Japanese architecture is primarily a result of the ideologies and way of life of their ancestors. 

According to the Japanese philosopher Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the distinction between subject and object does not exist; all forms of discrimination are man-made, and the passage of time has no bearing on this. Life’s purpose is to re-establish the original inseparability, to return to the initial condition of holiness and transparency into a realm of emptiness or nothingness where conceptualism should fail. 

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Japanese Architecture_©The Spruce

There are only really two distinct forms of plan arrangement for traditional Japanese homes, each having a unique relationship between the house and its surrounds (architecture and nature), which are typically single or double-floored, timber-frame buildings. The ie-niwa, “house garden” layout, where the house is hidden from the street surrounded by a garden and the ie-mise, “dwelling-shop”, where dwelling and shop are together and open up to the street. 

Japanese people aspire to live in peace with nature because they regard themselves as equal elements that are interconnected with it. Consequently, they have come to favour a horizontal orientation. The horizontal plane enables the seamless merging of inhabitants and surroundings. Therefore, the typical Japanese home is small and just big enough to house the necessities. It is built near the ground to keep its occupants “in touch with the earth” and only serves as a temporary refuge from the worst weather. Horizontal mobility between inner and outside space characterizes Japanese daily life. The Japanese steps were first conceptualised as opposed to the western creation of the staircase (a vertical means of transportation). Japanese culture places a high priority on aesthetics. Decisions are thoughtfully made and never hurried. Time and space are constantly taken into consideration. Over pure logic and argument, intuition and feeling frequently dictate the course of action. Ma is a sense of place concerning the whole that is frequently expressed in expressions or everyday language in the context of Japanese society.

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Japanese Architecture_©GS Story

Ma refers to the distance between a room’s structural posts when used in an architectural context. The layout was specifically created to include empty space, which is a source of potential energy. A prime example of Ma’s architectural style is the traditional teahouse. The sleek lines and spotless surfaces of the minimalist tatami room are given priority, and only a few carefully chosen things are placed in the room’s centre to accentuate the space surrounding them. There are no ornaments or other ornamental elements. Just the structural barriers provide the framework for life to exist. The interior’s emptiness makes it easier to appreciate the fleeting events that occur, such as the brief gatherings of people and things.

A lot of Japanese architecture roots itself in religion, finding inspiration in beliefs drawn from Shinto and Buddhism. With both religions based on nature and spiritualism, much of Japanese architecture centres on the outside world and the spiritual realm beyond human existence.

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Japanese Architecture_©John Barr Architects

Japanese architecture stands out from Western architecture in multiple ways- the location being a  factor, but the history and the ideologies guiding Japanese architecture. Japanese Shinto and Buddhist ideas profoundly impacted architecture, even at the household level. Buildings reflected a great focus on humans’ interaction with nature.

Junichiro Tanizaki, in his book titled “In praise of the shadows, talks about the development of the Japanese and Western styles of architecture- the roofs on Western houses built to create as few shadows as possible and bring in as much light as possible. The climate and building materials must have undoubtedly guided the deep eaves in Japanese architecture- not using brick or concrete in walls forced a lower roof to keep off the rain, but the darkness could still have been avoided. However, the Japanese ancestors, having lived in dark rooms, came to discover beauty in shadows. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows; it has nothing else. The light from the outside by the veranda through the shoji-dimming significantly makes the charm of these rooms. 

This light guides the finish of the walls- the kind of surface against which the shadows fall. Neutral colours and finished with clay textured with fine sand. As Tanizaki says- “There is a delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall. For us, this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament.”

Japanese Architecture_©The Spruce

Mahek is a pluviophile, in her final year of architecture school and strangely fond of emojis. She believes architecture is most about generating experiences using both- form and function and is convinced it has the power (and the responsibility) of making a change in the world.