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Learning from California Wabi Architecture

To one who awaits

Only the cherry's blossoming

I would show

Spring in the mountain village,

Its young herbs amid snow.

by Fujiwara Ietaka (1158-1237)

Wabi (侘び), the aesthetics of simple austere beauty is most fully developed in the way of tea to which the Japanese tea house architecture is integral. The tea house and tea house-inspired residential architecture are referred to as sukiya (数寄屋) in Japanese. Sukiya is typically quite expensive to build because of the high level specialty construction skills required and the extensive use of natural materials. Ironically sukiya does not seem to be so wabi in terms of construction cost nor status.

R.M. Schindler's Kings Road House interior view towards the garden

In California there is this early 20th century modernism house that has struck me as sukiya, despite being devoid of the elaborate Japanese sukiya style details and natural materials. It is so simply composed of boldly adopted modern industrial materials and construction methods, namely concrete, redwood dimensional lumbers, canvas, and glass. As such the house's construction cost was very modest.

Needless to say, this house was not designed as sukiya. Then what makes it so strongly evoke sukiya and the wabi aesthetics?

Its stripped-down austerity was inspired by the architect's own camping experience in one of the California national parks. The redwood lumbers were left uncoated showing the natural color, then wire-brushed to enhance the grain. Surfaces of the tilt-up concrete wall panels show the somewhat uneven wrinkled texture of the kraft paper or burlap onto which the concrete was poured.

Moreover, this house is spatially integrated into the gardens and hence has the superb ability to highlight the subtle beauty of the surrounding nature. For instance, from the inside of the house one could sense the wind outside through the rustling sound of bamboo leaves in the garden.

This house is commonly known as Kings Road House designed by R.M. Schindler. What this California house seems to suggest is that expensive Japanese sukiya details and use of natural materials are not essential to the wabi aesthetics. And by adopting modern industrial materials, construction methods, and even reclaimed materials, it seems possible to make sukiya architecture more affordable and more loyal to the concept of wabi.

In light of this, below are examples of modest materials used in Suki stairway building designed by YA in line with sukiya-like aesthetics.

Kyoto renovated building facade with unpainted vertical cedar siding.

rammed earth floor with a hand-chiseled granite stepping stone

Rammed-earth-like cement floor and a granite stepping stone in the porch. The floor's ingredients include earth. As such it quite resembles traditional rammed earth floor. Randomly sprinkled pea gravel enhances the garden-like aesthetic. The floor is durable enough to be used in vehicle parking pavement.

porch floor with rammed earth floor and granite stepping stones

Several old paving granite stones reclaimed from the city's tram track over 40 years ago were installed in the porch. Each of them is about 600mm by 400mm and 100mm thick. Its hand-chiseled quality suits the rammed-earth like cement floor.

ground floor street facade vertical cedar siding

This unpainted, knot-free, all-heartwood cedar wall siding with flat grain patterns was installed on the facade wall.

a checkered woven cedar veneer sheet called ichimatsu-ajiro in Japanese

This interior wall niche is decorated with a checkered woven cedar veneer sheet called ichimatsu-ajiro in Japanese. The frame is made of unpainted knot-free cedar lumber which adds subtle refreshing scent to the space.

wire brush-enhanced woodgrain paneling called  uzukuri in Japanese

The wirebrush-enhanced woodgrain paneling is one of the preserved interior items of the existing residential building. Called uzukuri in Japanese, it quietly stands out in natural light.

This interior material was one of the elements that defined the suki character of the existing building interiors, along with the woven reed sudare ceilings shown in below photos.Generally rental office spaces tend to lack personality.

By selectively preserving the existing uzukuri paneling & sudare ceilings, YA's design was able to incorporate a subtle yet distinctive suki character in the new boutique office building while meeting the budget requirement.

Sudare woven reed ceilings

Sudare woven reed ceilings

Sudare woven reed ceiling and a smooth peeled log header called migaki-maruta in Japanese

Sudare woven reed ceilings and a smooth peeled log header called migaki-maruta in Japanese.


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