What Makes Japanese Architecture Different?

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.

hyakudanen-waterfall

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.

sumika-pavilion

Photo by kanegen

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.

tree-shide

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.

sendai-mediatheque-exterior

Photo by “banana”

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.

garden-and-home

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.

kamakura-daibutsu

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.

portland-japanese-garden

Photo by Ryan Stavely

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-chichu-museum

Photos by Carey Ciuro

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

Photos by Tomomi Sasaki

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.

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Header image by mario lopez

  • http://espo.in/ Jonas

    Ryue Nishizawa’s Garden & Home is really cool!^^

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=566917274 Ben Ricker

    What seperates Frank Lloyd Wright from Japanese architecture? Not much actually. Wright was an avid student of Japanese architecture. His “Arts and Crafts” style was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture. An anecdote, he built a hotel in Tokyo and he used all kinds of engineering tricks to make it earthquake proof. Shortly after completion, a large earthquake levelled much of Tokyo but his hotel withstood it. Here is the Wiki entry on Wright’s hotel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Hotel,_Tokyo#Second_Imperial_Hotel_1923-1968 . And here is an essay on the general influence of Japanese architecture (and art) on Wright: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=arch_fac

  • Ben Nichols

    No pictures from the Bioscleave House? Or was that the pictures above “Reversible Destiny Lofts”?

  • Mescale

    The Heian period of Japanese’s history is pretty amazing, its clear that its artistic and aesthetic principles have come to be part of what it is to be Japanese.

    Its similar to the affect the aristocracy in France had on things like style and cooking, before they had that unfortunate incident with the sharp implements.

    Part of the interesting thing about cultures is what they choose to keep from their history and what they throw away.

    I think Japans charms for me are its ideas of aesthetics, art, respect and honor n stuff.

  • DAVIDPD

    What’s also funny is Wright’s hubris, when on multiple occasions he said he never had any influences.

  • DAVIDPD

    Hashi, I really liked this article. I think as a complement or epilogue, another article could be written on “wabi sabi” or the art of imperfection. A subject, I think can be strongly tied with Japanese aesthetic.

  • capybara_cafe

    Did you think we wouldn’t notice that one picture is Portland? ;)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks! I’ve thought about doing a piece on wabi sabi, but I really don’t know much about it. Maybe after some research I could pull something together.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, I probably should have included some pictures of the Bioscleave House. It looks very similar to the Reversible Destiny Lofts, if that helps.

    The New York Times article I linked to has some pictures: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/garden/03destiny.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Ha! I wasn’t counting on anybody noticing. Good eyes!

  • capybara_cafe

    I’ve taken that exact same picture myself about 50 times, lol.

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    Great article hashi, nice one i guess. :D hmmm… i just want to add some stuff for you, might be you forget about Risonare Hotel in Yamanashi prefecture. :) http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    On the plus side, getting things wrong would be pretty appropriate for an article on wabi-sabi.

  • x_stei

    I would love to read on wabi-sabi too!

  • hinoema

    For a good basic insight on Japanese architecture, I recommend “Japanese Homes and their Surroundings” (1961) by Edward S. Morse. That is one book I will never be without.

    Also worth noting is “Smaller is Better” by O-Young Lee. It talks about reductionism and it’s influence of everything Japanese, including art and architecture.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll be sure to check them out!

  • lychalis

    okay that place is on my bucket list :D nihonception!

  • Kyo

    You might want to not show a picture of the Buddha Amida (阿弥陀仏) when talking about Zen.

  • http://riechanster.blogspot.com Riechan

    Yes! I also recommend that book! I used it to write my essay about the influence of Japanese architecture on Frank Lloyd Wright as that was the first thing FLW got to read before even seeing Japanese architecture :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/AbigailCamarillo Cam Abi

    Yoro Park is probably the most exciting place I’ve seen in one of your articles! One place I must visit! :D

  • Helen Kirifides

    Great article Hashi! I looove Japanese architecture because
    the zen/nature element melds so perfectly with some of the most
    super-crazy-modern architecture I’ve ever seen. Dwell magazine also loves it
    because they feature Japan in like, every 3rd issue. Here’s a link
    to their plethora of Japan design posts: http://www.dwell.com/search/site/japan
    , one of my most recent faves: http://www.dwell.com/house-tours/article/all-wrapped
    , and the Japan Tree House Network, which I found while stumbling across a post
    on a website about a coffeehouse in a tree house in Japan. Most of this isn’t
    the modern architecture I love, but it’s still pretty cool. These guys are taking
    the Shinto thing, to the top, literally! :D Enjoy! http://www.treehouse.jp/thp_eng/thc.html

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Oooh, those are great! I’ll have to share some of those Dwell posts, thanks a bunch Helen!

  • Helen Kirifides

    Here’s another I love. http://www.dwell.com/house-tours/slideshow/building-blocks#7 I think I wouldn’t mind working for 8hrs a day if half of that time incorporated the outdoors. It looks so calming. :)
    You’re welcome, Hashi! Enjoy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jerfareza.daviano Jerfareza Daviano

    Oh wow, I haven’t read the entire article but just a quick skim, and I feel the need to say ‘nice article’ just because I love Japan and architecture. It’s a winning combo haha..

  • Carey

    Thanks for using my photo Tofugu. Fan of your site so nice to see it here. Please check more of my photos of japan at my website! http://onepointeight.tumblr.com