Japanese architecture

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Hondo at Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto
Built in 1633

Japanese architecture (日本建築, Nihon kenchiku) has a long history similar to that of other aspects of Japanese culture, characterized by periods of interaction with foreign influences interspersed with long periods of isolation during which unique traits developed. Buildings of the Jomon and Yayoi periods were mostly agricultural residences, with larger buildings and tombs appearing as an aristocracy developed. Wooden buildings from the Asuka period, preserved in Horyuji Temple, were built in the style of Chinese worship halls. Japanese buildings continued to follow the Chinese style of horizontal buildings with heavy tile roofs supported by timber frames, but developed unique characteristics reflecting Buddhist values. During the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, the samurai expanded the compounds of the aristocracy to include living quarters for military personnel. Eventually, (daimyo) warlords built castles from which to defend their domains. During the Tokugawa era, when there were no military conflicts, many daimyo built large residences and parks in the city of Edo for their families.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan began to build European-style buildings. The widespread destruction of Japanese cities during World War II cleared the way for the construction of large numbers of steel-framed, box-shaped utilitarian buildings, which provoked an adverse reaction during the 1970s, leading to a variety of new styles and architectural treatments incorporating traditional elements into modern designs. Japan’s best-known modern architects include Kenzo Tange, Maekawa Kunio, Fumihiko Maki, Isozaki Arata, and Tadao Ando. Japanese architecture has influenced Western architecture with its emphasis on simplicity, horizontal lines, and flexible spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright was strongly influenced by Japanese spatial arrangements and the concept of interpenetrating exterior and interior space, long achieved in Japan by using walls made of sliding doors that opened onto covered verandas and gardens.


Prehistoric period (Jomon, Yayoi, and prior cultures)

There are no extant examples of prehistoric architecture, and the oldest Japanese texts, such as Kojiki and Nihonshoki hardly mention architecture. Research and excavation has revealed that houses of this period had thatched roofs and dirt floors. Houses in regions with high temperatures and high humidity had wooden floors. With the spread of rice cultivation from China, communities became increasingly larger and more complex, and large-scale buildings, either residences for the local ruling family or rice storage houses, are found at the Sannai-Maruyama site (earlier than the second century B.C.E.) in Aomori and the Yoshinogari site in Saga (earlier than the third century B.C.E.).

After the third century, a centralized administrative system developed and many keyhole-shaped Kofun (tombs) were built in Osaka and Nara for the aristocracy. Among many examples in Nara and Osaka, the most notable is Daisen-kofun, designated as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku. This kofun is approximately 486 by 305 meters (1,594.5 by 1,000 feet), rising to a height of 35 meters (115 feet).

Asuka and Nara architecture

The earliest structures still extant in Japan, and the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world, are found at Hōryū-ji (Hōryū temple) to the southwest of Nara. They serve as the core examples of architecture from the Asuka period. First built in the early seventh century as the private temple of Crown Prince Shotoku, Hōryū-ji consists of 41 separate buildings; the most important ones, the main worship hall, or Kondo (Golden Hall), and Goju-no-to (Five-story Pagoda), stand in the center of an open area surrounded by a roofed cloister. The Kondo, in the style of Chinese worship halls, is a two-story structure of post-and-beam construction, capped by an irimoya, or hipped-gabled roof of ceramic tiles.

Temple building in the eighth century was focused around the Tōdaiji in Nara. Constructed as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the provinces, the Tōdaiji is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan. Appropriately, the 16.2 meter (53 feet) Buddha (completed in 752) enshrined in the main hall, or Daibutsuden, is a Rushana Buddha, the figure that represents the essence of Buddhahood, just as the Tōdai-ji represented the center for imperially sponsored Buddhism and its dissemination throughout Japan. Only a few fragments of the original statue survive, and the present hall and central Buddha are reconstructions from the Edo period.

Clustered around the Daibutsuden on a gently sloping hillside are a number of secondary halls: The Hokkedo (Lotus Sutra Hall), with its principal image, the Fukukenjaku Kannon (the most popular bodhisattva), crafted of dry lacquer (cloth dipped in lacquer and shaped over a wooden armature); the Kaidanin (Ordination Hall) with its magnificent clay statues of the Four Guardian Kings; and the storehouse, called the Shosoin. This last structure is of great importance because in it are stored the utensils that were used in the temple's dedication ceremony in 752, the eye-opening ritual for the Rushana image, as well as government documents and many secular objects owned by the imperial family.

Heian period

In reaction to the growing wealth and power of organized Buddhism in Nara, the priest Kūkai (best known by his posthumous title Kobo Daishi, 774-835) journeyed to China to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of Shingon worship are the various mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe which influenced temple design. Japanese Buddhist architecture also adopted the stupa in its Chinese form as a pagoda.

The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary.

In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different. The Amida hall, blending the secular with the religious, houses one or more Buddha images within a structure resembling the mansions of the nobility.

The Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byodoin, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the best example of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jocho, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raigo (Descent of the Amida Buddha) paintings on the wooden doors of the Ho-o-do, an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.


Palatial or aristocratic mansions called shindenzukuri (寝殿造 or 寝殿造り , shinden style) were built in Heian-kyō (平安京, today's Kyoto) during the Heian period (784-1185), especially in tenth century Japan. The main characteristic of the shindenzukuri was the special symmetry of the group of buildings and the undeveloped space between them. A mansion was usually set on a one chō (町, 120 meters, 394 feet) square of ground. The main building, the shinden was on the central north-south axis and faced south onto an open courtyard. Two subsidiary buildings, tainoya (對屋), were built to the right and left of the shinden, both running east-west. The tainoya and the shinden were connected by two corridors, called sukiwatadono (透渡殿) and watadono (渡殿). A chūmonrō (中門廊, central gate corridor) at the half way points of the two corridors, led to a south courtyard, where many ceremonies were performed. From the watadono, narrow corridors extended south and ended in tsuridono, or small pavilions arranged in a U-shape around the courtyard. Wealthier aristocrats constructed more buildings behind the shinden and tainoya. Officers and guards lived by the east gates.[1]

The main room of the shinden, called the moya, was surrounded with a secondary roofed hisashi, or veranda. The moya was one big space partitioned by portable screens (byobu). Guests and residents of the house were seated on mats, and alcoves and gardens were designed to be viewed from a seated position. In front of the moya across the courtyard was a pond garden. Water ran from a stream (yarimizu 遣水) into a large pond to the south of the courtyard, which had islets and bridges combined with mountain shapes, trees, and rocks to create a feeling of being in the land of the Amidah Buddha.[2]

There are no remaining original examples of Shindenzukuri-style homes, but the same style and design can be found in the Kyoto Imperial Palace (Heian Palace), the Byōdō-in's Phoenix Hall, and Hojoji (Hojo Temple).

Shindenzukuri later developed into shoinzukuri and sukiyazukuri (数奇屋造 detached teahouse type architecture).[3]

Kamakura and Muromachi period

After the Kamakura period, Japanese political power was controlled by armed samurai, such as Seiwa Genji. Their simple and sturdy values affected the architecture style, and many samurai houses are a mixture of shinden-zukuri and turrets or trenches. Bukezukuri (武家造 housing for a military family) were similar in structure to the shindenzukuri with a few changes to accommodate the differences between the aristocratic family and the military family. Each lord had to build extra space in order to keep his soldiers around him at all times, with their weapons readily available on the grounds in case of a sudden attack. To help guard against these attacks, a yagura (櫓), or tower, was built and torches were scattered around the gardens so they could be lit as quickly as possible. Extra rooms called hiro-bisashi ("spacious room under the eaves") were built, grouped around the shinden, to accommodate larger numbers of people living under one roof. The zeze (膳所, kitchen) was also enlarged to accommodate the extra staff required to cook large quantities of food for the soldiers and members of the household.

Unlike the Shindenzukuri, bukezukuri homes were simple and practical, eschewing the preoccupation with art and beauty that led to the downfall of the Heian court. Rooms characteristic of a bukezukuri home included a reception room (Dei, 出居), armory (Saiku jo, 細工所), a carriage house (Kuruma-yadori, 車宿), a room for ancestral tablets and other objects of Buddhist worship (Jibutsu do, 持佛堂), a study and a stable. The bukezukuri style changed throughout the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, and over times the number of rooms in a bukezukuri decreased as daimyo started to use castles.[4]

Many traditional buildings in Nara and Kyoto were damaged in the Genpei War (1180-1185), such as Kofukuji and Todaiji which were burned down by Taira no Shigehira of the Taira clan in 1180. Many of these temples and shrines were rebuilt in the Kamakura period by the Kamakura shogunate to consolidate the shogun's authority. This program was carried out on such an extensive scale that many of the temples and shrines built after the Kamakura period were influenced by this architectural style.

Another development of the Kamakura period was the tea ceremony and the tea house in which it was held. The purpose of the Zen ceremony was to spend time with friends who enjoy the arts, to cleanse the mind of the concerns of daily life, and to receive a bowl of tea served in a gracious and tasteful manner. The rustic style of a rural cottage was adopted for the tea house, emphasizing natural materials such as bark-covered logs and woven straw.

Azuchi-Momoyama period

Two new forms of architecture were developed in response to the militaristic climate of the times: The castle, a defensive structure built to house a feudal lord and his soldiers in times of trouble; and the shoin, a reception hall and private study area designed to reflect the relationships of lord and vassal within a feudal society. Himeji Castle (built in its present form 1609), popularly known as White Heron Castle, with its gracefully curving roofs and its complex of three subsidiary towers around the main tenshu (or keep), is one of the most beautiful structures of the Momoyama period. The Ohiroma of Nijo Castle (seventeenth century) in Kyoto is one of the classic examples of the shoin, with its tokonoma (alcove), shoin window (overlooking a carefully landscaped garden), and clearly differentiated areas for the Tokugawa lords and their vassals.

Edo period

Katsura Detached Palace, built in imitation of Prince Genji's palace, contains a cluster of shoin buildings that combine elements of classic Japanese architecture with innovative restatements. The whole complex is surrounded by a beautiful garden with paths for walking.

The city of Edo was repeatedly struck by fires, leading to the development of a simplified architecture that allowed for easy reconstruction. Because fires were most likely to spread during the dry winters, lumber was stockpiled in nearby towns prior to their onset. Once a fire that had broken out was extinguished, the lumber was sent to Edo, allowing many rows of houses to be quickly rebuilt. The Tokugawa shogunate initiated a policy of sankin kotai ("rotation of services") which required daimyo to maintain their wives and families permanently in the city of Edo, and allowed them to spend only every other year in their home domains. Many daimyo constructed large houses and parks in Edo for their guests' (as well as their own) enjoyment. Kōrakuen, a park from that period, still exists and is open to the public for afternoon walks.

Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods

In the years after 1867, when Emperor Meiji ascended the throne, Japan was exposed to Western culture and developed a political structure that required large buildings for public assemblies. By the early twentieth century, European architectural styles were merged with Japanese styles to produce notable buildings like the Tokyo Train Station and the National Diet Building that still exist today.

"Giyōfū architecture" (擬洋風建築 -kenchiku) or "pseudo-Western-style architecture") outwardly resembled Western-style construction but relied on traditional Japanese design techniques. It was most common in the early Meiji era (1868-1912) and disappeared as knowledge of Western techniques became more widespread.

In early 1920s, modernists and expressionists emerged and formed their own groups. Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura joined Le Corbusier's studio in France, came back to Japan in early 1930s, and designed several buildings. The influence of modernism is evident in many company and government buildings. In 1933, Bruno Taut, a prominent German architect and urban planner, fled to Japan, and his positive opinion of Japanese architecture (especially Katsura Imperial Villa) encouraged Japanese modernists.

Modern architecture

The need to rebuild Japan after World War II was a powerful stimulus to Japanese architecture, and within a short time, the cities were functioning again. Modern technology brought about a noticeable change in architectural styles, and the new cities built to replace the old ones looked very different. New steel and concrete structures contrasted strongly with traditional styles, and there was a great difference between the appearance of new, modern landmarks and more traditional residences and small businesses. After World War II, most buildings were no longer made of wood, which caught fire so easily during earthquakes and bombing raids, and internal steel construction was used instead. While important pre-war buildings, such as the Wako Department Store, Tokyo Station, Akasaka Palace, and the Bank of Japan had been designed along European classical lines, post-war buildings adopted an efficient "unadorned box" style. As a result of Japan's rapid economic growth from the 1950s until the 1980s, later redevelopment, and the destruction caused by earthquakes and wartime bombings, most of the architecture in the cities is from the period when the style of Brutalist Modern architecture was at its height. The appearance of modern Japanese cities is both the result of, and a catalyst in, the development of twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes towards architecture.

One of the greatest architectural challenges was creating tall buildings that were resistant to Japan's frequent earthquakes. Japanese engineers and architects pioneered techniques that are now used all over the world.

The 1991 completion of the postmodernist Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building marked a turning point in skyscraper design. It was followed by the Yokohama Landmark Tower, and in 1996, the Tokyo International Forum, which besides a unique design, sported a landscaped area outside where people could relax and chat. Roppongi Hills (六本木ヒルズ, Roppongi Hiruzu), one of Japan's largest integrated property developments, incorporating office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theaters, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheater, and a few parks, opened in 2003, in the Roppongi district of Minato, Tokyo.

Shiodome (汐留), an area located adjacent to Shimbashi and Ginza, near Tokyo Bay and the Hamarikyu Gardens, has recently been transformed into one of Tokyo's most modern and architecturally stunning areas. Its 13 skyscrapers house the headquarters of All Nippon Airways, Dentsu, Bandai Visual, Fujitsu, Nippon Television and Softbank, as well as numerous hotels and restaurants.

Despite this new trend in contemporary Japanese architecture, most suburban areas still exhibit cheap, uninspired designs.

Japanese expertise played a role in modern skyscraper design, because of its long familiarity with the cantilever principle to support the weight of heavy tiled temple roofs. Frank Lloyd Wright was strongly influenced by Japanese spatial arrangements and the concept of interpenetrating exterior and interior space, long achieved in Japan by opening up walls made of sliding doors. In the late twentieth century, Japanese style was commonly employed only in domestic and religious architecture. Cities sprouted modern skyscrapers, epitomized by Tokyo's crowded skyline, reflecting a total assimilation and transformation of modern Western forms.

Modern Japanese architects

The best-known modern Japanese architect is Kenzo Tange, whose National Gymnasiums (1964) for the Tokyo Olympics emphasizing the contrast and blending of pillars and walls, and with sweeping roofs reminiscent of the tomoe (an ancient whorl-shaped heraldic symbol) are dramatic statements of form and movement

The widespread urban planning and reconstruction necessitated by the devastation of World War II produced such major architects as Maekawa Kunio and Kenzo Tange. Maekawa, a student of world-famous architect Le Corbusier, produced thoroughly international, functional modern works. Tange, who worked at first for Maekawa, supported this concept early on, but later fell in line with postmodernism, culminating in projects such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and the Fuji TV Building. Both architects were notable for infusing Japanese aesthetic ideas into starkly contemporary buildings, returning to the spatial concepts and modular proportions of tatami (woven mats), using textures to enliven the ubiquitous ferroconcrete and steel, and integrating gardens and sculpture into their designs. Tange used the cantilever principle in a pillar and beam system reminiscent of ancient imperial palaces; the pillar—a hallmark of Japanese traditional monumental timber construction—became fundamental to his designs.

Fumihiko Maki advanced new city planning ideas based on the principle of layering or cocooning around an inner space (oku), a Japanese spatial concept that was adapted to urban needs. He also advocated the use of empty or open spaces (ma), a Japanese aesthetic principle reflecting Buddhist spatial ideas. Another quintessentially Japanese aesthetic concept was a basis for Maki designs, which focused on openings onto intimate garden views at ground level while cutting off sometimes-ugly skylines. A dominant 1970s architectural concept, the "metabolism" of convertibility, provided for changing the functions of parts of buildings according to use, and remains influential.

A major architect of the 1970s and 1980s was Isozaki Arata, originally a student and associate of Tange's, who also based his style on the Le Corbusier tradition and then turned his attention toward the further exploration of geometric shapes and cubic silhouettes. He synthesized Western high-technology building concepts with peculiarly Japanese spatial, functional, and decorative ideas to create a modern Japanese style. Isozaki's predilection for the cubic grid and trabeated pergola in large-scale architecture, for the semicircular vault in domestic-scale buildings, and for extended barrel vaulting in low, elongated buildings led to a number of striking variations. New Wave architects of the 1980s were influenced by his designs, either pushing to extend his balanced style, often into mannerism, or reacting against them.

A number of avant-garde experimental groups were encompassed in the New Wave of the late 1970s and the 1980s. They re-examined and modified the formal geometric structural ideas of modernism by introducing metaphysical concepts, producing some startling fantasy effects in architectural design. In contrast to these innovators, the experimental poetic minimalism of Tadao Ando embodied postmodernist concerns for a more balanced, humanistic approach than that of structural modernism's rigid formulations. Ando's buildings provided a variety of light sources, including extensive use of glass bricks and opening up spaces to the outside air. He adapted the inner courtyards of traditional Osaka houses to new urban architecture, using open stairways and bridges to lessen the sealed atmosphere of the standard city dwelling. His ideas became ubiquitous in the 1980s, when buildings were commonly planned around open courtyards or plazas, often with stepped and terraced spaces, pedestrian walkways, or bridges connecting building complexes. In 1989, Ando became the third Japanese to receive France's prix de l'académie d'architecture, an indication of the international strength of the major Japanese architects, all of whom produced important structures abroad during the 1980s. Japanese architects were not only skilled practitioners in the modern idiom but also enriched postmodern designs worldwide with innovative spatial perceptions, subtle surface texturing, unusual use of industrial materials, and a developed awareness of ecological and topographical problems.[5]

See also


  1. JAANUS, Shinden-zukuri 寝殿造 Japanese Architecture and Net Users System. Retrieved September 15, 2008.
  2. Shoin Maeda, "Shinden-zukuri no kokyu" (The Study of Shinden-zukuri), Nippon Kenchiku Zasshi (The Japan Architectural Journal).
  3. "The Phoenix Hall at Uji and the Symmetries of Replication Mimi Hall," Yiengpruksawan, The Art Bulletin, 77 (4): 647-672.
  4. P.D. Perkins, "The Rise and Decline of Bukezukuri," Monumenta Nipponica, 2 (2) (Jul., 1939): 596-608.
  5. Library of Congress, Visual Arts, Architecture, Country Studies, Japan. Retrieved September 15, 2008.


  • Bognár, Botond. The New Japanese Architecture. New York: Rizzoli. 1990. ISBN 9780847812257.
  • Goto, Osamu. History of Japanese Architecture (日本建築史). Kyoritsu Shuppan (共立出版), 2003.
  • Ishimoto, Yasuhiro, Walter Gropius, and Kenzō Tange. Katsura; Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1960.
  • Ross, Michael Franklin. Beyond Metabolism: The New Japanese Architecture. New York: Architectural Record Books, 1978. ISBN 9780070538931.
  • Young, David E., and Michiko Young. The Art of Japanese Architecture. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing. 2007. ISBN 9780804838382.

External links

All links retrieved September 15, 2008.


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