into the structure of Garden & House, all of the flora lining the house make it leaps and bounds more attuned to nature than the concrete and brick buildings surrounding it.
Ryue Nishizawa’s Garden & Home
Again, it’s not that these buildings are explicitly Shinto shrines or anything, although many buildings — like the Tokyo Skytree — are blessed by Shinto clergy. But I think that this fusion of nature and architecture goes to show how deeply ingrained Shinto beliefs are into the Japanese aesthetic.
Zen and the Art of Japanese Architecture
Buddhism too has a role to play in shaping the Japanese aesthetic. A lot of Japanese Buddhist dogma, the kind of things that have made “Zen” a household word around the world, influences Japanese architecture.
Even if you’re not a Buddhist scholar, you’re still probably able to look at something and tell if it’s very “Zen.” You know the look—very spartan, simple, and even empty.
Those elements that are emphasized and valued in some forms Japanese Buddhism are written all over the Japanese aesthetic. They’re especially easy to spot in places like rock gardens and other traditional locales.
Most Japanese rock gardens are raked and arranged to look like water or waves or some sort of movement. But a lot of gardens have just a lot of blank, flat space. Even though the trees and patterns often stand out a lot more, that blankness, that stillness, is just as crucial.
Lots of Japanese architects incorporate these elements in their own work. You’ll see spaces with large, intentionally blank areas. It might look like the architect forgot or overlooked something, but it’s usually deliberate.
I’ve noticed that Pritzker winner Tadao Ando (who I covered a bit here) is a big fan of big, blank spaces. In Ando’s work, you’ll see concrete walls stretching wide lengths and spanning great heights.
Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum
I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the immense amount of concrete used in works like this. I understand where those people are coming from; concrete is a boring, industrial material, and makes you think more of sidewalks than of a rock garden.
But I also understand Ando’s intent. The dull surfaces make the more interesting features stand out and shine, the monotony can actually serve as a feature, rather than a nuisance.
Rejecting the Japanese Aesthetic
Simplicity. Beauty. Naturalism. These are elements of the Japanese aesthetic that you will see define Japanese architecture.
But then there are people who throw all of those concepts out the window, the people who understand the Japanese aesthetic so well that they intentionally choose to work around the fundamental principles that other architects follow so closely.
Somebody who definitely never won the Pritzker was an architect by the name of Arakawa. He and his partner, Madeline Gins, worked as artists and architects for over forty years, creating structures and places that will never, ever be honored by traditional architecture organizations.
Reversible Destiny lofts
You might have already seen one of their projects on TofuguTV — Yoro Park, the Site of Reversible Destiny. When traditional architects create a public park, they consider things like comfort, safety, and beauty.
Yoro Park doesn’t.
Yoro Park is less of a public park and more of an excercise in creating the most outrageous, impractical space imaginable.
For Arakawa and Gins, Yoro Park was only one piece of their lifelong work. More recently, the duo condensed all of the features of Yoro Park into a single house.
Called the Bioscleave House, it cost millions to build, and is as much of a safety hazard as Yoro Park. Children are actually banned from entering the house, and adults must sign a waiver.
Everything in the Bioscleave House is mildly dangerous. The floors are bumpy and irregular, there are poles placed randomly throughout the house, and the whole house is painted in a variety of bright, disorienting colors.
Why all of the danger? A New York Times writer summarized Arakawa and Gin’s philosophy nicely:
All of it is meant to keep the occupants on guard. Comfort, the thinking goes, is a precursor to death; the house is meant to lead its users into a perpetually “tentative” relationship with their surroundings, and thereby keep them young.
Extending your lifespan using dangerous architecture doesn’t quite fit in with the Japanese aesthetic; I don’t know of any Shinto or Buddhist teachings that advocate an adversarial relationship with your surroundings.
But there’s space in Japanese architecture for both of these approaches. Unorthodox styles pushes the medium forward; the Japanese aesthetic anchors practices in tradition.
Both guarantee that Japanese architecture will remain a fascination for me for years to come.
- 10 Principles of the Japanese Aesthetic (a list by Japanese architect Ryushi Kojima)
- Wikipedia: Japanese aesthetics
Header image by mario lopez