Japanese architecture has long been admired for its high level of craft, precision, and simplicity. The contemporary Japanese architectural vanguard has the respect of the international design community; firms like SANAA, Toyo Ito & Associates, and Sou Fujimoto Architects continue to receive significant attention in such acclaimed exhibitions as “A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond," now at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. While these and other Japanese firms design structures almost exclusively out of concrete and steel, wood was the dominant construction material in Japan for centuries. Brisk industrialization and diminishing timber resources spurred the shift away from wood during the 20th century. Although many qualities of traditional Japanese architecture carry forward in current designs, a closer look at historical construction practices reveals how much has been lost.
One of the best venues for such an assessment is the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, founded in Kobe, Japan, in 1984. The museum houses more than 32,000 items related to traditional architecture and construction, including tools, models, documents, and scale building components, and it enables visitors to gain hands-on knowledge of past building materials and methods. To someone with limited knowledge of building design and construction, the country’s hand-built wooden temples, residences, and tearooms may appear beautiful yet obsolete in their conveyance of seemingly antiquated practices. Yet the deeper analysis afforded by the museum divulges a reality of misconceptions, paradoxes, and regressions in Japan’s architectural trajectory.
A traditional sukiya-style teahouse appears remarkably simple, composed of a straightforward wood post-and-beam structure with mud-plaster walls and a few small openings. Yet this intentionally humble structure, which dates back to the late-16th century, is anything but simple. The museum includes a full-scale tearoom in which finish materials are purposefully absent, allowing viewers to appreciate the intricacies of its varied framing and apertures. The inhabitable pavilion and accompanying material samples reveal two surprises: the intrinsic complexity of the sukiya’s structure and the diversity of material approaches. In the example of the structure on display, intersections between unfinished cypress framing elements conceal intricate joinery strategies. However, few nails or other metal fasteners are used—a fact that is not readily apparent. Additional displays feature a broad material palette of wood species and bamboo, as well as earthen wall treatments and sliding screens. A standard practice in teahouse design is the subtle use of variegated materials and construction techniques to make a tiny space seem more expansive. This deception, which is typically too understated for conscious appreciation, is also laid bare in the exhibit.
The use of modern engineered lumber exemplifies the architect's will to eradicate all material unpredictability and inconsistency. Material behavior in traditional Japanese architecture also appears to be tightly managed. Most historical buildings exhibit exacting construction standards with precisely repeating elements, and many centuries-old structures remain in good condition today. Certainly, the shokunin, or craftsmen, demonstrate expert control over the behavior of wood and other materials. However, their approach is demonstrably different from that of industrial methods. Explains master carpenter Nishioka Tsunekazu in Master Carpenters in Japan, China, and Korea (Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, 2014), “When selecting the lumber, it is not uniformity but rather individuality of trees that is important.”
Rather than eradicate anisotropy and other material variations—such as in homogeneous plywood, glulam, and other contemporary wood composite materials—Japanese carpenters have sought to take advantage of these particular traits. Not only do they work with wood’s inherent grain by strategically orienting structural members to create strong connections and counteract sag, but they also use lumber’s original circumstances to their advantage. For example, shokunin can manage material changes by utilizing wood in the same orientation as its living state—for example, a south-facing tree will be used on the south side of a building. Furthermore, they design details that anticipate wood’s inevitable transformation over centuries, compensating for shrinkage and deflection.
Such refinement reveals profound material expertise and remarkable technological sophistication. A common assumption is that these historic structures are physically inferior to modern wood, concrete, and steel constructions, if not technically obsolete altogether. Yet this is, arguably, incorrect. First, modern materials are often inferior in quality. The performance of an industrially engineered timber column pales in comparison to that of a single log of Hinoki cypress—a standard structural material in Japanese temples and shrines that represents the highest grade of lumber. Second, modern manufacturing methods are often less rigorous than historical ones. For example, traditional carpentry tools exhibit the dual characteristics of resiliency and rigidity found in Japanese swords and are far superior to today’s machine-manufactured tools. In addition, pre-modern Japanese architecture commonly employed strategies of structural prefabrication and design for disassembly in ways that contemporary practice has still not achieved. One of the museum’s exhibits displays a roof assembly made from interlocking wood members that could be shop-tested for fit before on-site construction. The sequence-based framing system also anticipated the possibility of readily replacing damaged members with minimal waste.
Reviving Lost Material Wisdom
The Takenaka Museum’s artful elucidation of Japanese wood construction’s many desirable traits raises the question of contemporary architecture’s material decline. The point is not that we should mimic the style or features of historic buildings today, but that we should challenge the relative expedience and inferior quality of contemporary material practices. Certainly, resource mismanagement represents a critical problem. Explains Azby Brown in The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Craft (Tuttle, 2013): “Japan’s once-extensive Hinoki forests have largely been cut down, the toll being especially heavy during the mid-20th century war effort. Today, it is among the most costly of woods.” Automation is another factor, although machine fabrication is not intrinsically worse than hand-made craft.
With the recent revival of interest in wood structures, the Takenaka Museum offers inspiration for future timber-based construction methods. I am not suggesting that today’s building industry emulate the shokunin’s approaches exactly, but rather that contemporary construction practices would benefit from a deeper appreciation of material origins, deployment, and long-term behaviors. Functioning as a catalyst for such thinking, the museum serves not only as an important venue for disseminating knowledge about Japan’s built heritage but also as a platform for developing more thoughtful next-generation material practices.