Materials, patterns, and elements used in a region directly result from its climate and culture. These patterns get repeated in that place, creating very strong visual associations. Typical features and elements characterize the architecture, which is how we recognize it as belonging to that region.
If we consider the Japanese civilization, its origins can be traced back to the 3rd century BCE. Traditional Japanese architecture is strongly influenced by its surrounding nature and culture. Today, Japan is one of the leading countries in the world in technological innovations. However, modern Japanese architecture still has strong connections to its heritage, making contemporary works blend traditional concepts and modern technology.
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Japanese architecture has revolved mainly around two factors:
Japanese culture is spiritual, encouraging people to bond closely with nature and involving nuanced rituals that encourage introspection and interaction. The buildings created are a physical interpretation of these concepts and hence have many common features.
Here is a glimpse into a few of them:
1. Shoji and Fusuma
Japan, a country of high seismic vulnerability, is often shaken by earthquakes. Hence, the architecture developed such that there is minimal loss of life and property in the event an earthquake occurs. The construction system is trabeated, with partitions carrying no load at all. This led to the use of paper or paper-thin materials as partitions. These, apart from lightness, offer many other benefits. If a partition moves and breaks during an earthquake, there will be no chance that a wall falls on top of someone endangering that person’s life. Replacement is straightforward.
Also, it is possible to fold or slide away partitions, making a space flexible as needed. Paper is translucent, allowing a muted, subtle, pure light to come into the interiors. In traditional Japanese houses, these sliding screens were called shoji, a timber-framed grid infilled with small paper panels, and fusuma, which have a simple timber frame with a single large paper screen as infill.
2. Use of Wood as the main building material
Wood is the most prominent material seen in Japanese architecture primarily due to the omnipresent risk of earthquakes. The material has excellent resilience and seismic resistance. The texture and qualities of wood are respected in traditional Japanese architecture. Timber members are kept exposed, so that the grain and texture of the wood can be appreciated.
The woodwork details are worked out so well that in several places nails are not used at all in the joinery. Wood is used in various forms—timber, bark, bamboo and paper. The beams, columns, eaves and lattices are carefully carved and cured. Wide overhanging eaves create the need for elaborate brackets, which become an identifiable element on their own.
An engawa is for a traditional Japanese house what verandah is for a bungalow. It is usually raised a couple of feet from the ground, covered with a roof supported on a colonnade. An intermediate space is a pause point before entering the sanctity of the house. It is a space that seems outside to a person in the house and seems to be an interior space to a person outside.
Engawa usually faces a courtyard and acts as a relaxing space, where you can read a book or have a quiet cup of sake while looking at the manicured garden outside. An engawa is that connector that fluidly transitions between in and out, between man and nature.
4. Connection to Nature
Japanese architecture strives to be in harmony with nature outside. The building forms, materials and colours often complement the surrounding nature. This nature is not wild and free-running, but carefully controlled and cured so as to induce peace of mind.
Various elements of the traditional Japanese house such as shoji, fusuma and engawa encourage man’s dialogue with his natural environment, and hence ultimately with his own soul. This constant visual connection to nature is evident even in modern Japanese architecture.
Contemporary Japanese architects like Toyo Ito, Kenzo Tange, and Shigeru Ban have always respected this facet of Japanese culture, incorporating it into almost each of their works. The materials may have changed from paper to glass, from timber to steel, but the inspiration and influence of nature is constant.
Moya is the central point, the core, in traditional Japanese dwellings. Being centrally located, the moya is the most important space of the house. It leads to various other less important spaces. Moya is the spot where family gatherings, meetings and other rituals happen in a house. It usually opens out into a garden on one side, connecting it with nature outside. The space can be made larger or smaller as needed through the use of shojis.
After Buddhism was introduced in Japan, moya acquired another meaning—a central part of a temple building, the core placed directly beneath the main part of the roof. It is the most sacred area usually containing the altar and various images.
The moya or tomoya within a temple is surrounded by aisles or passageways called hisashi. In the traditional hipped-and-gabled roof system, the moya is covered by the hipped portion, while the gabled areas cover the hisashi.
6. Dominating Roof forms
The roof is the most imposing part of a traditional Japanese building, often taking up more than half the height of the structure. The form is sloping, sometimes gently curving towards the eaves, which overhang broad and wide. An elaborate bracket-like element called tokyo is required to support these large overhangs. Straight, sharp lines are preferred.
Traditional Japanese architecture is extensively trabeated with no use of arches or vaults. This might be due to the use of wood as the primary structural material which can be easily shaped into beams and columns.
The preferred material for roofs is wood, rafters, and purlins topped with thatch, bamboo or tiles according to the stature and status of the building. The rich patina of the wood, the earthy textures of bamboo, and the thatch are all exposed, creating a vibrant natural colour scheme of brown, ochre and burgundy.
There are generally 3 main types called kirizuma-zukuri (gable roof), yosemune-zukuri (hip roof), and irimoya-zukuri (hip-and-gable roof).
Genken is the point of entry in a Japanese house where one is expected to take off their shoes before going inside. This area is at a lower level than the rest of the house to keep the dirt and dust from the shoes away from the other spaces within the house.
It is customary for a genken to be large and spacious as it is where the guests are received and where they get the first impression of the house. Genken is an essential space in any Japanese house as Japanese culture considers it extremely disrespectful to walk around the house wearing footwear.
Amado are protective shutters that are installed on windows and other openings as protection from frequent storms. Once the amado is closed, the house gets completely sealed off from the violent natural calamity outside, offering total security, safety and privacy. These protective shutters are made of wooden planks or sheets of metal. They completely change the aesthetic of the house.
A building that looks open and warm due to shoji and fusuma can seem like a closed boxy shack when amado is shut. However, they are practically very useful and a necessity in places that are frequently battered by typhoons.
9. Cultural connection
Traditional Japanese architecture was shaped by culture and climate patterns. The genken is a space that is a result of Japanese intolerance to walking indoors with shoes on. The roofs became voluminous sloping masses as a result of frequent rains and snow. The practice of using paper partitions is a part of making a structure earthquake-resistant.
The need for constant connection with nature led to more openness and fewer barriers between indoors and outdoors. All these cultural considerations still hold importance even in contemporary architecture. The only thing that has changed is its expression; steel instead of timber and glass instead of paper.
For instance, Tadao Ando’s works reflect a deep connection to the importance given to spirituality in Japanese culture. His Azuma House is a modern interpretation of a traditional dwelling. The Church of Light is an instance of introducing a spiritual element in modern architecture.
The Japanese respect their rich traditions and they will always ensure that it is a part of their lives in as many aspects as possible.
10. Technological experimentation
Since the 20th century, Japan has emerged as one of the leading technological powers in the world. This innovation has also wound its way into architecture and building construction. Contemporary Japanese architects experiment freely with building technologies and materials.
In the light sculpture Tower of Winds, Toyo Ito uses lights controlled by artificial intelligence which respond to changes in their environment creating a surreal visual experience. In the Sendai Mediatheque, new levels of transparency and lightness are achieved by the use of latticed columns supporting thin metal slabs.
The varied use of exposed concrete by Tadao Ando lends an unexpected stoic dynamism to the material. The Ark Nova, an inflatable 500-seat concert hall, forays into tensile-structure territory, defying the frequent earthquakes. New techniques developed for earthquake resistance are also exemplified in buildings like Yokohama Tower.
Works of contemporary Japanese architects employ new innovations to create architecture that is thoroughly indigenous at its roots, but soars to great heights on the global scale.
Source: Rethinking the Future
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