Chapter 1. The characteristics of Japanese traditional architecture
Traditional Japanese culture is built on a strong relationship with and a respect for nature. Although natural disasters, such as earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions, continually threaten the Japanese, they nevertheless try to develop a way to coexist with nature rather than adopting a more hostile stance. With the belief that humankind cannot be separated from nature, traditional Japanese buildings were constructed with locally obtainable materials – these materials entirely depend on the climate and topography. Furthermore, increased knowledge of and skill in the use of these natural materials led to changes in the relationship between the land and the buildings they occupy it. The relationship changed from ‘building out of need for protection from nature’ to ‘building in which it is hard to separate the interior and exterior’ – an emphasis on the relationship between humankind and nature. In conclusion, over the centuries, the Japanese culture has embraced nature, its beauty and wonder as well as its irresistible power and severity.
From an architectural point of view, the traditional Japanese form features horizontal and open spaces, simplicity without ornamentation, emptiness, asymmetric forms, indirect moving paths and spaces for mindfulness; these are all key elements. Architectural structures related to the sukiya style are ideal examples that illustrate these characteristics. The sukiya style is famous for its refined simplicity and strong connection to nature. “It continues to thrive, whether used in its most traditional form for a new tea house of restaurant, or whether it is adapted for contemporary tastes and lifestyles, for example in a residence or inn. The style of sukiya, which often is translated as “abode of empty” or “abode of refinement”, moves away from the symmetry and formality of earlier styles and builds on the zigzag layout.”1
‘Opening’ is the most significant word to explain the relationship between Japanese traditional architecture and nature. Windows in Japanese culture play both practical and symbolical roles. They offer light and ventilation for a building and also allow people to see outside. Symbolically, the opening of windows can suggest a connection to nature. Most of the windows are made with the lightweight wooden-grid framework and with shoji, which is a translucent white paper made in a traditional Japanese fashion. These translucent shoji are used in openings beyond which there is a source of light. The book The Classic Tradition in Japanese Architecture by Teiji Itoh writes that: “The light filtering through them is soft and tranquil. At the same time, they inspire a vague awareness of the spaces beyond them. Observing the play of light and shadow on interior shoji surfaces, one can sense the movement of the wind through the trees in the garden and the ripples glittering in the sunlight that falls on the garden pond.”2 Considering the effect that shoji has, users can recognize the illusion of joining the two, even if the interior and exterior spaces are divided by shoji physically.
Photo 1-1. Shadows Beyond the Shoji. Japanese room by Mrhayata
The area under the eaves in sukiya-style architecture can be used as “verandas”. Verandas are unique architectural element which can not be defined as an exterior space or interior space. For instance, stepping stones, a key element in a veranda, are mostly placed on an earthen floor, characteristic of an exterior space. However, as the deep eaves protect the building from direct assault by snow and rain, it gives the veranda a sense of being an interior space as well. Therefore, a connection between the world of mankind and the world of nature is effected by means of a space that is both interior and exterior in nature. Connecting with nature does not necessarily have to be through a space that is directly open to nature. Tokonoma is one example that helps to illustrate this. A tokonoma is a decorative alcove that can be found in traditional Japanese buildings, especially in rooms which have social significance. Most tokonoma are built within an interior wall of a room, usually a tea room or reception space. This type of room contains a place to hang a scroll and set an ikebana flower arrangement, a bonsai miniaturized tree, or other decorative objects. The selection depends on the season and the local characteristics and provides a close connection to nature.
Photo 1-2 (Left). Connecting corridor. Kasui-en. Miyako Hotel.
Photo 1-3 (Right). Tokonoma. Tawaraya Ryokan. Kyoto
“Decorative items that never found their way into the daily of the people.”
Emptiness is readily apparent in sukiya-style architecture. Dwellers give purpose and meaning to the empty room by using both functional and decorative furnishing according to the characteristics of the individuals. Japanese use small and simple items of furniture that can show many different uses, such as living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens and they sometimes use spaces as flexible multipurpose rooms rather than just for one purpose. Empty, unobstructed and neutral spaces offer considerable freedom to users in terms of utility. This method of using space leads people to not think that the value of space is limited. Thus, this mode of thinking can be worth employing because it can guide users to think about the other values of a space.
Mindfulness refers to calm and deep meditation in communication with nature, and in the context of Japanese traditional architecture refers to various types of courtyard garden. In Japan, there is a word, shakkei, which illustrates the fundamental consciousness of nature: ‘Nature always exists outside’. Shakkei is used not only to describe how nature is outside, but also to describe the natural qualities present in the gardens of Japanese traditional buildings. The inner garden is usually constructed considering the shapes of mountains, seas, and incorporating religious architecture such as temples, by the way of miniaturization and symbolization. These gardens can be interpreted as extensions of interior spaces. Furthermore, from a Japanese cultural viewpoint, making a garden means assigning temporal and spatial meaning to the architecture, rather than merely offering simple visual value. Therefore, gardens were considered a spiritual space showing the organic change of nature, with the symbolic architectural elements present within them used to connect mankind and nature. In contrast with general types of traditional garden, another style of meditation garden was built and used for the purpose of disciplining the body and mind. “Many of these gardens are termed karesansui (literally ‘dry landscape’) because they incorporate very few plantings and use beds of gravel or groupings of stones to represent water.”3 One of the best known examples is the garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. A simple rectangle of raked gravel, the garden contains five groupings of stones. The fifteen stones in the garden are placed so that from any seated position on the veranda, only fourteen stones are visible. A different viewing position reveals the hidden rock but conceals another. The quiet ambiance of the compact garden, together with the complexity of the design, provide for hours of deep motivation. The significant thing to consider in this type of garden is the asymmetrical arrangement of natural elements. In the illustration I suggest above, each stone is located without regulation or pattern and conveys asymmetrical harmony and balance. Consequently, the paradoxical comfort and stability that comes from the intentional irregularity bring peace to the minds of those present.
Zevi, an architect, said, “Architecture is the hollow sculpture which can be understood when human enter and make a movement there.” People can gain various experiences of scenes during they move following the path in the architecture and these experiences can be converted into the scene which has new value through meditation and speculation. Each scene in the space that changes along the path derives the psychological change and this process can stimulate deep thought we have. D. Kim and J. Kim explain the process of re-recognition of space as follows: “Firstly, people perceive spaces in their own way and according to their own will. Next, psychological changes start to lead people to re-recognise a space. Finally, each people can feel the space differently according to the different psychological changes. Thus, various impressions are possible because each person has a different experience and a different mental ‘world’.”4 Easy use of this ‘re-seeing’ process is apparent in the indirect moving paths, which themselves are significant elements in the meditation spaces in Japanese traditional architecture. Some of the moving paths in Japanese buildings which lead from the gate to the main entrance are usually indirect, with bends and curves. When these paths must be ‘straight’, they are designed with diagonal lines. Consequently, these types of paths do not permit a direct view of the house from the gate and offers those walking these paths to take in various views. For instance, a stroll garden (kaiyushiki teien), which feature in many imperial and aristocratic residences and temples, is intended to be viewed not only from within a building but also when moving through the garden, and permits the visitor to walk through the garden and view the various scenes depicted in it as they unfold. The scenery is beheld somewhat like a film, with a specific sequence that is dictated by the path. With respect to the sukiya design aspects, an indirect moving path can be understood as a reflection of certain traditional Japanese moral attitudes: avoiding looking a person directly which can be interpreted as a sign of respect and humility.
1 Mira, L. (2015). Traditional Japanese Architecture: An Exploration of Elements and Forms. 2nd Edition. Tuttle Publishing. p. 68.
2 Teiji, I. and Yukio, F. (1972). The Classic Tradition in Japanese Architecture. New York: Weatherhill. p. 208.
3 Mira, L. (2015). Traditional Japanese Architecture: An Exploration of Elements and Forms. 2nd Edition. Tuttle Publishing. p. 84.
4 Do-Yi, K. and Joo-Yun, K. (2008). A Study on the Characteristic of the Speculation Space of Architecture find on Tadao Ando. PhD. Korean Institute of Interior Design. p. 104.