As of 2016, more contemporary Japanese architects have been honored with the Pritzker Architecture Prize than have architects from any other country, save the United States.
But for all the sleek, dazzling designs of contemporary masters Shigeru Ban and Toyo Ito, the buildings that resonate most with visitors and Japanese alike are those built during Japan’s first flower of civilization, in the 7th and 8th and 9th centuries, when Buddhism, written language and Chinese architecture first came to Honshu.
Elegant and timeless, these buildings remain Japan’s quintessential architectural creations, many of them having survived earthquakes, war, blizzards and dynastic changes over 1,300 years. In 2003, Japan’s government designated 3,844 buildings and other structures in the country as either National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.
Perhaps most remarkable: 90 percent of those buildings were constructed of wood, making the 28 from the 7th and 8th centuries the oldest wooden buildings on the planet. Had volcanic Japan been blessed with stronger, less-porous stone, Japanese architecture might have been considerably different.
Many of these structures stand in or near Kyoto, Nara and other parts of the area where Chinese civilization first came to Japan. Together, they comprise perhaps the most significant cultural sights in the country. Their enduring beauty has been the inspiration for more than a thousand years of Japanese architecture.
These buildings – temples, farm houses, stores, pagodas, tea rooms, castles and palaces – were built to last, and it is no accident that many of them are still standing after more than a millennium. Their construction was adapted from both local traditional houses in the 6th and 7th centuries, and then profoundly influenced by the imperial style of Chinese architecture, with its huge, sloping roofs, in the 9th. The structures were built with materials from their environment, sited within that environment for maximum beauty, and topped with roofs that could handle centuries of snow and rain.
The roof is the dominant element of many of these buildings, with their curving eaves, constructed to sit atop deceptively simple post-and-beam structures of almost unimaginable strength. As with much Japanese art, these sometimes enormous buildings – the floor area of the Todaj-ji Daibutsu-den temple in Nara has a floor area of 2,880 square meters, its roof held 47 meters above the floor – are also marvels of lightness and space. Their interiors are often open to a remarkable degree, as always reflecting the Japanese desire to include nature in every creation. It is difficult to imagine a traditional Japanese building without a garden drawing the eye out of the interior and to the outside world.
Contrast this with 8th century European structures such as Aachen Cathedral, the oldest in northern Europe: such Carolingian structures are beautiful indeed, but they are often dark, heavy places with necessarily-small windows, and while their interiors, too, rose dazzlingly high in places, the outside world was effectively shut out.
Because of the post-and-beam structure, which does not depend on structural walls for support, there is an openness to these designs that is part of their great appeal. These classic Japanese buildings exhibit their basic structure, or skeleton, for all to see. Once again, simplicity of design and everyday materials support an expression of classical grandeur.
That these structures around Kyoto in particular have survived so long is a testament not just to their durability, but also to their flexibility. Wood is a material far more flexible than stone, a useful quality to have in an area that has felt many earthquakes in 1300 years. The post-and-beam framing structure is constructed to distribute shocks and sway gently rather than break.
But there’s another reason these buildings have survived so long, and it is built into the structures themselves: Many were put together so that they can be taken apart and rebuilt. Instead of being nailed, the planks and pillars and other elements were joined together, and because they are joined, they can be disassembled to be repaired. Likewise, their relative lack of walls means that sections of the structure can be dismantled without unnecessarily disturbing other parts of the structure, or destroying its integrity.
It is this integrity of the buildings – within themselves, between their materials, and with the environments they are meant to both accentuate and withstand – that allows classical Japanese architecture to display itself so beautifully. It is here in architecture that the many elements of Japanese culture, from the sense of proportion and grandeur, to the spiritual nuance and the integration with the natural world, shine brightest.
That these qualities are expressed in the most public and functional art of them all is a benefit to the Japanese every day, and to those gaijin who are lucky enough to walk among them, if only for a brief time.