a speculation about the space in-between

Lush gardens at a Beppu Hot Spring


From the outset, Japanese architecture and urbanism has a very distinctive and recognizable form, but these preconceptions are Orientalist and tend to generalize a much more complex experiential and haptic space. A shift in my personal perception of the true Japan in architecture came about from a series of direct architectural and urban experiences in Beppu and Kyoto which are described in this essay. In brief, my initial understanding of Japanese architecture went from an appreciation of surface and style, which can be likened an appreciation of the static and purely object-oriented, to a deeper speculative notion of unfolding, cinematic space as its true essence.


From the outset, Japanese architecture and urbanism has a very distinctive and recognizable form. Perhaps the image of Eastern architecture in general is quite easily comprehensible as a typology due to it’s materiality, sweeping roofs, deep eaves, and integration with its context. These are the kinds of preconceptions I have brought with me to Japan as well, but I feel that these Orientalist notions have shifted somewhat since I arrived and delved deeper into the true meaning of Japanese architecture. There have been a few significant moments where my perception has shifted which I will describe and begin to deconstruct in order to reach a more authentic or deeper understanding.

My first experience in Japan was about four years ago in the Spring of 2007, when I traveled to Kyushu for a wedding. The wedding was held at an Onsen Ryokan (a hot spring hotel) in Beppu, nestled in the mountainside in an area renowned for its hot springs and spas. We stayed in individual buildings in the compound, which were enveloped by a lush, well-tended garden, surrounding a large main-building which contained a restaurant and smaller hotel rooms. The center-piece around which the compound revolved was, of course, the hot spring itself where the wedding party would bathe communally everyday in the days leading up to the wedding.

The ritual bathing experience, entailing donning a robe which looked like an unadorned kimono (yukata) and sash (obi), slipping into wooden clogs (getas) and clattering up the cobblestone path to the entrance of the Onsen building. In the early morning, swirling mists from the Onsens formed halos around the cherry trees, which had already started blooming in mid-March.

As I stepped into my getas I became aware of some of the architectural devices used to demarcate space and intuitively grasp their meaning. Each space within the outbuildings was subtly but clearly shifted vertically, like large steps leading to the podium of the main living space. From the tatami mat defined space to the semi-exterior space, a long wooden step provided an intermediary moment before the shoe-removing stone (kutsunugi-ishi), which was also a step lower. The vertical shit of horizontal planes demarcated the space more clearly and deftly than any sign or enclosing element could, without making the space completely opaque.

This for me was one of my first realizations about the definition of Japanese architecture and its delineation in both time and space. The haptic quality of moving within Japanese space is something that I have experienced repeatedly, at the scale of interiors and at progressively larger scales within gardens, building compounds, and within urban environments. It can be likened to a cinematic unfolding of spaces, one leading to the next with each subsequent viewpoint shifting, but each also carefully constructed to reveal panoramas within an interior space or out into an exterior space. Stepping upwards or downwards allowed for new views into the garden or through an interior window out into the rear garden. This spatial paradigm was a complete shift for me, coming from a Western context where views seemed to be finite and linear, traveling to a point directly connecting the viewer in his privileged position to the viewed.

After the wedding, I toured Japan for another two weeks, traveling northward from Beppu to see Kyoto and the architectural masterpieces it held. Having had my first direct experience with Japanese space, I was ready to take in the more complex and layered meaning embedded in Katsura. Architect Isozaki Arata captures this notion of the itinerant gaze which I experienced in Beppu, when he wrote about meandering around the Imperial Villa garden:

“The gaze is constantly on the move, while scenery is broken down into its parts, yet the tour route comprising both land and water segments deftly recombines these. In the same way that the flying geese formation expresses depth in space by a layering of shifted planes, the touring gazes first breaks down scenery and then reassembles the parts in layers to reconstitute a complete cycle. Throughout the phases of its development, Katsura has discovered all kinds of ways to manipulate the touring gaze. Therefore, it offers no clear preplanned scheme, as do many other tour gardens. Instead, it is full of unplanned beauties materializing out of the residue of its diachronic composition.”

(Isozaki, p. 286)

In many Western cities, such as my hometown, Toronto, Canada, there are landmarks constructed to terminate views on major streets. One in particular that is perhaps the icon of corporate Canada is the Bell Tower of Old City Hall, which acts as the symbolic bookend of the financial district on Bay Street (viewed northwards from the epicenter of Canadian commerce, the intersection of Bay Street and King Street West). Bay street rises upwards from Lake Ontario in a perceptible incline, which at Queen Street West is significantly higher, providing the Bell Tower with a sentry-like position overlooking the core. The urban space of Bay Street is powerful, finite and imperial in a sense, expressing the power and authority of government which acts as a kind of overseer of daily financial transactions. In the Japanese context perhaps the equivalent would be the castle (Jo) turrets which tower over the plebeian town as an expression of the absolute power of the ruling class.

The Japanese city (I’m excluding the Imperial Capital cities designed based on the gridded Chinese model, Xi’an; for example, Heiankyo or Kyoto) and Katsura embody this characteristic of the itinerant gaze and the haptic sensibility. For me this is the critical moment of departure because it re-contextualizes the position of the viewer, which from a Western point of view is privileged, but in the Japanese context is itinerant. This dynamism inherent in the design and experience of Japanese space make it unstable due to the viewer’s perception being in constant flux. This is a central paradigm ingrained in the culture of Japan, it being the transient ‘Floating World’ of Buddhist philosophy. It is also the essence of what I consider to be the true Japan in architecture, rather than it being embodied in any particular stylistic or physical manifestation.


Isozaki, Arata (translated by Sabu Kohso), Japan-ness in Architecture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 2006

Kurokawa, Kisho, Rediscovering Japanese Space, John Weatherhill Inc., Tokyo: 1988

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.


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