Traditional Japanese Architecture: History & Design

Instructor: Stephen Taul

Stephen has master's degrees in both architecture and city planning and has taught architecture design studios.

Explore the history of traditional Japanese architecture to discover how specific design elements, presently found around the world, became recognizable as the distinctly Japanese aesthetic.

Background on Japanese Architecture

Traditional Japanese Architecture definitely has a distinct character and aesthetic. You may be familiar with the gently sloping roofs, the extensive use of wood, and the elegant simplicity. But what were the origins of these design elements, anyway? And how did they evolve and why has Japanese design emerged as its own unique style? That's what we'll be looking at today in this lesson!

Prior to the 1st century B.C.E., Japanese homes looked quite similar to homes built all across the world. Wooden houses featuring thatched roofs and earthen floors were clustered in villages surrounded by agricultural land. Early shrine buildings before the 6th century were often similar to ancient storehouses or residences. Until the 7th century C.E., architects in Japan were heavily influenced by other Asian nations and so a distinct style wasn't evident yet. However, what did emerge was reliance on wood as a primary building material because of the lack of stone due to volcanic activity and also wood's resistance to earthquakes.

Grain Storehouse from the 1st Century BCE
1st Century Japan

Buddhist Temple Design

The most significant building type for Japanese architects was the temple especially during the Asuka and Nara periods, which were eras during which Buddhism was introduced to the country. Their unique and recognizable design elements began to be used in domestic and secular public architecture as well. One famous example from this time period is the Todai-ji temple, one of the 'Seven Great Temples' in Nara, Japan.

Todai-ji Buddhist Temple
Main Prayer hall

The key architectural elements of temple design from this period are the support columns, sloping roof, framework of brackets and rafters, and the roof tiles. Both the support columns and framework of brackets and rafters were ways in which the structure of the building was expressed on the exterior. This provided a type of transparency about its construction methods. The gently sloping curved roof blended into the landscape while its tiles were designed to channel water and were placed in a wave-like pattern. These basic elements are characteristic of most of Japanese traditional style architecture.

The Beginnings of the Tea House

Later in the 9th century, or known as the Heian period, Chinese design elements could be seen. Following this period, was the era of the samurai, or warrior class of ancient Japanese society. The tea ceremony became an important part of noble life because it served to link religious life with appreciation for art. The style was simpler and provided a place fit for contemplation.

The Japanese garden also emerged during this period. These gardens were meticulously designed like a real life work of art. They were often to be viewed from inside, but not entered. The idea was to blur the boundary between nature and structure. This tea aesthetic became widely popular and influenced residential design producing a more modest and restrained appearance.

Sankeien Tea House
Tea House

Even though the design of the traditional tea house may appear to be straightforward and simple, it's actually quite complex. The humble post-and-beam structure with mud-plaster walls conceal the intricate joinery techniques that allow the structure to be built with very few nails or other types of metal fasteners. These buildings also are comprised of a complicated framing network.

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