Minimalist Mentality

nov 2020

European architectural history courses are usually based on detailed studies of relevant historical periods and important exchanges with other cultures that a particular country's architecture might have had. We rarely start by analyzing climatic conditions as the primary influence on architectural styles in European cultures, as we tend to take for granted our generally mild weather and relatively homogeneous continental natural environment. In Tokyo University of the Arts, history of prewar Japanese architecture is also taught mainly from the perspective of the Chinese influences and religious and cultural tendencies. The lectures made me realize that this method might not be effective when addressing a foreign audience for the first time, especially in terms of housing history. Unusualness of Japanese architectural forms, building materials, and ways of living were hard to understand even when compared with their original Chinese prototypes. However, after I lived a full year in Japan and experienced all sorts of extreme weather conditions such as typhoons, rainy season, extreme summer humidity, as well as frequent earthquakes and noticed very intense variations of topography and flora even within small geographic areas, local housing started to make much more sense to me. Therefore I decided to summarize several environmental factors (colored boxes on the diagram below) and their relationships to recurrent features of traditional Japanese housing. For convenience I have grouped its most closely related features into “concepts”. The arrows show their inter-relationships, which can be quite confusing, but for now we just need them to see that all the features and concepts cannot be studied separately - they form a very meaningful whole.

This diagram is my own creation, make sure to refer to my website if you use it :)

Of course, the act of subdividing abstract ideas into categories is an oversimplification of reality, but it is one of the most efficient methods to start learning something new. Let's begin from a small fragment of the diagram today: concept number 1, minimalist mentality. This is arguably the most familiar visual aspect of Japanese architecture to the Western readers, so it's a great place to start. Let's go!

Fig.1 Gale, S. J., ‘Orientation’, Process Architecture, no. 25, 1981, pp. 37

Japanese Islands are situated in the middle of the Pacific high-pressure zone, affected by the East Asian monsoon belt. Because of this peculiar location there are six seasons: four temperate ones as in Europe, plus the rainy and typhoon seasons, creating a distinct rhythm that affects people’s lifestyles much more than it could be perceived on a continent. The most difficult periods to survive through and maintain buildings are certainly the rainy season in June and the subsequent high humidity and heat of summertime that extends until late September, creating ideal conditions for insects and mold development. The mugginess of the air is so heavy that even women’s long hair can mildew if not properly dried, which is unheard of in continental climatic zones of European countries. The growth of various types of micro-fungi is further facilitated by relatively mild winters with above zero temperatures and can be considered a crucial problem for traditional Japanese housing.

The first settlements were established in the central mountain areas of Honshu island in the early Jomon period (5000 – 2500 BC), when there was a general climatic warming trend. The dwellings took the form of pit huts with wooden frameworks of poles fixed in the ground, crossed at the top and covered with grass, which provided adequate protection from mountain weather. Sunk in the ground and not allowing many devices for ventilation, they always had their entrances oriented to the southeast, from where most of the summer winds come [fig.1]. Heavy grass roofs allowed rainwater to be collected in storage jars for later use, and were changed seasonally to prevent deterioration since the material was easily accessible.

In the late Jomon period (1500 – 1000 BC) a colder climate and increased rainfall forced migration towards the warmer eastern coastal areas of Honshu island, and in the Yayoi period (300 BC – 300 AD) the pit dwellings with a single enclosed space dug into the earth evolved into elevated houses on posts with a central enclosed plaster-walled room, surrounded by open rooms with movable partitions on the perimeter. This, most certainly, was not only a result of natural evolution caused by environmental changes but also an influence from the mainland that became especially apparent with the introduction of rice cultivation to the western part of Japan around 400 BC. Raised-floor granaries with straw roofs became necessary to protect the grain from rodents and humidity, but later their structure was adopted for dwellings of richer families because of its effectiveness against the problem of mold. The scissored pole crossings and horizontal beams for the roof from Neolithic huts, however, continued to be used as a decoration. Those, for example, can be seen in Ise and Izumo shrines [fig.2].

Fig.2: Uchiyama, J. et al., I’nvestigating Neolithization of Cultural Landscapes in East Asia: The NEOMAP Project’, Journal of World Prehistory, 2014, pp.197-223. Fig. 3: by Watanabe, Y. from Watanabe, Y., Ise Jingu, Tokyo, Heibon-sha, 1973.

Essays in Iddleness, an ancient document written by a Japanese monk around 1330 AD, contains a saying that a house should be built with consideration for the summer rather than the winter, because the human body can bear the difficulties of cold with the aid of clothing and fireplaces, while rain and humid heat can only be dealt with by proper construction having a massive roof and allowing full ventilation of the insides to prevent the “sick house syndrome” caused by rotting infills and building's structure. This issue also discourages the use of paints and varnishes as well as covering of the house elements with any waterproof materials, leaving all structure open to visual inspection of any possible deterioration and creating a raw, natural appearance. Apart from religious influences, the omnipresent problem of material decay caused by heat and humidity can be another reason for the strict observance of cleanliness and the obsession with newness in Japanese culture: keeping the interiors free of bulky furniture was a great way to control the condition of all surfaces and corners, while rebuilding houses or their parts every 15 to 20 years was the best way to get rid of the accumulated mold and insect damage. The religious tradition of moving and rebuilding the capital city after the emperor’s death seems to have similar hidden practical implications. Ise Shrine [fig.3], designed in shinmei-zukuri style, recalling Yayoi elevated granaries [fig.2], is carefully dismantled every twenty years and rebuilt with the new materials on an adjacent site in accordance with Shinto’s cyclical understanding of nature, making the building both forever new and forever original [fig.4].

Fig.4: Photo by Kyodo, 2013, Japan Times

In the next post I will continue explaining the concept diagram and write about materials and techniques. Don't miss it, subscribe to my Telegram channel!


PS. For citations from this page please use this:

Knoroz, T., Dissecting the Danchi: The largest Japanese postwar mass housing experiment through state policies, professional discourse, social impacts, resident appropriation and future scenarios, MA diss., Politecnico di Milano, 2020