Creative Commons License/Flickr/Howard Freeman

In a fabled tale from 16th-century Japan, a servant of samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi was preparing for a tea ceremony when he accidentally dropped and broke one of his master’s favorite tea bowls. Before Hideyoshi could punish the attendant, the tea master Yusai Hosokawa intervened. Hosokawa glued the bowl's pieces back together with gold-gilded lacquer and returned the pottery to the warlord. This gesture of compassion touched Hideyoshi, and news of the act inspired a new restorative art form in Japanese ceramics.

Kintsugi, a term derived from kin (gold) and tsugi (reconnect), is a method of repairing tea ware with urushi lacquer and metallic powder or gilding. Kintsugi does more than just restore an object, for it is said that the renewed version is even more attractive and valuable than the original. In her new book Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend (Herbert Press), Bonnie Kemske explores the practice’s literal and metaphorical capacity to remake objects in a way that elevates their worth at the same time as it celebrates past traumas. She contrasts this approach with the Western tendency to make things “as good as new,” much like the concept of resilience. Instead, kintsugi is a process of celebratory rebirth that makes objects “better than new,” akin to the essayist Nissim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.

In recent years, kintsugi has found a following among artists in various disciplines, including painting and jewelry design (the practice even made an appearance in the movie The Rise of Skywalker). The art form has also been embraced as a method of improving mental and physical well-being. “Kintsugi is the art of exalting past injuries,” writes author Céline Santini in Kintsugi: Finding Strength in Imperfection (Andrews McMeel Publishing). “The Way of Kintsugi can be understood as a kind of art therapy, inviting you to transcend your struggles and transform your personal hardships into gold.”

Clearly this celebrated restoration approach has broad applicability in creative practice. As artist Makoto Fujimura writes, “Every art recognizes that the work must be broken to be made new again.” So what about architecture?

The constructed world is full of cracks. The sheer quantity of materials employed in buildings and infrastructure means that fracturing due to geophysical and atmospheric forces is an inevitable and frequent occurrence. In fact, we plan for cracks as a regular part of the design process. Control joints and expansion joints are placed in otherwise seamless expanses of concrete or brick, for example, essentially predetermining the locations of fissures and effectively concealing them in plain sight. Architects tend to think that cracks are both unsightly and unsettling. Ruptures in building materials provide visible evidence of failure—something the construction industry is understandably keen to avoid.

Kintsugi art by Rachel Sussman

Victor Solomon's Kintsugi basketball court in Los Angeles

Some artists have applied the Way of Kintsugi to built surfaces. For example, Rachel Sussman fills crevices in deteriorating asphalt paving with gold paint. Victor Solomon’s Kintsugi Court applies the art form to decaying outdoor basketball court surfaces. Japanese firm Studio Tank features gold powder-infused epoxy resin applied to cracks in a Kyoto apartment to similar effect. Although these works are visually striking and thought-provoking, the building industry is not likely to adopt this approach as a standard application.

Still, kintsugi does offer significant benefits as a formal and spatial practice. Buildings are continually renovated and transformed over their useful lives, although the evidence of this change is not always obvious. The reoccupation of a deteriorating edifice with a new program and material language—a juxtaposition that creates an intentional contrast—can be a potent design strategy. This approach is akin to a kintsugi variant called yobitsugi, meaning calling together, whereby new pieces are inserted to remake a broken vessel. Whereas the original kintsugi approach is to reunite all the original pieces, yobitsugi is employed when not all the original parts are available, creating a mixed patchwork of new and old pieces.

There are many examples of yobitsugi in architecture, including the Menokin Glass House Project designed by Machado Silvetti Architects. In reconstructing this historic house in Warsaw, Va., the firm did not intend to restore it to its original condition. Rather, missing portions of the structure and façade are being replaced with new materials, and a large expanse of structural glass will wrap one corner of the building.

A Machado Silvetti rendering for the Menokin Glass House

The Mill City Museum
Flickr/Creative Commons License/John J. Schroeder The Mill City Museum

Or consider the Mill City Museum along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, a project by MSR Design. When the Washburn A Mill exploded in a 1991 conflagration, the Minnesota Historical Society made the bold decision to house a new museum and educational center within the mill’s remains. MSR Design Principal Tom Meyer, FAIA, developed a scheme to insert a new glass and steel structure onto the site while retaining many of the original mill’s existing features—including its damaged limestone walls.

Other examples include David Closes’s renewed Convent de Sant Francesc in Santpedor, Spain; Koko Architects’ Fahle House in Tallinn, Estonia; and Project Orange’s 192 Shoreham Street building in Sheffield, England. Although high-contrast old-and-new juxtapositions are common in the built environment, the yobitsugi method of respectfully rebuilding missing elements with new materials deserves further exploration.

So does kintsugi, which offers an inspirational approach to restoring damaged artifacts and edifices such that they become even stronger and more vibrant than before. Like Hosokawa’s generous gesture, kintsugi moves us because it is inherently about respect. Only things we care about are worthy of the time and careful attention that the art form entails, and evidence of this care becomes an inherent part of the reborn version. As one of civilization’s most significant physical legacies, architecture is certainly a worthy platform for demonstrating such respect.