A Dialogue Between Architectures of Japan.

swank traveling fellow
dallas architecture and design exchange


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In my travel to Japan as the 2018 Architecture and Design Foundation Swank Traveling Fellow, I set out to study the Shinto belief of maintaining a connection to the past through repetition, particularly in the architectural sense. This principle of constant practice lends itself to present day influence, resulting in tensions between modern and traditional. I imagine it like the game many of us played in our youth, where we sat in a circle and one person whispered a secret that would be passed along. With each person in the circle, the secret got a little more distorted, whether it be from personal bias, forgetfulness, or the desire to tell a joke. Maybe that joke was modern architecture? Seriously though, how traditional Japanese vernacular has evolved with modernity was my interest. I find this important, as rooting oneself in all aspects of culture is how one begins to imagine something that speaks to a target group of people. Perhaps this is how one can create new architecture with significance – by rooting it in culture, rather than blazing a new path as modern buildings have done. 


The first week of my trip was focused on mainly traditional architecture in the former capitals of  Kyoto and Nara. The first notable visit was to Nijo-jo castle. The castle is within a walled garden, which looked like a wild forest on the outside, but was actually a massively cultivated garden within. Plants were often placed in a way that would create picturesque views toward the castle. The hipped roofs were a metaphor for mountains in the distance.

Probably the most fascinating thing at this castle to me were the nightingale floors. In the castle’s verdanas, as one walked along, one would almost hear the constant chirp of birds. These were not birds however. It was the creak of the nails and wood flexing under our weight as we walked. While natural in ambiance, the creak served a latent purpose as well. It was effectively a security measure, so that one would know someone was walking around.

In Osaka, Kyoto’s modern sibling, the Sayamaike museum by Tadao Ando was a contemporary instance in which architecture artificially imitated nature. As a museum for the local dam and reservoir, the museum has an artificial waterfall cycled through phases of falling water and stagnation, almost like that of a river swelling during rainfall or a dam letting water out of its reservoir. 

Construction wise, traditional designs were quite flexible. Most buildings were made with wooden joints like mortise and tenon, which eliminated the need for nails. While often used throughout East Asia, this technique was beneficial in Japan as it would allow buildings to flex during earthquakes. In addition to this joinery, one interesting example of traditional earthquake resistance occurs in Japanese pagodas. The pagoda has a central wooden column that goes from the ground all the way to the roof, which is also known as a Shinbashira. Anchored in the ground and crowned with a heavy roof, which effectively acts as a primitive tuned mass damper, the Shinbashira gives the pagoda enough resistance to the torque that would occur during an earthquake. While visiting the Tokyo Skytree, I learned that the design is based off of this same principle. In fact there was a tremor on the ground when I visited, but we experienced nothing at the top other than temporary elevator closures.

Japanese buildings were usually held up by large wooden columns anchored in the ground. As a result, interior walls were nonstructural and transient as they could be sliding doors and translucent screens that create a seamless connection to the outdoors. The Sendai Mediatheque is a modern interpretation of this. The building by Toyo Ito uses 13 diagrid “columns,” and spurns walls in favor of ceiling heights, floor material, and furniture to differentiate space. The interior maintains a connection to the outdoors by emphasizing the fishbowl effect with color-coded lighting and a curtain wall facade. While inside, the building really felt like one boundless space for all kinds of interaction either with people or the contents of each floor.

The acculturation of Shintoism and Buddhism on each other resulted in some interesting changes in building typology. For example, shrines used to be only temporary structures, but when Buddhism was imported, permanent shrines became part of the vernacular. I also found it interesting to note that marriages were typically held at in either Shinto or Christian ceremonies, while funerals were Buddhist. 


People in Japan practice both religions in harmony, and Buddhist temples are often built within Shinto shrines, and vice versa. You could tell this was the case as the naturally colored Buddhist temples and vermilion Shinto Shrines were intermingled with each other in close proximity. In contrast to this, the Sekiguchi Church by Kenzo Tange is a slick paneled metal exterior with a cave-like and very permanent feeling concrete interior. While it is a Christian church, the building also provides facilities for burial and ashes – a step away from the Japanese convention.

Continuing on the principle of harmony, it is the quintessential word that came up time and time again. The Shinto ideal of harmony with nature seemed to be the backbone of all the traditional architecture and landscape design.  Sometimes the harmony meant taking control over nature and bringing it into the design. While seemingly natural, the Japanese gardens such as Okochi sanso and the bamboo forest Arashiyama in Kyoto, or the Imperial Palaces in Osaka and Tokyo, are actually intensively designed. Namba parks in Osaka, a terraced shopping mall in the middle of the city, is the modern embodiment of nature being brought into man made creations. As one walks up each tier, the ground gets progressively more porous, and the surroundings more green. At the top, it becomes a garden with the sounds of a bustling city.  In Tokyo, the Nezu museum by Kengo Kuma is a contemporary interpretation of a Buddhist temple in a garden. It’s oversized roof replicates the traditional hipped roof, and inside the large glass windows help it blend with the extensive Japanese garden it is situated within. The Yokohama Ferry Terminal is another example, and highlights how the Japanese have encroached upon the sea to create more space. While it is alien-like in form and designed using digital techniques, the extensive use of wood, and green roof made it seem like a Japanese bathhouse in a landscape of rolling hills. I almost didn’t notice that it was a functioning pier. 

On the islands of Naoshima and Teshima, there is a distinct collection of modern architecture that, in my opinion, elevates its design by manipulating nature. The Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House, and Lee Ufan Museum, all by Tadao Ando, seem to be at peace with nature. However, while visiting, it quickly became apparent that massive excavations had to occur in order for these buildings to exist, most of which bored into the islands’ mountains. Ando’s work was almost infrastructural – it put a wall up to nature, but when he did allow nature into his buildings, the design was sublime. The Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa was similar in that it selectively uses nature, but it’s amorphous wall to nature seemed to promote the encroachment of nature. The sloped walls on the exterior were crawling with bugs and hints of green breaking through the concrete. On the interior, massive holes brought in sunlight that reflected off the exhibit on the ground (water droplets scurrying around its uneven floor) and amplified the sun’s illumination and turning it a bluish-purple hue.

Excessive repetition, to a comically insane level, was something else I noticed while visiting traditional places. Fushimi-Inari Taisha was the most obvious example. As one walked up the mountain to one of its hundreds of shrines along the way, the path is lined with crimson torii gates. While surreal and seemingly ancient, I noticed that many of the torii gates have been repaired or replaced over the years. Some gates even had advertisements for Japanese companies, which is its way of supporting the park rather than charging admission.

In Nara, the path up to the Kasuga shrine is similar in that it is lined with stone lanterns. While it is in an incredible human construct simply by the sheer number of lanterns, they provide nuanced hiding places for the deer that excitedly bow – to the point where it is like they are nodding “yes” – for treats from visitors. This shrine, however, did not seem to be promoting its upkeep with advertisements, Along the path you can occasionally see fallen over, broken, or moss-covered lanterns. You could say that might be a sign of disrepair, or it could be an embracing of nature claiming back its place among the man-made. A wabi-sabi aesthetic.

Repetition is inherently part of architecture, however, when the piece that is repeated is iconic it is much more noticeable. Take the Hachioji Library at Tama Art University by Toyo Ito for example. It uses the icon of the arch, and repeats it to create the building’s structure. It actually reminded me of the hypostyle hall of arches at the Cordoba Mosque-Church in Spain, but in Japanese concrete. 

Kengo Kuma’s Sunny Hill’s store references traditional Japanese wood construction, and reinterprets it for his design. His design uses a traditional joint, Jigoku Gumi, and affixes it organically to blend between indoor and outdoors. While tasting the Sunny Hill’s pineapple cake served with tea on the second floor, the Jigoku Gumi created a dappled light effect, as if the interior was a bamboo forest like Arashiyama. 

Traditional Japanese buildings are not as old as people might think. When we think of western traditional architecture, they are often multiple hundreds of years old. In Japan, the traditional buildings are often no older than a century. In trying to understand why this is the case, I found out that the simple answer is fire. Almost every single place I visited was said to have experienced multiple fires. In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, the unstable environment has created a culture that accepts cycles of destruction and renewal as a natural part of life. Another reason to this is that the structures are rebuilt for the continuation of culture and prevent degradation of the original design. The same goes for Japanese homes,which gradually depreciate over time in 20 to 30 year cycles. When someone moves out of a home or dies, the house has no resale value and is typically demolished. This tactic in the Japanese housing market is due to low-quality construction so that demand could be quickly met after the second world war, constant code revisions to improve earthquake resilience, and a general lack of incentive to make homes marketable for resale due to how fast they depreciate.

This is starting to change however. For example, due to industrial development and post-atomic bomb mentality for something more permanent, Osaka Castle was rebuilt as a concrete replica in 1995.

Additionally, environmental sensitivity is leading the way for refurbishment rather than razing and rebuilding.  This is reflected in the metabolist movement. Rather than buildings being static things, they were designed to change over time as if they had a metabolism. The buildings were made with “spines” or infrastructural pieces with cellular parts that could be replaced when their lifespans were over. The quintessential example of this is the Nakagin Capsule tower, which is made up of two vertical circulation cores with replaceable micro units attached. While it was a great idea in theory to accommodate population boom, it was only a theory. There are people trying to replace its micro units, however, the building currently remains abandoned.

Over the course of the three and a half weeks I spent in Japan, I learned so much about the intersection of culture, religion, and design practices. It really highlighted to me, and this may seem a little cheesy, that relationships and connections are everything. Whether the connection is to the past, to our parents, or simply just touching something, these aspects can only increase the importance of design.


The food was great too. 

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