Also called the “Powerhouse of Design”, the narrative of architecture in Japan is unparalleled and well known throughout the world. Dating back to the pit houses and stores for the primitive hunter-gatherers from prehistoric times, the timeline of architecture took a sharp turn with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century.
The rising Buddhist influence became a major catalyst for building large-scale temples with complex wooden techniques along with basic dwellings and rudimentary communal spaces, which ultimately led to a standardization of units of measurement in design. The changing ideologies of the evolving Japanese society emphasized an aesthetic based on simplicity and modesty as a counterpoint to the lavish and over the top excesses of the aristocracy. All these developments in the society led to the rise of the widely appreciated traditional architecture in Japan consisting of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, palaces, and residences.
However, during the era of intense “Westernisation” in Japan, the history of architecture changed radically to compete with the other developing countries in the world. It began with a deeply inherent foreign influence, with architects like Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright leaving their impressions on the architecture in the developing Japanese cities. With time the country taught its own architects to express their own concepts of minimalism and spirituality in the physical realm.
But it wasn’t until the end of the second world war that Japan left a lasting impression in the vocabulary of architecture and design on the global scale with works of world-renowned architects like Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki, and many others.
Origins of the concept of Sustainability in the architecture of Japan
The Japanese archipelago lies in various climatic zones ranging from the subarctic to the subtropics, with four strikingly different seasons. Hence to deal with the complexities of the climate, the construction techniques right from the beginning of the traditional era have been adapted to withstand high humidity, as well as extreme heat and cold temperatures. Another major challenge for Japanese buildings has been achieving high Earthquake resistance and dealing with the risk of typhoons due to Japan’s onerous geography.
However, the use of wood offered the opportunity to address these challenges more efficiently than stone or other materials by allowing natural ventilation, lightness, and durability in the face of a natural disaster. The traditional buildings in Japan, especially temples and shrines refrained from using nails and instead used the concept of framing the buildings in a way to make the pieces fit in like a puzzle. This technique of interlocking the different parts of the building sturdily together, called tokyō (斗栱) helped build resistance to earthquakes by allowing the movement through joints.
Japanese Traditional Architecture
The traditional architecture in Japan relates to the buildings constructed during the Edo era spanning between the 17th and mid-19th centuries with wood being the primary material used with traditional construction techniques. The simple, elegant, and dignified structures of this time are often compared to Medieval European architecture owing to their common timeline and prevalence of palaces and castles, but they differed greatly in terms of their aesthetic and design ideologies.
A few of the most important characteristics of Traditional Architecture in Japan include:
The Iconic Roofs
The elongated, curvy, tiered roofs of traditional Japanese buildings are a focal point in the design, not just in terms of the aesthetic, but also from the structural point of view. The traditional architecture of Japan consists of mainly four types of iconic roofs: kirizuma (gabled roof), yosemune (hipped roof), irimoya (hip-and-gable roof), and hogyo (square pyramidal roof). These roofs with deep eaves allow natural ventilation by keeping the windows open despite torrential rains and intense sunlight.
Shoji and Fusuma
Wooden frames with translucent paper also called Shōji allowing light to shine through, and sliding wooden doors with an opaque paper called Fusuma (襖) are an integral part of traditional Japanese architecture, not just in shrines and temples but also in homes. While they are similar in principle, both Shoji and Fusuma are used to divide and redivide interior spaces and became wildly popular in the West. But traditionally, Shoji screens were also used as windows, exterior walls, and doors that allows light to flicker through.
A common staple of Japanese homes till today, Tatami (畳) mats are considered to be the traditional flooring material with a pleasant scent made of rice straw and soft rush with cloth edges in a standard size of ratio 2:1.
Another vital feature of traditional Japanese architecture is the Veranda also called Engawa (縁側) is a non-Tatami matted flooring similar in concept to a Porch and literally means the “edge side”. It is usually made in wood or bamboo and its main purpose is to bring the exteriors inside as a zone of transition and traditionally is the first point of entry into a home or shrine before which the shoes must be taken off.
The advent of Modern Architecture in Japan
After the ravages of the second world war, the Japanese began adopting Western influences in architecture and design as an effort to keep up with the changing world economies and this was evident through the early skyscrapers and departmental stores scattered through Tokyo. Architects in Japan began experimenting with the combination of traditional methods of wooden construction with European design and modern materials like concrete and steel.
But despite the rising prominence of Western influence in their architecture, the more traditional forms were not lost, rather the upcoming parts of the emerging cities were a prime example of the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation.
Visionary architects like Kenzo Tange created their own unique design vocabulary becoming the pioneers of international modern design. In the 1960’s Shinohara Kazuo, Kurokawa Kisho, and Fumihiko Maki launched their own architectural movement called “Metabolism” that aimed to combine fixed built forms with flexible spaces and functions.
In the 1980s the second generation of Japanese architects like Tadao Ando, Hasegawa Itsuko, and Toyo Ito began toying with the ideas of postmodernism and contemporary architecture, integrating art with functionalism. They focussed on a strong cultural value in their work and gained worldwide recognition.
However, a few of the most unconventional and prominent features of modern architecture in Japan include:
Minimalism, Simplicity, and Honesty
Derived from the concepts of art in the upcoming post-war Western world, Minimalism in this context was a reaction to contest the notions of what was considered mundane and too academic. But guided by the aesthetic principles of Wabi-Sabi, Japanese minimalism reflects a deeper view of the world. It is based on ideals of accepting transience and imperfection nurtured by simplicity and authenticity to create a peaceful and zen state of mind. This sentiment was expressed not just in the concepts of space, but also through the choice of materials and finishes.
Effective and Efficient Optimisation of Space
In the highly dense urban environments of the rapidly developing Japanese cities, space is scarce. Hence, most designers are charged with the task of reutilizing small, leftover, and once neglected spaces like interstitial spaces between buildings, awkward triangular sites, and traffic islands. This measure is an ode to redefining the famous philosophy of “Less is More”, trying to repurpose and recycle every nook and cranny into an effectively utilisable entity.
Such strange sites adopt out of the box solutions to respond to the site context and often allow the natural ecosystem to cohabitate within the dense fabric of the city, leading to the term “Pet” architecture.
The use of Modern, Unconventional materials
Where the world is facing a serious shortage of essential fossil fuels and running the risk of rapidly depleting natural and renewable resources, contemporary Japanese architects have come with unique alternative options showcasing their love for wacky, unconventional architecture.
Both new and old, Japanese architects are reinventing the ways in which they can use recycled and repurposed building materials like Shigeru Ban and his famous Cardboard Cathedral or Kengo Kuma’s Même Experiential House that uses recycled PET bottles.
However, while these materials bring an innovative and out-of-the-box approach to the table, they are often posed with the questions of environmental degradation after their use, especially like in the case of plastic.
Questioning the ideals of Sustainability
Although traditional Japanese architecture is well known and very well acknowledged for its sustainable practices, a major part of the 20th century was dominated by the scrap-and-build approach. Despite the extensive use of natural materials like wood, paper, and stone, Japanese architects were questioned about the consequences of using these materials in the long run, with their impact on the environment, the processes of procurement and the systems of energy involved for their fabrication being a few of the major challenges.
In Japan, sustainability is a valuable asset not just when measured scientifically, but it is equally important for a building to meet the challenges of “human-centered” sustainability, which implies modulating the shared experiences between the built, unbuilt, and their users. Through the years, the Japanese have mastered the art of “human-centred” sustainability, while aiming to integrate it with its “environment-centered” counterpart to develop a breathtaking aesthetic and functional organisation of spaces. In their culture, all life has a meaning and value, which is inherently expressed in their respect for nature, which they aim to work with harmoniously rather than attempting to tame it.
The ideals of “aesthetic sustainability” come naturally to most Japanese architects and designers, but its manifestation tends to be elusive and sensorial in terms of the human-centered experiences they unfold. However, keeping in mind the long-term tangible and intangible effects of their construction practices, most architects in Japan are going back to their ways of building and living, respecting and deeply connecting with nature.