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.
“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.
“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.”