What makes architectural aesthetics last beyond generations and cultures? Understandably the answer involves more than just well-proportioned dimensioning.
This post will discuss what appears to be a hint offered by Sukiya architecture whose aesthetic has been appreciated by the cultured wealthy and powerful since the16th century in Japan and for over the past 150 years by peoples of many cultures outside Japan.
The term Sukiya refers to architecture whose aesthetic is in sync with the way of tea. This aesthetics of simple austere yet elegant beauty is called Wabi or Wabi-suki.
According to Masao Nakamura, a notable scholar on the Japanese tea house architecture, the essential core architectural aesthetic principles of Sukiya or a tea house are described in a historic text titled Juko Jo-oh Jidai no Sho as follows:
Zashiki no yohsu
Ifuh ni naku
Kekkoh ni naku
Sasuga ni tegiwa yoku
Me ni tatanu yoh yoshi
Here is a translation by YA.
The appearance of a tea house should
avoid showy individualistic expression
not be grandiose
yet be refined
show humility, but not competitiveness
As you see, these principles do not prescribe specific design, but more importantly, introduce the moral dimensions that point to goodness which transcends subjective tastes and trends. In other words, these principles align our creative desires to the higher objective value shared with people of various generations and cultures.
Although the words "moral dimensions" cannot be interpreted so literally, one might wonder how these principles would manifest in the actual building. In typical Sukiya, they are evident in the lower building height and less imposing roof design since those two are the main factors that largely characterize the building's appearance.
You might also wonder if these aesthetic principles, especially the combination of "avoid showy individualistic expressions" and "be refined" could lead us to conservatism, or even worse, repetitions of precedents and adherence to styles. That's a valid concern and in fact seems to be the case to a certain extent in Japan.
But in YA's view, these principles are not necessarily intended to discourage new designs or innovations since their true essence is in the realm of moral dimensions and values. In YA's observation this is evident in, for instance, Kings Road House in Los Angeles, an early California Modernism house built in 1922.
This Modernism house does not deviate from these principles. Arguably it is even more truthful to the principles bacause of its detachment from grandiose use of expensive traditional Sukiya materials and specialty construction that only the wealthy and powerful can afford. In spite of its radical unconventionality, it has strong Sukiya-like (or Wabi) aesthetic characteristics as previously discussed in this blog. Most notably it is only 8 feet 8 inches (2640mm) tall, low enough to be almost entirely hidden by the on-site trees and plants.
It should be noted that Kings Road House's design was created in an environment free from pressure to follow the conventional Sukiya styles in Japan. The architect Schindler had been probably exposed to Wabi aesthetics through his prior collaboration with F. L. Wright. But it is unlikely that Schindler was aware of these 500-year old aesthetic principles.
In conclusion, if we are to create architectural aesthetics appreciated beyond generations and cultures, these principles may be more helpful as a self-evaluation tool to reach the crucial moral dimensions than as some directive words.
中村昌生 Nakamura, M. (1999) 古典に学ぶ茶室の設計 [Tea Room Design: Learning from Classics], Tokyo: Xknowledge