What Is Japanese Architecture?

Japanese architecture

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When it comes to architecture that may as well be considered fine art, Japanese architecture may as well be a Monet. Japanese architecture has an extensive history and a very distinct aesthetic that is recognizable even if you know nothing about architecture.

A lot of Japanese architecture roots itself in religion, finding inspiration in beliefs drawn from Shinto and Buddhism. With both religions based in nature and spiritualism, much of Japanese architecture centers on the outside world and the spiritual realm beyond human existence.

What we now identify as Japanese architecture can be traced back all the way to the 7th century, but it's gone through many evolutions over time.

Key Elements of Japanese Architecture

Japanese architecture is centered on religion, and because of that, many of the most important Japanese buildings were shrines. These structures showcased the most elaborate and intricate architecture, focused on prayer and worship.

Japanese sliding door
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Wood has traditionally been the most popular material in Japanese architecture, so many structures feature this natural material. Moveable screens called shoji that help to connect the space to the outdoors are also widely used in Japanese architecture. Because glass isn't as commonly utilized throughout the home, these are typically made from paper to allow natural light to come through.

Additionally, most Japanese structures will have a wooden veranda (called an engawa) that runs around the outside of the house, another element that connects the home to the natural world. Most also have a genkan, or a lower level to remove shoes before you enter. This is almost like a mudroom in Western architecture, and is traditionally where guests are greeted when they come in.

Another key element of most Japanese homes is tatami floors. These mats are made of rice straw, and are the center of many Japanese customs. They are soft underfoot but durable for longtime use.

Japanese table
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The History of Japanese Architecture

The history of Japanese architecture is vast and extensive, but we'll cover the key components. As stated earlier, what we now think of as traditional Japanese architecture dates back all the way to the 7th century. Heavily influenced by Chinese and Korean architecture, this is around the time that Japanese architecture began to take on its own distinctive look and feel, and was largely dominated by wooden structures.

The Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries, is another unique era of Japanese architecture. This is when machiya (similar to townhouses) began to become more and more popular. A machiya typically sat on a deep plot and was adored with tiles and exposed timbers. Following this period, Japanese architecture began to resemble Western architecture.

By the late 19th century, Western-style interiors became more prominent across Japan. Some structures fused Japanese and Western styles together, with traditional coffered ceilings paired with parquet floor and delicate chandeliers. Until the early 20th century, most Japanese people still lived in traditional dwellings, but today much of Japanese architecture resembles that of the west, with modern amenities and materials.

Japanese architecture windows
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Materials Used in Japanese Architecture

One of the most traditional materials seen in Japanese architecture is wood. The use of wood dates back all the way to the 7th century; it was cheaper than stone and originated in Japan. It was often left unpainted to allow the natural beauty of the grain to shine through. Cedar was popular due to its beautiful grain, while pine was often used to provide structure. Cypress is a common material seen in roofing.

By the late 19th century, stone and cement became more popular in residential structures and homes. Even so, wood is still a commonly used material because it helps to ground the building and give it that zen connection to the outdoors.

Facts About Japanese Architects

Three famous contemporary Japanese architects you may have heard of include Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki and Kengo Kuma.

Tadao Ando is considered one of the godfathers of contemporary Japanese architecture and has won many prestigious awards. He has worked with famed western architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and focuses on minimalist aesthetics.

Kengo Kuma is another architect known for transforming contemporary Japanese architecture. His designs are deeply rooted in traditional Japanese styles, and his use of wood is key to his designs. Many of his structures focus on the use of light and the presence of nature.

Japanese architecture has a rich history that's deeply rooted in nature and religion. While many elements of Japanese architecture are easily recognizable, it's always evolving and changing—just like western architecture.