Beneath the grain

Beneath the grain




Taking a step back from modern Tokyo and looking back to the development of Japanese architecture, a gradual change in styles can be identified.  From Classical to pre-modern Japan, over 1000 years of architectural development has converged to take final form the in the refined, idealistic style of Sukiya.  Influences from China, internal political strife and late enclosure from the word has created an extraordinary refined architectural process.  The residential style commonly associated with the traditional Edo house, is one based on the shoin and sukiya styles.  Originally for aristocratic homes, these features in the late Edo era were incorporated into more common wealthy families such as in merchant machiya.[1]


Architect Kengo Kuma speaks of wood “as a sufficiently beautiful” [2] material, as a structural system, requiring no covering with other materials.  He criticizes the culture of ornamentation and skin to show capitalistic wealth.  In contrast, Kuma praises the Japanese refinement of timber construction over thousands of years and the detailed characteristics which follow it.  Much of these features are referenced in the typical Sukiya and Shoin style traditional house.


The Shoin style developed during the classical prosperity of the Heian prior to the feudal system of the 12th century and time of war.  Many shoin style ideas are derived from earlier Chinese-style Buddhist architecture, however during this period in time, they started to form their own distinctive Japanese elements.  With the emergence of Zen Buddhism, simplicity and control became important design aesthetics and started to shift away from previous strict Chinese informed styles.


The ‘shoin’ is a name for the study room in a residential complex. Key features of this style include the design of the tokonama, chigaidama, chodaigame, slding shoji, fusuma and amado.  One of the more prominent deviations from earlier Chinese-style Buddhist architecture, is the treatment of the courtyard and garden in relation to the private quarters.  The walled-in gravelled courtyard near the entrance of the compound was moved toward the private residential areas and filled with a garden, with a stronger relation between study and living rooms to nature.  The arrangement of the building became more fluid, no longer following symmetry and simple veranda connections but through attaching smaller buildings onto the corners of previous ones to create a zigzag effect.[3]


The warring states period in Japan during the medieval period, restricted the development of architectural styles, however in the final years of this war  in the Azuchi–Momoyama the refinement of styles continued.  Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587 employed the tea master Sen no Rikyū to   design what is considered to be the first example of sukiya-zukuri architecture, known as the Coloured Shoin.[4]

This strong bond between the building, path and garden becomes at its most elaborate in the sukiya style.  In a sense, since the introduction of Chinese style architecture in the 6th century, the refinement of Japanese architecture came to its epitome in the Edo period.  After this point, the industrialisation and implementation of Western styles halted the development of this style.   The period of closed borders (sakoku) although seen as a period of strict social order, control and restriction of wealth by the rigid feudal Japanese military government, it also encouraged the refinement of all Japanese arts and craft.


The sukiya started to implement ideas from the previous shoin style in aristocratic residential complexes not just formal buildings.  The framing of views toward to elaborate gardens and the zigzagging verandas take particular emphasis.  In relation to the structure, it became lighter, placing emphasis on the detailing of materials such as in the fusuama and engawa.[5]






[1]  Young, M. K., & Young, D. (2004).
[2]  Locher, M., Kuma, K., & Simmons, B. (2010). Traditional Japanese architecture: An exploration of elements and forms.
[3]  Locher, M., Kuma, K., & Simmons, B. (2010).
[4]  Itoh, T. (1973). The classic tradition in Japanese architecture: Modern versions of the sukiya style
[5]  Locher, M., Kuma, K., & Simmons, B. (2010).

1 thought on “Beneath the grain”

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