Japanese architecture is often associated with natural materials or design that focuses on natural elements.  How do Japanese architects think of natural materials?  Here are some peculiar and insightful views.

Terunobu Fujimori is a Japanese architect and architectural historian.  He may be most famous for his eccentric tea room, “takasugi-an,” which is a small tea house 6 meters above the ground.  Being a historian, he has a broad and deep knowledge and appreciation of the origin and history of architecture, worldwide.

When he designs he lets unique “primitiveness” emerge in the modern context, often using natural materials and traditional techniques that were forgotten for years or even centuries.  For example, he likes using shou sugi ban, which is a traditional Japanese technique to burn ceder (sugi) planks to strengthen their property and give them a unique look and feel.  He also uses a shake axe to cleave wood, which is an ancient technique that was used before saws that we know today were invented.  Both techniques deliver a crude and rough impression – in a positive sense.

Left: Takasugi-an image by Wiiii, [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Coal House, as part of SUMIKA Project image by japanese_craft_construction (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Deep-burnt Shou sugi bans are used for walls.
Left: Jinchokan Moriya Museum by By Kenta Mabuchi (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Fujimori used local rocks for roofing (which are rarely used today) and cleaved the wood for walls using very old technique even skilled carpenters no longer knew.
Right: Nira-house by Forgemind ArchiMedia (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons  Nira is a kind of leek. There are many nira pots embedded under the roof, which grow on the surface.

“To me, most wood materials today are industrial products, not natural materials. …because they are produced to deliver uniform and homogeneous quality.  But natural materials are never uniform.  Naturally grown woods are never smooth on the surface, and are uneven in property.  No piece is the same. … They are destined to be unruly.  Their expressions are rough and ungroomed, rather than sleek. There’s always something coarse about natural materials. …therefore I try to focus on their unruly, inconsistent characteristics when I use them so that I can let unique personality and beauty emerge from them.”

Quote from Terunobu Fujimori presentation “How to incorporate natural materials into modern architecture東西アスファルト事業協同組合 (Translation Mihoyo Fuji)

Kengo Kuma is a renowned Japanese architect, who works globally.  He has been advocating “architecture that loses.”  Architecture that knows how to lose (to nature) understands the limits of what humans can do, relative to nature. Instead of trying to conquer nature, “architecture that loses” leverages the force of nature as is, or uneven relationships of nature and humans.  It focuses on connecting us to nature seamlessly, rather than blocking and shielding us from the outside world and environment.

Kuma often uses delicate, sensitive and fragile materials.  He defies our blind assumption that vulnerabilities are negative attributes for architecture.

Left: Great (Bamboo) Wall (Beijing, China 2002) by ぷくぷく (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons   One of Kuma’s signature work, which uses bamboo as main materials.  Bamboos grow fast, but are not very strong in property therefore considered unreliable as construction materials. Kuma defies the perception by applying several processing techniques to bamboos.
Right: Starbucks Dazaifu Temmangu Omotesando (Fukuoka, Japan 2011)  by Karl Baron [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons  Kuma often uses small pieces of wood (or other materials) loosely connected together. They give delicate and beautiful look. 

“The reason why modern architecture is increasingly staying out of natural materials is because they are considered fragile and vulnerable.  Flammability of many natural materials is especially a problem.  In modern architecture, anything vulnerable has to be eliminated.  Fragile materials are almost extinct. …But I want to resist the trend.  I want to use them.  And in order for such materials to be accepted by the convention of today’s society, we’d have to somehow ‘strengthen’ them.  And that’s where technology comes in to play.  Unless we can leverage technology strategically, natural materials can easily be excluded from our architectural portfolio, and will become completely forgotten.”

Quotes from Kengo Kuma presentation “Materials and cyber space東西アスファルト事業協同組合 (Translation by Mihoyo Fuji)