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A Different Kind of Dimensioning Goes A Long Way

YA is based in Kyoto, a city with wealth of beautiful things that have transcend hundreds of years. As an architect we often wonder what makes architectural aesthetics last beyond generations and cultures.


Understandably the answer involves more than just well-proportioned dimensioning.


In this post we hope to share what appears to be a hint offered by Sukiya architecture whose aesthetic has been appreciated mainly by the cultured wealthy and the powerful since the16th century in Japan as well as peoples of many cultures outside Japan for over the past 150 years.

Japanese tea room Snno Rikyu
Tai-An tea house (1582)

With or without a space for tea ceremonies, the term Sukiya today refers to residential architecture whose aesthetic is in sync with the way of tea. This aesthetics of simple, austere yet elegant beauty is called Wabi or Wabi-Sabi. 1


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


These principles do not seem to 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—goodness—that is 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—which typically incorporates lower roofs— 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 seems to be the case to a certain extent in Japan.


Obviously one cannot create beautiful Sukiya architecture by just designing freely in any way one likes without learning much about it. On the other hand, Sukiya is generally considered to be architecture that is based on creative freedom, but not on prescribed design styles or rules.


That said, these principles are not necessarily intended to discourage new designs or innovations since their true essence is in the realm of moral dimensions so as to keep arbitrariness in check.


This seems to be evident, if we may expand our view outside Japan. Take, for example, Kings Road House in Los Angeles, an early California Modernism house built in 1922.


This Modernism house was designed orderly according to a module system and an innovate construction method that is radically simple and efficient. As such it does not seem to deviate from these principles. Needless to say, use of expensive traditional Sukiya materials and specialty log construction is absent. In spite of its radical unconventionality and absence of traditional Japanese construction details and materials, it presents 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 trees and plants on site.


Obviously Kings Road House's design was created in an environment free from pressures to follow the conventional Sukiya styles in Japan. We can speculate on the architect Schindler's exposure 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 that transcends generations and cultures, these principles may not be so much useful design directives as a self-evaluation tool to reach the moral dimensions where the designer's arbitrariness are kept in check.


In other words, our creative design freedom, when seeking excellence, can not exist outside the moral dimensions. That may be the bottom line of these principles.


Kings Road House by Schindler
Kings Road House (1922)

References

  • 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

  • Omote Senke Fushinan website http://www.omotesenke.jp/list2/list2-3/list2-3-1/


Notes

  1. Sabi today is often used to refer to a similar aesthetic concept as Wabi , but originates from the verb word Sabu which means withering or aging. Wabi originates from the verb Wabu which means getting disappointed, suffering, or declining.


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