You may have observed several key elements that constitute Japanese aesthetics from the pictures in the previous post, but in this piece we’ll focus on lines and voids, two powerful and effective elements in modern design, especially when functioning as a catalyst to let boundless happiness emerge in a life with “less.”
As you may remember, lines were a signature element for “De Stijl” art movement. Mies van der Rohe, an innovative German architect who paved the way for modern architecture, applied simple lines and clear structure to his buildings. Lines are also what defines Katsura Rikyu (Imperial Villa), which is often dubbed the culmination of Japanese traditional architecture.
Katsura Rikyu (Imperial Villa – a retreat for aristocrat families), Kyoto, constructed in the 17th century under the influence of Zen arts.
There are very few things that are linear by nature: trees lean in a certain direction, our body has curves, rivers snake and mountains have ridges. Only humans create perfect lines by defying the force of gravity. So lines inherently symbolize our potential for expansion, structure/order and cleanliness. Piet Mondrian, the painter/co-founder of De Stijl movement, who sought universal values and aesthetics once wrote: “I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness.” (bold inserted by the author.) He regarded lines (and primary colors) as a catalyst to unleash a human spiritual adventure that is not bound to natural/physical/emotional restrictions.
Lines are powerful. It brings order and structure in otherwise chaotic natural environment. Large, heavy lines signify our strong will to challenge and defy threats posed by nature: seawalls, bridges or dams use many forceful lines. On the other hand, fine/delicate lines demonstrate humans’ decency to minimize interfering nature, willingness to live in harmony with it, or desire to go beyond the restriction posed by it.
Lines used by minimalism arts or Zen arts look fine, rather than thick. They symbolizes our cognitive – rather than physical – potential.
Lines can be an effective device to live a simple and minimalist existence. They can invigorate the space with minimal presence, and make you focuse and concentrate by delivering prudent order and structure in the environment. But they won’t distract you if you can control the design.
The MUJI House (MUJI has been selling houses since 2004 ONLY in Japan), which is a “tiny house” of about 1000 square feet, leverages fine lines. Just like Japanese traditional architecture, the structure (pillars and beams) is exposed and contributes to augment aesthetic cleanliness. It is especially effective because it defies the limitation of space and provides a sense of expansion and order.
The other interesting example is House NA, designed by Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto. This is another tiny house built in metropolitan Tokyo. It sits on an unbelievably small plot of land about 16’ x 23’.
In order to defy its smallness, Sou Fujimoto re-imagined the 800 square feet as a series of flat tables that come in different sizes and levels. If a conventional house tries to create a living environment as an obstacle-free, flat space, then the House NA is like living in a tree. And the nest-like layers are expressed by using 55 mm solid square structural steel members. Those fine lines – lean steel beams, along with petite staircases installed in various parts of the house – resemble tree branches or twigs. The entire house almost feels like a series of tree houses perched on different branches.
Fine lines work as a bridge to connect the small living environment with nature, while providing a sense of decent structure and order, which is needed to lead a comfortable life.