On Sunday, I analyzed Edo-era Japanese culture through a sustainability lens. Today, I use the Japanese house as an example of the more enlightened approach to nature embodied in Japanese values. With local materials and a keen spiritual eye, Japanese carpenters (there was no equivalent of the modern architect) created spaces that were comfortable, elegant, and connected to their surroundings in a way contemporary dwellings have only begun hint at.
Like most preindustrial structures, the Japanese home was intimately connected with its location: timber construction made use of Japan’s most abundant renewable resource, while wide overhangs and open walls were a response to the climate of heavy summer rains and mild winters. The traditional layout of buildings on a site maximized solar access, with the main building on the north side of the lot, covered walkways on the east and west sides, and a garden in the center.
Rather than our familiar inside/outside split, Japanese homes employed a continuum of spaces that brought the outside world in. The most private room, the hibachi, was the smallest and had the most constant temperature. The zashiki, meanwhile, was used as a reception area, and had sliding panels that opened up to the garden in nice weather. The zashiki, in turn, was surrounded by the engawa, a wide verandah that ran the perimeter of the garden.
A 21st-century American walking into an Edo-period home might wonder when its residents were going to move in – there was next to nothing in them. Tatami mats served as floor, bed and chair, and furniture was limited to a low table for eating and the occasional storage chest. As for the kitchen? Pretty much just a below-floor sink.
Still, there’s something strangely cofortable in the lack of couches. Maybe it’s just me, but these homes seem to have inner harmony and elegance that make them seem cozy despite their near-ascetic aesthetic. In the absence of flashy man-made objects, a funny thing happens: the more subtle beauty of nature begins to shine through. With their unadorned wood columns, grid of tatami mats, and sliding paper walls, traditional Japanese homes reacted to their environment with an awe and humility that’s sorely lacking in even the greenest architecture today. Maybe I should start checking freecycle for tatami mats…