Zero and Architecture



It is inevitable that we must review architecture to pursue a deep-dive into “Zero,” even if the connection may not look so obvious.  Therefore we will start “Zero and Technology” from the point of view of architecture.

By definition, “architecture” means 1) the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings, and 2) the complex or carefully designed structure of something.

But I am not just talking about green buildings, sustainable development, or comparing structural designs of skyscrapers in NYC and traditional Japanese tea ceremony houses.  Implications of “architecture” are much more profound; they reveal something fundamental and principal about humans.

Architecture is the manifestation of the nature-human relationship, from a humans’ perspective.  It is our manifesto, or answer from humans to nature on how the interaction between the two can be, and should be. It is not a coincidence that the most familiar architecture of all, a house, covers every aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – from physiological, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem to self-actualization.  Architecture is the backbone of our civilization.

In Chapter 3: Abundance by Condensation, I stated that “humans’ history is also a history of inventions of things that shield us from the threat of nature, and things that increase our productivity leveraging natural resources.”  Here, the term “things” can be replaced by “architecture.”  Architecture can represent any system humans developed to put in-between nature and us, in a hope to change/improve the balance of power between the two.  And the expectation has been that, improvements of the power balance would result in less pain/suffering and more pleasure. Humans believed that it would increase satisfaction and happiness.


Up until the Middle Ages, humans had very few options to alter the power balance against nature; humans’ physical capacities were far from overcoming various threats posed by nature. Humans would take advantage of natural caves, make simple tents or huts as shelters, but those shelters weren’t very protective.  Knowing physical shields were vulnerable and ineffective, humans in those days might have relied heavily on intangible architecture such as myths, animisms, magic and/or superstitions to face the overwhelming power of nature.  Those systems are intangible, but still meet the definition of architecture because they are a “complex or carefully designed structure.”

large-figure-n-h-pre-maConceptual nature-human relationship pre-Middle Age: humans’ architecture is vulnerable.

Over time, humans accumulated knowledge and improved intangible architecture, which also made them capable of developing stable and complex physical architecture.  More structured religions would take over animism or myths, as intangible architecture such as logic or language would advance.  They would be accompanied by magnificent churches that would physically represent humans’ desperate hope to fill the mystical gap, or imbalance of power, between nature and humans. 

Image: The Parthenon restored, 12 November 2005
By Barcex (Self-published work by Barcex) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

If churches are one of the most symbolic outputs of architecture in human history that represent our cognitive efforts, then agricultural methods can be considered another symbolic “architecture” (they involve carefully altering how the land is structured and used) humans developed to increase productivity, leveraging natural resources. 

Book of the Dead, spell 110: Fields of Iaru. Scene from tomb of Ramses III. (KV11)
Date before 1842
By Jollois, Devilliers, Monsaldy, Cally ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Post Middle Age is the era we know very well.  If you remember major landmarks such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars and the IT revolution, it’s obvious that it’s been the era of science and technology.  The ever-accelerating technology brought us a mesmerizing pace and scale of globalization, economic development and population growth over the last few hundred years.  Various data shows slow growth for thousands and thousands of years, and then an abrupt exponential growth after the Middle Ages.  Intellectual architecture, called science and technology, literally altered the properties, characteristics and interactions of Earth and humans, both physically and conceptually.

population_curve-svg“World human population (est.) 10,000 BC–2000 AD” By El T [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

What triggered the abrupt exponential growth after the Middle Ages?

In Pre-Middle Age, all architecture had to conform to the limit of humans’ physical/cognitive capabilities.  Humans WERE the actual vehicles/components for all the architecture. Improvements could only be incremental because we couldn’t become a cyborg or a robot.  Our eyes were telescopes to observe the vast universe.  Our sense of direction was a compass to sail across the oceans and, of course, our bodies were the motor engines for boats.

In Post-Middle Age, humans succeeded in creating architecture completely EXTERNAL to humans’ physical/cognitive capabilities.  Most architecture we use today, such as buildings, traffic systems, manufacturing processes or internet works on its own, regardless of the powerless nature of our bodies.  In the post-Middle Age era, an increasing number of tasks are carried out by things that are detached from our body – whether it’s burning coal to extract energy, changing the chemical property of metal to create something super hard, or manipulating molecules to alter a species’ fate.  You don’t have to have 20/20 eyesight and a lot of patience to keep observing the sky to become an astrologist. You don’t have to absorb the theory of hydrodynamics by making and sailing hand-made canoes time and time again to travel to Hawaii.  Those painstaking tasks have been detached from our abilities and outsourced to external elements, and often times we don’t even recognize or acknowledge what they are.  

large-figure-n-h-post-maConceptual nature-human relationship after the Middle Ages: Human created architecture substantially stronger than humans. 

It is important to remember this crucial moment of decoupling – decoupling of architecture from humans’ capabilities.  Although it hasn’t drawn much attention, this drastic change must have altered how humans think and behave; and most importantly in this project, how humans would recognize satisfaction and happiness.

Yoshihiko Amino, an accomplished Japanese historian who shed light on many aspects of peoples’ lives in the Middle Ages wrote:

To certain extent, we can guesstimate how peoples’ lives were in and after the 15th century based on our own experiences and knowledge.  In a bigger picture, we are on the same trajectory.  However, that trajectory does not work for people in and before the13th century.  Those people lived outside our norm.  We will easily misunderstand them if we carelessly apply our way of interpreting things.  Clearly, humans have experienced fundamental transformation in the 14th century.  (Translation by the author. 「日本の歴史を読み直す」 網野義彦 筑摩書房 2000)

Amino’s statement supports the assumption that life before and after this decisive moment of decoupling is completely different.

The Middle Age is a critical landmark for this project primarily because that’s when many Zen-inspired Zero cultures were established. But it wasn’t a coincidence that they emerged in the Middle Ages:  it had to happen at this critical juncture, where man-powered architecture saw its culmination and started to be replaced by non man-powered technology-driven architecture.

We will start this Volume, Zero and Technology, by looking at the forefront of architecture. How far have we come in leveraging technology-driven architecture?  How has it changed the way we live and feel happiness?


Zero and Technology: re-think our relationship with resources



Up until the Middle Ages, all the “devices” that humans would invent were man-made and man-powered.  Humans had to rely 100% on their physical and cognitive abilities to improve their relationship with nature. Those devices were often inefficient and unproductive to face powerful nature. 

After the Middle Ages, humans have entered a new era totally different from the previous one: it’s an area of potent devices which have completely overcome the limitation associated with humans’ body.  Through the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and all other great waves of invention, humans have discovered various sources of power and potential detached from humans’ physical/cognitive capacities. They performed far more effective and efficient than humans. With those external drivers, humans started to see exponential growth in every aspect of their activities; disasters tamed, diseases eradicated, production increased and civilization expanded.

In this project, we define “technology” as any means, emerged after the Middle Ages, that enabled humans to leverage external power/potential so as our abilities are not constrained by our own physical/cognitive limitations.


Roughly speaking, pre-Middle Ages are pre-technology era, and post-Middle Ages are the era of technology. Middle Ages are the turning point.  Up until the Middle Ages, humans were probably more like the animals in the wild: highly alert, observing the environment with obsessive attention and mobilizing all the abilities granted to their bodies.  But once humans entered the era of technology, they started to give up those extraordinary abilities one by one because they no longer needed them.

technology-and-humanConceptual change in humans’ physical/cognitive abilities over time

In pre-technology era, humans were ineffective towards the threats posed by nature. Nature would force humans to obey it. But when we entered the era of technology, the dynamics completely changed. Humans obtained enough power to alter nature and have it obey them. For the most part, we recognize what technology achieved as great accomplishments and progress. Thanks to technological advancement, humans obtained enormous amount of freedom and opportunities to flourish and pursue happiness.

While it is obvious that technology has been unleashing our potential in an amazing pace, we don’t ask this question much: what happened to our own ability? What about our physical capabilities and cognitive potential?

We can no longer navigate in the middle of thick nature without compasses or GPS, as the Inuit people would still do.  We can no longer read the sky with our own eyes to develop unbelievably accurate calendar as Mayans’. We can no longer build enormous architecture that would last more than 1,300 years using only woods and axes, like Japanese woodworkers did in the 7th century

You might say, “We don’t need to do those kinds of skills anymore, because technology would do them for you.” Sure. That’s the whole point of technology.  Less pain, more pleasure for us.  And since technology is so good at achieving it, we keep outsourcing more and more works outside our body so as we don’t have to do them by ourselves.

If every-accelerating trajectory towards less pain and more pleasure is the golden recipe for deep- rooted satisfaction and happiness, we don’t need this project.  We will simply let the technology guide us.  However, we all know that it’s not always the case. We know that “money can’t buy me love.” But why is that? Why can’t we buy – with excess money enabled by technological advancement — everything we need to feel satisfied and happy?
Remember the hypothesis for Zero = abundance:  satisfaction is a function of pain/pleasure and arousal. While technology is very good at controlling pain/pleasure level to pamper us, it hasn’t been paying much attention to arousal — both physical and cognitive — for us to feel achieved AND satisfied.  Money can’t buy me love because love is cognitive and cannot be enhanced by technology.
We will make a deep-dive into the relationship of Zero and technology to examine how our pain/pleasure dosage and arousal level intersects through modern technologies and how it’s affecting our sense of satisfaction and happiness.  The first category is “Zero and architecture” because architecture is the central piece of our technology, and also because I would like to introduce you to “House Vision,” an exciting movement from Japan that attempts to shape our next-generation quality of life using “the act of living” as a lab open to, and accessible by all of us. 



Customer satisfaction thru Zero lens: is “more” = satisfaction?

In “Apply,”  we will explore how to build a better relationship between the providers of products/services (such as businesses or public organizations) and the recipients of such products/services (customers or constituents), leveraging the power of Zero.

Whether provided by a company, or another type of organization, any product/service aims to address one or more needs identified in Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Food addresses physiological needs. Homes and public services provide safety.  Educational services help us build confidence and self-esteem.

We acquire, or consume various types of products/services, hoping to address and meet different types of needs.


Though Maslow did not define it this way, it appears there are two dimensions in Maslow’s hierarchy: horizontal and vertical. The vertical dimension shows us how our needs become elevated, once lower level needs are satisfied. It tells us that our needs are not one dimensional: there’s “more” (or quantity),  but there’s also “higher” (or quality). We try to secure safety once we have enough air, water and food. Once we feel safe and secure, then we seek love and esteem. We could also say that the quality dimension includes time: short-term needs versus long-term needs. If you are feeling hungry before lunch, it’s a need that can be immediately satisfied by eating a hamburger. But if you want to switch to a more rewarding job, it’s a long-term need that can only be addressed by persistent efforts: it doesn’t happen overnight.

Then how would we measure the overall quality/quantity of satisfaction felt by different individuals? Or more simply, how would I measure my own overall satisfaction?

We might be able to tap into traditional methods to quantify “customer satisfaction.”  Here is the definition:

Customer satisfaction: a measure of how products and services supplied by a company meet or surpass the customer’s expectation.

It turns out that “customer satisfaction” is geared toward quantifying satisfaction at a very micro and local level: per product/service basis, and probably per event/use basis. If that’s the case, could you simply sum satisfaction experienced by using each and every product/service you own, in order to quantify your overall satisfaction?  When you do so, how would quantity/quality come into play?

Even though we are not sure how the details would work, we sort of automatically accept the rule of summation when we acquire something. We expect that it would add some value to our lives, and eventually, would increase our overall satisfaction.


But by experience, we all know that’s not always the case. Read the very enthusiastic Amazon reviews for “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying-up” by Marie Kondo. It’s almost shocking to realize that so many people are feeling stressed by all the clutter they’ve collected over time, and are feeling refreshed, renewed and happy when they abandon unnecessary items.

Clearly, accumulating products/services does not necessarily contribute to one’s overall satisfaction. At least there is no simple and proportional correlation.

Then why do we have to keep acquiring stuff?  One of the problems is that we don’t have reliable tools to quantify overall satisfaction.  If simple math of summation does not work, what alternatives do we have?

That’s where “Zero” comes into play.

Remember the Yerkes-Dodson curve that we reviewed so many times in “Zero Narrative.” Instead of assuming satisfaction as a straight line that grows infinitely,  “Zero” assumes a bell curve for satisfaction. Now you apply the amount of stuff you own, as a straight line.  We can easily see where the optimal satisfaction level meets the amount of stuff we own – at least theoretically.  The people who found “life-changing magic” in tidying up might have found their own optimal level by experimenting with drastic subtraction.

Bell curve satisfaction

Now what about quality? According to Maslow’s hierarchy, our needs are elevated when lower ones are met. Well, we can assume that each of us can basically design his /her own bell curve based on ones’ interest and priority. And the beauty of a Zero bell curve is that it doesn’t have to rely on the amount of what you own.

Bell curve satisfaction high

Chapter 2-8: Taste buds’ performance and Plum Organics

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Top small banner taste buds

Plum Organics, a revolutionary baby food company that completely changed the baby food shelf at the grocery store by its first-to-market spouted pouch, is very vocal about the importance of conscious AND delicious food for babies.  Babies are critically (often irreversibly) developing their taste buds.  They offer quality baby foods “to inspire a lifetime of healthy eating from the very first bite” with “culinary-inspired ingredients.” (source: Plum Organics website

They believe that the first 1,000 days (270 days in pregnancy + 2 years in life) are critical for child’s overall development.  Believe or not , babies’ taste development starts in utero.  They are already “tasting” food through what their mother eats.  Once born, they start recognizing what they are eating after about four months.  Then when it’s time for solid food,  they’ve already developed some (or strong) likes/dislikes towards foods.

Interesting thing is, even though parents usually understand that they would need to choose nutritious foods for babies, “deliciousness” hasn’t been drawing much attention. This is counter intuitive if we remember how keen we are when we look for food for ourselves.

There are possibly two reasons for that. First, we somehow decoupled “deliciousness” from nutrition. We tend to assume that delicious (such as sweet or salty) foods are not nutritious, and try to avoid giving them to babies.  Second, we don’t really realize that babies are “tasting” (or appreciating) food.  We feel our job is done once we give enough nutrition to babies.  

Both assumptions are wrong.

First, deliciousness should be tied to nutrition because that’s how humans have been surviving for hundreds of thousand of years.  Since sugar wasn’t part of our diet for 99.99% of our 100,000 year history, we must have been finding deliciousness elsewhere.  Deliciousness has much larger potential than just sweetness or saltiness.  But since extreme foods such as refined sugar have been confusing our body, we feel like as if delicious foods have little nutrition, and nutritious foods are not delicious.  Second, babies are developing their taste buds very very quickly.  Even if they often reject “new” foods (most foods are new to them anyway), it’s normal and is just part of the whole learning process.

The ability to find deliciousness in naturally occurring foods is the ability to find nutrition, if our taste buds are tuned properly.  For example, the pouch in the picture (zucchini banana & amaranth organic baby food) is 99g per pouch, with 70 Calories.  It includes 16 grams of carbohydrate in total for which 10 grams come from sugar. Most of the sugar in Plum Organics products is naturally occurring from the fruit.  If trained properly, our taste buds can feel sweetness naturally occurring in vegetables, fruit and other “healthy” ingredients.   Plum Organics shows us that babies are capable of doing so.

For Plum Organics, consciousness and deliciousness are interconnected. (We are programmed to find deliciousness in healthy, body-conscious food, right?)   And that happens if our taste buds are trained to maintain their optimal level when ingesting healthy food – which is supposed to increase our odds or survival.

Subtraction awakens and activates our internal abilities to achieve peak performance.   When we achieve peak performance, we feel satisfied.


Celebrate what you already own: Patagonia

Patagonia’s Black Friday event “Celebrate what you already own” made me think about the relationship between “having (buying) more,”, “having (buying) less” and deep satisfaction. I soon came to realization that having less can actually lead to deeper satisfaction.

Penguins are not boring: Asahiyama Zoo

Read an inspiring story of a small municipal zoo that transformed into a popular zoo that attracts millions of visitors from around the world.

Nissin Cupnoodles Museum

Even though its main audience is children, Cupnoodles Museums does not rely on “more” to make them happy. Then what are the keys for their success?

Chapter 1-8

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Intro to zero top

This is a departure from the conventional perception that  there is (almost) a linear correlation between the level of external stimulus and satisfaction:  external stimulus (brought by products/services etc.) that generate less pain and more pleasure always result in higher satisfaction. 

This perspective changes when arousal is plugged in to the equation.  Arousal is a bell curve.  An assumption can be made that the marginal satisfaction from the change in pain/pleasure level would start diminishing once it hits the plateau of arousal, and starts going toward boredom or stress direction.

Figure pleasure painInteraction of External Stimulus and Arousal

But where does the level of external stimulus meet optimum arousal level, when we are talking about satisfaction from products or services?

This is where “Zero” comes into play.

Make an assumption for now, that the current level of pleasure for humans is too much and is not aligned with their optimal arousal level.  (For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on pleasure, not pain, from this point on.)  

Since the assumption is “too much” pleasure, we can simply start reducing the dosage until we find the right point where it crosses the optimal level of arousal.

If you keep subtracting the amount of pleasure, the pleasure will eventually become zero.  “Zero” is the ultimate form of subtraction.

Zero sets a boundary for this experiment: if we keep reducing pleasure towards zero, what will happen to our body and mind?   Will we only feel stress or anxiety? Or will something else emerge?


Figure zero



Chapter 1-7: Zero = abundance hypothesis

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Although they must be appreciative of the safe environment and reliable food supply, the penguins in a traditional zoo setting may be bored because there is nothing much to do. 

Remember, in the wild the animals are highly trained creatures capable of running,  flying,  swimming, attacking, hiding, investigating…. a wide variety of actions that require sensory, physical and cognitive concentration.

But their potential does not have an outlet in a traditional zoo setting.  

When the penguins were freed during  the “Penguin Walk,” they suddenly became awoken to engage themselves in doing what they are good at.  When they are engaged, they look excited and happy. And it makes visitors excited and happy.

Figure penugin walk

Conceptual State of Penguins during “Penguin Walk”

Hypothesis for Zero = abundance:

The level of satisfaction is not the function of the level of pain and pleasure ONLY.  The level of arousal also plays an important role. 

Figure ZA hypothesis

Interaction of External Stimulus, Satisfaction and Arousal

The level of satisfaction is maximized when external stimulus level (pain/pleasure  dose) is aligned with the optimal arousal level: not too bored, not too stressed. 

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Once the penguins have regained their autonomy (there is no human intervention during the walk), they can interact with their surroundings (including humans) much more proactively.

They are so fun to watch: The Penguin Walk became Asahiyama’s  most popular event during winter. (and Asahiyama Zoo became one of the most popular zoos in Japan)

Penguins are also very agile in the water. It’s something you don’t imagine by watching them waddle on the ground.  The Asahiyama Zoo’s penguin house is designed so that the visitors can see penguins flying by in the water.

Penguin water Penguin water2Images courtesy of Asahiyama Zoo