Wabi Sabi: The Subtle Beauty of Japanese Design

Have you ever looked at a piece of modern design and think, “Oh that’s Japanese.”? I certainly have. There is this constellation of qualities, arising from the materials used, the simplicity and refinement of the form and the connections a design has with the environment that immediately identify it as embodying a wabi sabi sensibility. Have a look at the following post-2000 architectural works and see for yourself.

SETRE CHAPEL (Ryuichi Ashizawa Architects, 2005)
The interior of the chapel. Mirror walls distribute light that streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows and transform the room into a spacious area.

Devoid of religious icons, this small chapel on the edge of a bay in the city of Kobe in Japan captures the natural qualities of its site and imbues the space inside with a sense of the sacred. Ashizawa, who was once a designer in the office of renowned architect, Tadao Ando, constructed the Setre Chapel on a parcel of land that enjoys dramatic views along Kobe’s Seto Sea coast. The box-like chapel features a mottled concrete façade that is reminiscent of clouds as it ascends slightly heavenward, suggesting that the church is more solidly rooted in sky than earth.

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GREAT BAMBOO WALL HOUSE (Kengo Kuma & Associates, 2002)

Architect Kengo Kuma is a skilled frame-maker. Not for picture frames though, but architecture that either frames the world around it or frames itself in mystical vignettes. He is one of the ten Asian architects tapped to design residences in a forest adjacent to the Great Wall of China. Kuma didn’t want to flatten the undulating terrain of his site. Using local materials as much as possible, his solution was to build a wall, echoing the Great Wall nearby, but made with elastic, thickets of bamboo that filter light, air and views. While the Great Wall was conceived as a barrier to separate the civilized from barbarians, Kuma’s “wall” serves to connect and inspire meditation of the world inside and out, with bamboo serving as a symbol of cultural exchange.

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WEAR HOUSE (Akitoshi Ukai, AUAU, 2010)
Interior of the WEAR HOUSE

Half an hour by train from Nagoya, where architect Akitohsi Ukai teaches at the university, is a small house for a young couple and their two small children. AUAU has made a name for itself for practical solutions on tight plots of land. The asymmetrical shape of the house is a direct response to the uneven site conditions. What distinguishes the building immediately is a matte white, fibre-reinforced plastic shell that wraps the house without being anchored to it – much like a garment. Along the front façade, a skewed arch leads up a steep step to the front door. In the rear, it rises around the top to cup the terrace – all these with just 67 square meters of floor space! Amazingly, this space is enough to contain a washroom, playroom, three bedrooms, an elevated loft, a study, a terrace, and a kitchen and dining area that overlooks the floor beneath it.

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ATELIER FOR A CALLIGRAPHER (Kazuyasu Kochi, Kochi Architects Studio, 2004)
Interior of the Atelier

Located in Yamanashi, this studio for a calligrapher is built on the foothills of the Yatsugatake Mountain and is fronted by rice fields. With a compact 62 square meter floor space, the house consists of two floors, a large atelier space and a small villa, as well as a roof terrace overlooking the surrounding rice fields. The slanted shape of the building tilts the roof to the north, allowing snow deposits to fall off the slanted eaves as the sunlight melts what would have been a heavy snow load.

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SHELL VILLA (Kotaro Ide, ARTechnic Architects, 2008)

This unique two-storey house in Karuizawa, Nagano is designed by ARTechnic and named Shell Villa. The house comprises two oval sections of concrete that encircle a fir tree. The architects envisaged the structure to look like a floating spacecraft and achieved this effect by raising the floor about 5 feet above the ground. Over time, however, as trees and underbrush grow around the house, the “spacecraft” began to look like a fallen trunk, as if time has broken it into pieces and hollowed them out. In a strange way, this new look has harmonized the design beautifully with the surrounding landscape.

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SENDAI MEDIATHEQUE (Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2001)

The tree-like nature of the metal columns of the Mediatheque are continuous with the natural surroundings, the trees that lined the street.

Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture is a mixed-program public facility that provides a venue for a variety of cultural activities, mainly related to art and moving images. Its range of facilities includes the Sendai Shimin Library, a Library for Audio-Visual Material, a Library for People with Vision and Hearing Impairments, and a Library for Educational Audio-Visual Material. The building changes along with the seasons, it’s openness reflective of the summer green and winter scene. The seven-storey building is designed by Toyo Ito in 1995 and completed in 2001. Ito won the Pritzker Architectural Prize in 2013.

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MEISO NO MORI MUNICIPAL FUNERAL HALL (Toyo Ito, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2006)

Nestled between a mountain and a small lake in Kakamigahara city, Gifu is the Meiso no Mori Municipal Funeral Hall. The building takes its name, Meiso no Mori, from the Japanese words meaning “forest of meditation.” With a curving roof that measures 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) thick, the crematorium echoes the forms of its mountainous surroundings. The troughs of the roof end in a dozen tapered columns, which also serve as drainage, while the crests allow bulbous spatial elements containing simple programmatic functions to form beneath them. 

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