The term Wabi – Sabi is the mergence of two separate concepts of Wabi and Sabi. Wabi is roughly translated as “poverty”. It describes the life of a peasant, hard, humble, and essential (Sartwell, 2006). On the other hand, in direct translation Sabi means “loneliness”. It reflects the quality of tranquility and aloneness (Sartwell, 2006). Wabi – Sabi’s definition that is familiar with people nowadays is associated with the 16th century master Sen no Rikyu as a part of Zen Buddhist orientation (Sartwell, 2006). Later, architecture adopted the principle of Wabi – Sabi to celebrate the beauty of imperfection, solitude, and transformation of time.
Asymmetry | Wabi-Sabi Architecture
Wabi – Sabi architecture embraces asymmetry in space planning even though Japanese architecture in general and design philosophy of Zen Buddhism specifically was very much influenced by China. Traditional Chinese architecture highlights the use of symmetry and balance (Jian, 2021). One of the key characteristics of Wabi – Sabi is the imperfection in the law of nature which contrasts with the strict order of symmetry. That does not mean to say asymmetry is any form of chaos. In fact, it reflects freedom and an unpredictable state of living. An elemental example of asymmetry in Wabi – Sabi architecture is tokonoma, an alcove built in a corner of a Japanese guest room for the purpose of artistic displays. It is conventionally split into two areas with different widths where one side is used for kakejiku (hanging scroll) and ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) while the other half is decorated with chigai dana (split-level shelves) (Fuji).
Asymmetry is also embedded in those layouts of Japanese gardens. All the design elements do not follow any straight line or geometric shapes, but they instead imitate the natural landscapes. They avoid one central line that serves as an attention catcher. A Japanese garden should be appreciated as a complete ecosystem where one component compliments others to create harmony. In addition, rocks are integral in Wabi – Sabi landscape architecture. They come in various shapes and sizes and are left in organic states. Rocks can be the symbol of mountains or wayfinding steppingstones in Japanese gardens.
When it comes to material selection, Wabi – Sabi architecture prefers the kinds that can be easily found in nature. The most popular structural material used in Japanese traditional buildings is wood. The constructed wood frames were left unpainted showing grains, unusual markings, or patterns to emphasize the imperfection of the original condition. Furthermore, wooden furniture like table and countertop surfaces sometimes are not cut straight. Instead, the cut follows the curve of wood grains. Beside wood, clay is utilized as a wall material in modern Wabi – Sabi architecture. These clay walls often appear rough. One can argue that they look like the result of the lack of effort in creating a smooth finish. However, they are intentionally made for the impression of beauty in imperfection. A representative of making good use of natural pieces in the interior environment is Manitoga, the home and studio of an industrial designer Russel Wright. Pebbles were used as doorknobs, or a branch of dogwood tree became the towel rack. Of course, they were all maintained in their native figures.
Biophilia | Wabi-Sabi Architecture
The principle of biophilia is expressed in Wabi – Sabi architecture through selective materials originating from the natural world. Wood serves as the skeleton of Japanese traditional structures. The floors in Japanese traditional buildings are covered with tatami which is the mat made of rice straws, soft rush, and cloth edges. The walls are made up of shoji (moveable screens) and fusuma (sliding doors). They are both composed of wooden frames filled with translucent paper made from wood fibers. The use of translucent paper allows natural light to sneak into the rooms so as to form a connection between the built environment and nature. Furthermore, Wabi – Sabi architecture adapts to the surrounding landscape. Manitoga is a good example in this case. The house blends in with the natural structure of the site. Sitting directly on the Earth, a cedar tree trunk acts as the main support of the building. The rooms are shaped by encompassing rocks and foliage.
Everything including buildings is impermanent in the test of time. All objects experience the cycle of life: birth, aging, and death. Wabi – Sabi architecture does not try to hide or deny the traces of history. The tea rooms in Kyoto manifest the philosophy of Wabi – Sabi architecture, faded walls, tarnished wood, the appearance of stains. Preservation, rather than restoration, saves the evidence of a period. The construction, then, is no longer just a manmade product but a constituent participating in the motion of nature.
Humility | Wabi-Sabi Architecture
Wabi – Sabi architecture is often confused with the minimalism of modern design. These two principles share some similarities, such as plain walls, limited use of decorated fixture and furniture, views opening to outdoor environment, neutral color palette. However, Wabi – Sabi architecture leans toward humility more than just simplicity. It results from the origin of Wabi – Sabi in tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism. Neither does the value of an object lie in the cost of material nor skillful handicraft. The importance is if it has the ability to serve its right purpose; a teacup should be able to hold tea; a shelter should provide a livable space for human beings withstanding the effect of weather. Wabi – Sabi architecture is not the center in the big picture of nature. Its existence is humble and harmonious with other creatures.
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- Fuji, M. (2023) How to introduce asymmetry in Wabi Sabi design? –, zero = abundance. zero = abundance. Available at: https://www.interactiongreen.com/asymmetry-wabi-sabi-design/ (Accessed: April 15, 2023).
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- Sartwell, C. (2006) “Wabi-Sabi Japanese, Humility, Imperfection,” in Six names of beauty. New York: Routledge.
- Yang, J. (2022) “The meaning and expression of wabi-sabi in environmental art design,” Pacific International Journal, 5(1), pp. 06–09. Available at: https://doi.org/10.55014/pij.v5i1.15.