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Japan's Sustainable Architecture Legacy: Building for the future using old ways

By Staff Writer
March 02, 2022

Japan's traditional architecture techniques offer sustainable solutions for the future

In an age of modernity, where speed and competitive pricing have birthed waves of concrete and steel constructions, Japanese contemporary architects are re-connecting with natural materials and traditional techniques. With exhibitions and workshops demonstrating Japan’s traditional manufacturing techniques and experimenting with different wood species, these contemporary architects are sharing centuries old solutions to construct the sustainable buildings of tomorrow.
Exterior of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium
The stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were designed by Kengo Kuma to include wood from all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, and to use natural ventilation for cooling.
After witnessing the trend of unimaginative square concrete and steel buildings across the nation, renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma founded Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990 with a vision to apply the wisdom of traditional Japanese architecture to re-invent contemporary architecture. Over the last 3 decades his firm has seen widespread popularity, working on over 200 projects throughout Japan and the world, including the Japan National Stadium which featured centerstage during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Interior of Takanawa Gateway Station
The interior of the new Takanawa Gateway Station in Tokyo, designed by Kengo Kuma with wooden beams and shoji paper-style ceilings, proves even a busy downtown station can made warm and serene through proper choice of materials.
His guiding idea centers on the importance of reintroducing wood, borne from the need to sustainably counteract global warming while also evoking ‘spiritual sustainability’. Kuma firmly believes that by using natural materials, contemporary architects are able to create new interiors and experiences which can counteract the stress felt by those living in “concrete jungles”. In a recent interview with Sustainable Japan (produced by the Japan Times), Kuma notes that “From the very beginning, traditional Japanese architecture has been made of wood and has been designed with harmony with the natural environment in mind,”. Thus, traditional Japanese techniques using wood can offer more sustainable approaches for building spaces that better serve both the environment and the health of the people within.
Exterior of the Asakusa Tourism Center building
The Asakusa Tourism Center is another of Kengo Kuma’s designs, contrasting a modern style with traditional materials.

Biodegradable joints demonstrate skilled and artistic construction

One of the common techniques that reappears frequently in installation by Kengo Kuma & Associates is tsugite, a Japanese joinery technique. Whereas most modern building structures rely on glue, nails and metal supports, tsugite allows structures to be held together using complex cuts in timber which interlock to create strong bonds and striking artistic architecture. The technique was the common joint mechanism in Japan for many centuries spanning from the 12th to the 19th century. Kengo Kuma learned tsugite from traditional craftsmen in Japan’s countryside where he spent many years to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

The Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum in Kochi prefecture is a perfect example of Kuma’s inspiration from the technique as well as his appreciation of the prefecture's timber and wood industry. Surrounded by forests, the bridge is made of interlocking beams of cedar joining two buildings which are 47m apart. As in the traditional style, the exposed wooden joints offer a glimpse of the joint patterns and skilled architectural design within. Tsugite is still being used in modern designs and has a growing following, pioneered by Japanese architects like Kengo Kuma and global fans.

Burning enhances the natural beauty and durability of wood

Another Japanese technique with a dramatic visual appearance is the yakisugi process dating back centuries, which has more recently been incorporated into modern designs in Europe and the United States. Yakisugi (or shou sugi ban) is a wall and ceiling cladding made exclusively from Japanese sugi cypress which has been burned intensively. This preservative heat treatment through traditional processes acts as a sustainable sealant without any chemicals and has surprising longevity. Thanks to architects like Yoshifumi Nakamura and Terunobu Fujimori, who are internationally known for projects featuring charred wood, yakisugi has seen a bolstering popularity globally, and various sustainable techniques from Japan are getting their time in the limelight.
Outer walls with yakisugi cladding, facing onto a Japanese street
By charring the outer surfaces, building built yakisugi are surprisingly water resistant and durable, without needing any chemical sealtants.
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