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Defining A Japanese Architectural Identity Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1896 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The study will be based on the argument that the aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi’, derived from traditional Japanese tea ceremony, is inherent in Tadao Ando’s architecture. It further posits that the aesthetic plays a significant role in his works as an identity construct, enabling Ando to be celebrated as a ‘critical regionalist’ 1.

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Wabi-sabi: A Context

Wabi-sabi and Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando as a Critical Regionalist

1. Introduction

“We can easily now conceive of a time when there will be only one culture and one civilization on the entire surface of the earth. I don’t believe this will happen, because there are contradictory tendencies always at work – on the one hand towards homogenization and on the other towards new distinctions.”

(Lévi-Strauss, 1978: 20)

The 1970s saw an increasing awareness amongst many Japanese intellectuals of the cultural crisis confronting Japan. In face of increasing loss of cultural identity due to rapid modernization, many Japanese intellectuals began constructing cultural difference as a way of establishing identity in an increasingly homogeneous world (Isozaki, 2011:35). In many ways, the quest to construct identity is based on certain perceived unique characteristics of the Japanese – one of it being the Wabi-sabi aesthetics – as a response to the problems of globalization.

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The architect Tadao Ando and the Wabi-sabi aesthetics embedded in his works is situated within this backdrop of issues concerning Japanese identity. This study will start by providing background on the evolution and definition of wabi-sabi, observing and examining arguments of how wabi-sabi is ingrained Ando’s approach. It will finally demonstrate the processes in which imported and Japanese architectural ideas interact in Ando’s works.

2. Wabi-sabi: A Context

The Japanese aesthetic tradition, like any other cultural tradition, encompasses diverse tastes and arts. They range from the ordinariness of Noh theatre to the lavishness of Kabuki theatre, the severity of monochrome brush ink paintings to the opulence of gold-gilded screen paintings, and the simple rusticity of tea huts to the august majesty of castles.

Among the variety of aesthetic pursuits, one theme stands out for being somewhat unconventional. It is a celebration of qualities commonly regarded as ‘falling short of’, or ‘deteriorating from the optimal condition of the object’ (De Mente, 2006). While such works may appear somewhat homely and rough, at the same time they impart a sense of elegance and tranquillity, a kind of ‘unsophisticated sophistication’, like ‘the moon obscured by clouds’. (Koren, 1994).

This study will refer to this Japanese aesthetics of the imperfection and insufficiency as wabi-sabi. The following discussion will briefly review the aesthetic, social, historical, and philosophical dimensions of this Japanese aesthetic taste.

Wabi and sabi

Wabi is derived from the verb wabu (to deteriorate) and the adjective wabishii (solitary, comfortless). The essence of wabi has been described as nonattachment and subtle profundity (De Mente, 2006:45). The nonattachment essence of a wabi is part of the Zen School of Buddhism that teaches detachment from all material things and the ability to experience the essence of things (Koren, 1994:12). On the other hand, the original meaning of sabi is ‘rust’ or ‘patina’, but it also connotes loneliness and desolation as reflected in the adjective sabishii (lonely), particularly with reference to old age (1994:13).

Koren (1994:21) primarily suggests wabi-sabi as ‘the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty’, comparing its importance in Japanese aesthetics to the ‘Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West’.

Originally, the meanings of neither wabi nor sabi were specifically related to aesthetic qualities. The development of the wabi-sabi aesthetic began in earnest during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) coinciding with the spread of Zen Buddhism in Japan (Koren 1994:12). Zen ideas about transcending the mundane world and conventional ways of looking at things – through concepts like emptiness, impermanence and renunciation – inspired a kind of appreciation of ‘negative’ experiences such as old age, poverty and loneliness (Suzuki, 1972:42). Hermits, priests and poets leading a solitary wandering life in search of spiritual insight incorporated this sense of appreciation in their works and teachings. As these ideas gained momentum, people tried to resign themselves to the sufferings of life and began to see a kind of beauty in them. Expressed in artistic forms, this in turn evolved into the aesthetic appreciation of wabi-sabi (Koren, 1994:14).

Later, the development of the tea ceremony in the 16th century marks an important step in the evolution of wabi-sabi. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), credited with establishing the tea ceremony in its current form, was also influential in establishing wabi-sabi as an aesthetic concept (Okakura, 2005:33). He extolled the use of simple, indigenous homestyle tea utensils over the expensive and highly decorative tea utensils imported from China, placing objects expressing wabi-sabi at the pinnacle of aesthetic appreciation (2005:34).

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Initially, these new aesthetics could only be ‘discovered’ in the humble utensils used by the common people, or in a neglected stone lantern overgrown with moss. However, as time progressed, design works were intentionally created to reflect wabi-sabi, for example, raku earthenware tea bowls or the design of the tea-house, which took on the style of a simple rural hut, with space inside for only two tatami mats (around 3.5m²) (De Mente, 2006:45).

Futhermore in art and design, two other elements that are often associated with sabi objects are asymmetry and austerity. Kakuzo Okakura (2005:15), the Japanese tea master, labelled this asymmetry beauty as ‘the art of imperfection’. Surprises are achieved by the unbalanced by the apparent randomness of things that allows the observer to complete the image. This stands in contrast to the Western compulsion to symmetry and mathematical balance, leaving no surprises and nothing for the viewer to add.

Also worth nothing is that in modern Japan, the definition of a wabi-sabi style of living evolves into the elimination of things which that are inessential. The tranquillity aspect of wabi dictates a look and feel that radiates an aura of calm and solace. The natural aspect of sabi results from avoiding machination of any sort. This includes making an object or area look as if it were created by nature, not by human or machine (Koren, 1994).

3. Wabi-sabi and Tadao Ando

Thus, one might argue that wabi-sabi, the exclusion of all surplus things, pervades Japanese psyche. Designers of such architecture tend to use natural materials, to have them look as natural as possible, and to employ muted -almost monochrome – colour schemes. It is the author’s opinion that Ando’s works severely limits the range of interior colours. Ando’s buildings are almost entirely unfinished concrete with the exception of floors and furnishings, which are of natural materials, and window sashes, which, though steel, are always painted gray, never bright self-assertive colours. This approach used both by designers of tea ceremony buildings and by Ando, is determined by a concern for the materials themselves and for spatial composition (Baek, 2008).

One might argue views the spaces in Ando’s buildings as having the same peaceful, almost desolate spirit of wabi-sabi that informs the design of a teahouse or lonely mountain temple. Apart from warm touches of wooden flooring and nature beyond, every surface of concrete, steel or mass is a chilly monotonous grey. These black-and-white tonalities are distinctly Japanese, created in traditional buildings in silvery roof tiles, grey-weathered boards, neutral plaster and white paper screens.

Further extending the argument, the fragile beauty of shadows that marked the Japanese cultural identity, as were praised by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1977), are utilised by Ando to infuse his buildings with an uncanny mood which enrich the void with darkness. Ando’s Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum in Higashiosaka [fig.1], as observed by the author, is saturated with a heavy darkness made even significant by the sudden burst of light in the south-west elevation.

4. Tadao Ando’s ‘Critical Modernism’

Ando has abstracted traditional elements and fused them into a Modernist language. Such a definition eludes all forms of rationalisation, for it resides in qualities rather than forms (Frampton, 1997).

The author opines that the notion of Japanese identity in Ando’s works is perceived sensually rather than visually. The author sees Ando’s Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, near Kobe, as a deceptively closed, minimalist volume of raw concrete [fig.2]. Dal Co (1997:125) describes the form of the museum as one which is radically new, yet “there is still the old feeling of seclusion, of an architecture that creates ‘another world’ remote from the everyday”. The overall spatial structure is described by Dal Co (1997:25) as ‘closed to the outside yet open within, the former tempered by a few slits and the latter by layered planes’. This, in the author’s view, is suggestive of the old, traditional Japanese approach, where building is enclosed with a simple mud wall and made inwardly porous by layered screens.

[fig.1] [fig.2]figure2.jpg

Author’s sketch of Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum Entrance stairs

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art

Furthermore, it should be noted that in Ando’s work there are no familiar physical elements associated with traditional Japanese architecture. One can hardly find the traditional open pavilion, bare timber skeleton, deeply overhanging roofs, or sliding shoji doors of spotless white paper (Jodidio, 2004: 21). Nevertheless Ando has transmuted these properties into something new, grounding his architecture in an ancient culture while freeing it of depiction.


The term Critical Regionalism was coined in 1981 by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in their article “The Grid and the Pathway” and in 1983 Kenneth Frampton authored an article on the same subject. According to the definition of these authors, Critical Regionalism is the emphasis of “placeness” putting into context elements like scenery, historical references and light, without falling into imitation and traditionalism. Frampton’s essay ‘Tadao Ando’s Critical Modernism’ (1984:6) celebrates Ando as a critical regionalist, and uses the approach as a paradigm to discuss Ando’s architecture.

Illustration credits

The author, fig. 1-2


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