The art of wooden architecture in Japan and the role it has played in the cultural identity of the nation
Japan has long been wedded to the natural elements of wood in both design and architecture. It is a material crafted in the legacy and rituals of the nation, spanning millenniums until the 19th-century when this narrative began to change. Traditional Japanese architecture sculps around the observation of nature, its rhythms, and connecting a structure so it forms a living entity. A home was considered a collection of living spaces with an open dialogue to encourage engagement. Wood as materiality played a salient role in this philosophy, and again is becoming the component of choice.
Following the Great Fire of Tokyo in 1658, strict rules around the standardization of wood and architecture became the national norm. This was the origin of kiwariho, the "art of splitting wood" in Japan’s nascent architectural preservation program, a collaboration between master carpenters and academy-trained architects. Hand-built and quick to assemble wooden temples, residences, and tearooms rose in the ashes of the fire, forging an architectural trajectory of structures appearing humble while having an intrinsic complexity. Prefabricated components were imported from neighboring communities to construct tiny spaces that seemed expansive through the right technique.
Century-old wooden temples, shrines, and residencies have both stood the test of time and fashion in Japan. It’s durability and appealing lifestyle aesthetic is turning a new wave of designers to wood. After almost two centuries of wood living in the shadow of steel, concrete, and glass, the material is fashioning a new future because of its availability. Ply into three different architectural studies featured in Out of the Woods.
A Villa’s Ode to Nature
Kentaro Ishida Architects Studio ‘Four Leaves Villa’
Approximately a two-hour drive from Tokyo is the forested area of Karuizawa, an area known for its private holiday homes. The design language of the forest centers around a retreat honoring its natural surroundings.
The layout of the house drew aesthetic inspiration from the landscape, with its curving roof planes designed to mimic “gently twisted leaves.” The functionality of the interior spaces is enhanced by aspects of the environment: the living and dining area faces southeast, giving the home a consistently bright and warm communal area, while the master bedroom and bathroom face west, toward a densely wooded area of the forest. The material selection was a no-brainer.
According to the architects: “Wood is the perfect material that has precision and flexibility to create this organic form of architecture.” The villa is constructed from Japanese cedar, a wood that is suitable for the region’s humid climate. Interior beams were left exposed, adding rich detail to the high, dark wood ceilings.
A Room of One’s Own Amid the Trees
Takehiko Suzuki Architects' 'Tunnel'
The inspiration behind this small, detached workspace comes from its surroundings. Located at the edge of Shakujii Park in Tokyo, the land between the park and site has been vacant for decades. Designed as an “empty shelter,” Tunnel is a home office in which the owner can focus solely on his work with minimal distraction while simultaneously reconnecting to the verdant environment that surrounds the hut.
The room follows the shape of a tunnel—flat and curved surfaces open to the outside at both ends. Externally, space is covered in charred, rough-hewn Japanese cedar, creating a darkened facade. The interior is composed of a single space, where the walls, ceiling, and curved surfaces are constructed from sheets of basswood plywood, providing texture. Natural light pours in through a window and skylight, creating a pleasant work environment for the client.
Creating a Lasting Peace by The Coast
Takashi Okuno & Associates’ ‘House in Tadotsu’
In the quaint town of Tadotsu in the Kagawa Prefecture lies a modernistic project that has brought new purpose to a century-old home. Takashi Okuno & Associates were asked by the owner to usher in a new lease of life into the family emblem after a recent passing. They explain, "The life of a building surpasses the human lifespan. Build a new structure and it will outlast you."
A sense of peace in a welcoming space was the overarching philosophy for the design team. The original edifice was removed to make way for a whole new structure. Then the architects began envisioning how best to appropriate the space. The plot is an 'L' shape, this became the focal point of their designs, later opting to construct a primary building as the residence with a separate tea house annex. A small entrance room greets you before being led to the kitchen and living quarters. They hoped to endeavor a building that would stand with an air that could offer a permanent source of reliance and peace of mind to those who called it home through generations to come.
The appeal of wood as a material in contemporary times has never been greater than now. From South America to Europe to Asia, it is being used in new and more innovative ways. Explore more through Out of the Woods.