SAY ‘HAI’ TO JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE

The word ‘Yes’ translates to ‘Hai’ in Japanese (pronounced ‘high’). High would be an appropriate way of summing up a lot about this Asian country, considering the towering stature of its buildings and high-tech culture.

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Image: View of Nagoya, one of the largest cities in Japan and home to a number of beautiful shrines, temples and castles. Nagoya is also one of the major industrial hubs in Japan.

Japan has a wealth of history, tradition and international evolution. Their disciplined lifestyles leads to their excelling in everything they set their mind to, and one can say are world leaders in architecture and technology.

From pre-historic times, the Japanese have always been unique in their way of building, although much of their initial influence had come from China. Due to earthquakes and other natural disasters, they have always built using wood as their primary material, especially due to timber being an abundant resource. From the 6th century, Buddhism allowed for large temple structures to be built, using complex techniques in their timber design.

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Image: Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist temple founded in the 8th century. Its name translates to ‘pure water’, inspired by the waterfall within the premises. One of the fascinating things about this temple is that not a single nail was used to construct the entire building.

Contrasting highly with the exuberant gardens, sloping roofs and exteriors of these magnificent temples and even domestic residences are their interiors. After the introduction of tea ceremonies, it seemed fitting to portray a modest and simple interior, reflecting a peaceful lifestyle of spirituality. What is particularly intriguing is that the Japanese have been creating a unified space between indoors and outdoors for many centuries. Their paper thin walls are usually moveable, therefore indoor/outdoor concepts have been traditional in Japan way before it became stylish in Western countries. Blending in buildings into their given surroundings has always been of key importance, and decoration and colour never go unconsidered.

The rise of power in shoguns, powerful upper class families who aimed to rule, caused a rivalry between those competing for a higher social standing, which led to luxury residences being built by them to project their wealth and influence.

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Image: The Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto is a typical example of upper class rivalry between shoguns, as a structure which would have typically been built with modest exteriors, was now decorated with gold leaf and lacquer, and certainly did not follow the usual humble characteristics of Japanese design.

 

Ginza and Westernisation

The 1980s were years of drastic change for Japan in terms of design. Foreign architects were invited to Japan to teach Japanese architects their techniques, which led to a huge influence of western design. Ginza, a town in Tokyo known for its western styled buildings and international commercial scene, triggered the introduction of modern buildings all over the country.

 

De Beers Building

Architect Jun Mitsui designed the De Beers building in Ginza, which was mainly inspired by the female silhouette, but also took into consideration the location of the building as well as the diamonds the structure would be protecting. The curves of the structure represent the ever-changing look of Ginza, whilst the different angles and twists reflect light in a way that is reminiscent of that of the diamond.

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Image: De Beers Building – Ginza

 

Hermes Building

Headquarters and main office building of Hermes. This simple structured building was designed by Renzo Piano.

In a commercial district such as Ginza, where buildings are exuberant and protruding, Piano’s idea was to contrast its surroundings by designing a structure that was ‘quiet’ in visual strength and less overwhelming then neighbouring towers. The glass used to decorate the exterior of the structure allows natural light to flow into the building during the day as well as reflect a beautiful glow outwards after sunset, leaving a sophisticated atmosphere to the viewer, one of understated class and subtlety.

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Image: Hermes Building – Ginza

 

Mikimoto Building

Mikimoto has been a major cultivator of pearls since the late 19th century, and had commissioned Toyo Ito, a Korean/Japanese award-winning architect, to design its headquarters in Ginza.

Made from glass, steel and concrete, its structure seems to be simple in design with organic shaped windows, which are ostensibly sporadically placed around the façade. Yet Toyo Ito’s objective was to create a building that, although complex, masked the technology behind it. The exterior allowed for the interiors to be column-less, due to its advanced support structure and sophisticated construction system.

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Image: Mikimoto Building – Ginza

 

Modern Day, Futuristic Design

Nowadays, any untrained eye can tell that the Japanese are way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to design. Their futuristic structures, sharp lines and organic shapes create avant-garde and unsymmetrical spaces which one could only imagine to be part of a futuristic landscape.

However, that is not where their imagination ends. It has, in fact, no bounds. Their vending machines are touch screen, most toilets have heated seats amongst many other functions, and they have created trains that work using magnetic strips, meaning, they will travel at the fastest speeds to record without even touching the ground. Technology seems to be ingrained in their DNA, and to them, it is something effortless.

Tokyo vs. London

London is one of the world’s leading hubs for architecture, fashion, design, or any other global trend for that matter. It’s there at the top with New York and Paris. Yet, Tokyo is something extraordinary. Up until the early 1960’s, skyscrapers were relatively unheard of in Japan due to the law that limited heights of up to 31 metres. Once this law was abolished, the Japanese started making up for the long wait. The buildings may not be the tallest in the world, yet the quantity is vast and in terms of numbers, brings a lot of western cities to shame. Their advanced shock absorbing technology used in their engineering, where one can actually see these tall buildings sway back and forth in the midst of an earthquake, cannot go unmentioned.

But the magic of Tokyo pours out of so many other elements. The huge screens lighting up the streets with music and animation. The cleanliness of the city, despite there not being a bin in sight. The courteousness of the millions of people walking to work and their sense of queuing order in subways and zebra crossings. The generous cat cafés specifically made for those people who don’t have pets. The outrageously themed restaurants. The mystery of how women walk in heels and skirts no matter the weather, no matter the time.

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Image: At the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, famously known as ‘The Scramble’, which is said to be the busiest intersection in the world.

Everything about Tokyo is high, not just the buildings, not just the technology, but also the mentality and culture of the people. They are humble when they have made such a monumental difference in global industries, and are world leaders in design and technology. A big ‘Hai’ for Japan, it truly is the land of the rising sun.

Photography by Justine Bartolo