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Wabi Sabi And Tadao Ando

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4083 words Published: 16th Aug 2018

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We can easily now conceive of a time when there will be only one culture and one civilization on the entire surface of the earth. I don’t believe this will happen, because there are contradictory tendencies always at work – on the one hand towards homogenization and on the other towards new distinctions.

In the 1970s and 80s, architecture in Japan was developed as a quick imitation of some indistinct “international style” or – much worse – “disneyfication” of Japanese cities littered with out-of-place, or downright quirky, architecture. Attempts to be creative were easily blurred by sublimated ideas from pre-WWII period, as Japanese architects are lost in translating Western aesthetic forms for a Japanese public. Likewise attempts to be traditional remains most often restricted to the production of experimental skyscrapers with “cut-outs” and occasional pagoda roofs (note: need to find examples, images). Many Japanese architects of that period struggle to establish an identity for themselves in an increasingly homogeneous world (Isozaki, 2011: 35)

Asahi Beer Building, Asakusa district, Tokyo, by renown product designer Phillip Strack, 1989.

The same struggle is evident at the beginning of Tadao Ando’s career as he seeks to reconcile aspects of modern construction with aspects of Japanese tradition. His travels to the West in his late 20s, taught him extensively on the precedents of ‘modern masters’ such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn (Dal Co, 1997).

Yet, remarkably, Ando has never been described as a ‘neo-Corbusian’, a ‘neo-Miesian’, or a ‘neo-Kahnian’. His concrete surfaces have textures as smooth and delicate as fine Japanese craftwork. His compositions are spare and clean. By these means, Ando’s architecture embraces a contemplative, ascetic realm of stillness and abstraction. His works embodies a rare mastery of materials and light that seeks to reconnect mankind with nature, with a monastic sense of plainness. Kenneth Frampton in his essay ‘Tadao’s Ando’s Critical Modernism’ (Frampton, 1984) further celebrates Tadao Ando as a critical regionalist.

So, how did Ando overcome his struggle for an ‘identity’?

To answer this question, this dissertation begins with a look back into Japanese history. In the region of Kansai during the 16th century, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his protégé, tea master Sen No Rikyu, laid the foundation for the discipline of wabi-sabi: a strict adherence to the virtues of simplicity, poverty and modesty, in direct resistance to the unrefined pretention of wealth. It also reflects the dissatisfaction with institutional power and resistance to tyranny. Osaka, Kansai’s regional capital, is Tadao Ando’s native city. Thus, by birth and inclination, it is no coincidence that he belongs to wabi-sabi aesthetic which is still alive today, as do many of his clients.

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This dissertation therefore argues, for the first time, that the fundamental key to understanding Ando’s capacity for abstraction must be found in wabi-sabi aesthetics. This argument may best be illustrated by a comparison of his work with that of Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), one of the greatest of all tea ceremony masters, and an important architect of tea ceremony pavilions.

This dissertation will then further discuss the role of wabi-sabi in making Ando a ‘critical regionalist’. By briefly exploring the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ , its importance in contemporary architecture discourses and its criticism, the dissertation shall further reflect upon how Critical Regionalism functions within Japanese culture, in which its architectural past is often more of abstraction rather than physical.

Wabi-sabi: A Context

The Japanese aesthetic tradition, like any other cultural tradition, encompasses diverse tastes and arts. They range from the ordinariness of Noh theatre to the lavishness of Kabuki theatre, the severity of monochrome brush ink paintings to the opulence of gold-gilded screen paintings, and the simple rusticity of tea huts to the august majesty of castles.

Among the variety of aesthetic pursuits, one theme stands out for being somewhat unconventional. It is a celebration of qualities commonly regarded as ‘falling short of’, or ‘deteriorating from the optimal condition of the object’ (De Mente, 2006). While such works may appear somewhat homely and rough, at the same time they impart a sense of elegance and tranquillity, a kind of ‘unsophisticated sophistication’, like ‘the moon obscured by clouds’. (Koren, 1994).

This study will refer to this Japanese aesthetics of the imperfection and insufficiency as wabi-sabi. The discussion in this chapter will briefly review the aesthetic, social, historical, and philosophical dimensions of this Japanese aesthetic taste.

Wabi and sabi

Wabi is derived from the verb wabu (to deteriorate) and the adjective wabishii (solitary, comfortless). The essence of wabi has been described as nonattachment and subtle profundity (De Mente, 2006: 45). The nonattachment essence of a wabi is part of the Zen School of Buddhism that teaches detachment from all material things and the ability to experience the essence of things (Koren, 1994: 12). On the other hand, the original meaning of sabi is ‘rust’ or ‘patina’, but it also connotes loneliness and desolation as reflected in the adjective sabishii (lonely), particularly with reference to old age (1994: 13).

Koren (1994: 21) primarily suggests wabi-sabi as ‘the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty’, comparing its importance in Japanese aesthetics to the ‘Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West’.

The essence of wabi aesthetic is perhqaps best captured in Sen No Ryiku’s words: never forget that the way of tea is nothing more than boiling water, making tea and drinking tea.’ And ‘the tea ceremony conducted in the smallest of spaces serves primarily the practice of meditation and its goal is enlightenment’.

Originally, the meanings of neither wabi nor sabi were specifically related to aesthetic qualities. The development of the wabi-sabi aesthetic began in earnest during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) coinciding with the spread of Zen Buddhism in Japan (Koren 1994: 12). Zen ideas about transcending the mundane world and conventional ways of looking at things – through concepts like emptiness, impermanence and renunciation – inspired a kind of appreciation of ‘negative’ experiences such as old age, poverty and loneliness (Suzuki, 1972: 42). Hermits, priests and poets leading a solitary wandering life in search of spiritual insight incorporated this sense of appreciation in their works and teachings. As these ideas gained momentum, people tried to resign themselves to the sufferings of life and began to see a kind of beauty in them. Expressed in artistic forms, this in turn evolved into the aesthetic appreciation of wabi-sabi (Koren, 1994:14).

Later, the development of the tea ceremony in the 16th century marks an important step in the evolution of wabi-sabi. Sen no Rikyu, credited with establishing the tea ceremony in its current form, was also influential in establishing wabi-sabi as an aesthetic concept (Okakura, 2005: 33). He extolled the use of simple, indigenous home-style tea utensils over the expensive and highly decorative tea utensils imported from China, placing objects expressing wabi-sabi at the pinnacle of aesthetic appreciation (2005:34).

Initially, these new aesthetics could only be ‘discovered’ in the humble utensils used by the common people, or in a neglected stone lantern overgrown with moss. However, as time progressed, design works were intentionally created to reflect wabi-sabi, for example, raku earthenware tea bowls or the design of the tea-house, which took on the style of a simple rural hut, with space inside for only two tatami mats (around 3.5m²) (De Mente, 2006:45).


Futhermore in art and design, two other elements that are often associated with sabi objects are asymmetry and austerity. Kakuzo Okakura (2005:15), the Japanese tea master, labelled this asymmetry beauty as ‘the art of imperfection’. Surprises are achieved by the unbalanced by the apparent randomness of things that allows the observer to complete the image. This stands in contrast to the Western compulsion to symmetry and mathematical balance, leaving no surprises and nothing for the viewer to add.

Also worth nothing is that in modern Japan, the definition of a wabi-sabi style of living evolves into the elimination of things which that are inessential. The tranquillity aspect of wabi dictates a look and feel that radiates an aura of calm and solace. The natural aspect of sabi results from avoiding machination of any sort. This includes making an object or area look as if it were created by nature, not by human or machine (Koren, 1994).

Wabi-sabi and Tadao Ando

[further writing here on Tadao Ando’s background and ‘why Tadao Ando’: his significance in Japanese architecture since the 1980s]

Several themes related to wabi-sabi can be identified in Ando’s works, and these will be discussed under the following distinct but interrelated headings: ‘light’, ‘overlapping spaces’ and ‘materials’. This study will engage the expression of these themes through the analysis of his better known works, alongside an examination of similar principles in traditional Japanese exemplars.


The spaces in Ando’s works are typified by light within darkness. Common features among Ando works are their meditative calmness and dimness. While describing Ando’s Church of Light in Ibaraki, Jodidio (2004) sums it up: “If the enclosed world is a microcosm, the shaft of sunlight penetrating it is a ray of hope rendered vivid by the enclosure and the surrounding darkness”.

On the other hand, the fragile beauty of shadows that marked the Japanese cultural identity, as were praised by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1977), are utilised by Ando to infuse his buildings with an uncanny mood which enrich the void with darkness. In Ando’s Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum in Higashiosaka, visitors experience a space saturated with a heavy darkness, yet made significant by the sudden burst of light in the south-west elevation.


Spatial Enclosure

Though set in an urban environment, in true spirit of wabi-sabi, Ando’s buildings strive for the mood of a mountain retreat. Ando’s buildings are often described as an ‘enclosed world, shut off from the exterior environment’ (Jodidio 2004:10). It shuts out the exterior world but introduces nature, in symbolic form. The symbolic representation of nature is a major expression of wabi-sabi aesthetic, and is prevalent in all Japanese art. One outstanding example is the Zen rock gardens of the Ryoan-ji, a 13th century Buddhist temple in Kyoto, where stones and white sand are used to depict islands and the sea.

In Ando’s Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, near Kobe, visitors are greeted with a deceptively closed, minimalist volume of raw concrete. Dal Co (1997:125) describes the form of the museum as one which is radically new, yet “there is still the old feeling of seclusion, of an architecture that creates ‘another world’ remote from the everyday”. He further describes the overall spatial structure is as ‘closed to the outside yet open within, the former tempered by a few slits and the latter by layered planes’ (1997:125). One can argue that this is suggestive of the wabi-sabi approach in older, traditional Japanese architecture, where buildings are enclosed with a simple mud wall and made inwardly porous by layered screens.


Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, outside Kobe

Thus, spaces which overlap and figuratively fold in on each other add depth and richness to the composition and stimulate excitement and expectation in the person experiencing the space. The effect is achievable through the approach to the building. For example, the approach to a tea ceremony pavilion often leads through a garden space called a roji. This is exemplified in tea-ceremony huts in Kyoto’s Katsura Imperial Villa, one of Japan’s best known architectural heritage. In the course of traversing this garden, the visitor must pass through several gates, usually designed delicately and minimally, before finally reaching the pavilion where the tea ceremony will be performed. Detours are deliberately included in the stepping-stone walkway to generate similar anticipation and excitement. The same kind of indirect approach is characteristic of Ando’s buildings.


Traditional Japanese house architecture often employs unfinished logs, simply split bamboo, and walls made of clay with an admixture of chopped straw, as in Katsura’s tea-ceremony hut. One can notice that materials were deliberately used without finishes for the sake of creating an aesthetically pure, ideal world of sobriety, calm and refined rusticity (Okakura, 2005). One can conclude that designers of tea ceremony architecture carefully selected only those materials conducive to production of a microcosm compatible with the aesthetics of wabi.

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Designers of such architecture tend to use natural materials, to have them look as natural as possible, and to employ muted -almost monochrome – colour schemes. One could argue that Ando’s works severely limits the range of interior colours. In Ando’s buildings one could observe almost entirely unfinished concrete with the exception of floors and furnishings, which are of natural materials. Window sashes, which, though steel, are always painted gray, never bright self-assertive colours. This approach used both by designers of tea ceremony buildings and by Ando, is determined by a concern for the materials themselves and for spatial composition (Baek, 2008).

Furthermore, in the spaces in Ando’s works, one can observe the same peaceful, almost desolate spirit of wabi-sabi that informs the design of a teahouse or lonely mountain temple. Apart from warm touches of wooden flooring and nature beyond, every surface of concrete, steel or mass presents a chilly monotonous grey. These black-and-white tonalities are distinctly Japanese, apparent in traditional buildings in silvery roof tiles, grey-weathered boards, neutral plaster and white paper screens.


Tadao Ando’s ‘Critical Modernism’

This chapter of the dissertation begins with a brief overview of ‘critical regionalism’, its importance in contemporary architecture discourse in Japan, and the criticisms against. Building on the discussion of wabi-sabi in chapters before, the chapter further discusses the role of wabi-sabi in making Ando a ‘critical regionalist’.

Critical regionalism and Japan

In history, regionalism is a manifested concept since the times of the Romans. Regional variations has been extensively discussed in Vitruvius’ treaties De Architectura (Ten Books on Architecture). The Romantics further propounded picturesque regionalism during the 19th and early 20th century. (Nesbitt 1996: 486)

Critical regionalism, on the other hand, was first coined as an architectural concept in the early 1980s in essays by Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and, subsequently, Kenneth Frampton.

Tadao Ando’s works are situated within this backdrop of a newly defined focus on regionalism. This new focus is seen as a reaction to the authority of modernism and the imitating scenography of postmodernism, both of which were thought to have failed to address the human condition in their extreme stances towards historicism.

The core question which arises is “how to become modern and to return to sources?”. In their 1981 article “The Grid and the Pathway,” Tzonis and Lefaivre hypothesise “critical regionalism” as the solution. In the context of architecture in Greece, they defined the term ‘critical regionalism’ as the third and latest type of regionalism, following the English picturesque of “nationalist regionalism,” and the Neoclassical “historicist regionalism.” They further argued that modern architecture is impersonal and monolithic, destroying the humanistic qualities in architectural expression which would be reinstated by a new form of regionalism. (Tzonis & Lefaivre, 1981)

Frampton later followed their lead in propounding critical regionalism. In his 1983 seminal essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’, he embeds the concept with a higher sense of urgency and highlights its critical nature against placeless monotony.

Frampton saw critical regionalism exemplified by Jørn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church (1973-76) near Copenhagen, which represents, according to Frampton, a self-conscious synthesis of universal civilization and world culture. The combination of “universal” elements like the concrete outer shell of the church, with an organic and individualistic interior and a roof shape reminiscent of pagodas as a reference to “world culture,” make, in the eyes of Frampton, this architecture simultaneously “resistant” and modern (Frampton, 1983: 16)

This resistance, one could argue, is also apparent in 1980s Japan in the midst of an economic boom. There exists a typified reaction against universal standards, western culture homogenisation and placeless modernism, but at the same time the reaction is critical in its outlook. Likewise, one could also argue that critical regionalism in Japan is self-evaluating such that it is confrontational with not only the world but also to itself.

Although the Japanese (like the Chinese) had developed doctrines relatively early that emphasised the necessity of space essence, ma, and Western functionality and aimed, at least sporadically, at a reconciliation of Chinese and Western elements in architecture, regionalism has never been established as a critical architectural movement (Isozaki, 2001: 131). (note: further elaboration needed)

On the contrary, Peter Eisenman argued there is no tradition of resistance in Asia. Thus, he concludes, rendering architecture in Asia, in principle, conservative and accommodating. Eisenman refers to the importance attributed to critical thinking in late 18th century Europe – developed, in particular, by Kant and Giovanni Battista Piranesi – that strongly contributed to the formation of a critical consciousness among European architects. Eisenman pointed out that such tradition cannot be traced in Asia. (Eisenman, 1995) (note: further elaboration needed)

Tadao Ando: a wabi-sabi Critical Regionalist

Frampton celebrates Tadao Ando as a critical regionalist. This is most evident in his essay ‘Tadao’s Ando’s Critical Modernism’ (Frampton, 1984) in which Frampton uses the label to discuss Ando’s architecture

One of Frampton’s criteria for critical regionalism is a “direct dialectical relation with nature,” a dialog with the environment that Ando’s architecture embodies in the articulation of structure through the changing impact of terrain. This is exemplified in Ando’s Chikatsu-Asuka Museum outside Osaka. The work is characterised by the valley which surrounds the site. Ando decisively situated the museum on the severe slopes to make it a “quiet building standing quietly in nature” (Ando, 1989a: 46). In contrast to the modernist clean slate approach of levelling the site, Ando’s approach is in true adherence to the spirit of wabi-sabi of preserving the tectonic quality of the nature. In Chikatsu-Asuka, the work is tactile, another component of Frampton’s (1983:28) definition which “resides in the fact that (the building) can only be decoded in terms of experience itself.” Indeed, Ando professes that “a building exists to be seen and experienced and not to be talked about” (eds. Knabe & Noennig, 1999: 118).

It could also be argued that, in abidance to the tenets of wabi-sabi, Ando is seeking to tackle the tactile range of human perception. This romanticised emotion of wabi-sabi can be seen in the way Ando describes his buildings and context, which he refers to as “cruel urban surroundings” (Ando, 1997:12). As discussed earlier, within his territorial walls and spatial enclosure, Ando is determined to establish a natural, Zen-like relationship between the person, material and natural phenomena. His works are designed to be experienced in “body and spirit.” (eds. Knabe & Noennig, 1999: 118)

At the same time, Ando often speaks of the “spirit and emotional contents” which he has translated from the Japanese vernacular and the richness of the tradition of sukiya1 and minka2 which is lost in urban chaos and economic growth (Ando, 1982). In fact, his architecture is largely influenced by the nostalgia of his childhood memories:

“We all have had certain experiences in our childhood that have stayed with us for our entire lives. The house that I grew up in was very important to me … It is very long, and when you come in from the street you walk through a corridor and then into a small courtyard and then another long space that takes you deeper into the house. The courtyard is very important because the house is very long and the amount of light is very limited. Light is very precious … Living in a space like that, where light and darkness are constantly interacting, was a critical experience for me.” (Auping, 2002: 22)

Ando (Auping, 2002: 22) speaks of himself, “I value cultural treasures and would like to develop them in a creative way,” revealing his, and many Japanese architects’, fondness for cultural artefacts and a related lament at the loss of such an environment due to unrelenting urban development.

On the other hand, the argument that posits Ando as a critical regionalist lies in this very statement by Frampton (1995:12), in which Ando is described as “at once both an unequivocally modern architect and a figure whose values lie embedded in some archaic moment”. In the same text, he further argued that Ando is “committed to some other time before the machinations of progress has turned into an every present nemesis.”

Hence, one can conclude that Ando is critically opposed of the chaotic Japanese urban context and reproduction traditional Japanese physical elements. In his work there are none. One can hardly find the traditional open pavilion, bare timber skeleton, deeply overhanging roofs, or sliding shoji doors of spotless white paper (Jodidio, 2004: 21). Nevertheless Ando has transmuted these properties into something new, grounding his architecture in an ancient culture while freeing it of depiction.

Wabi-sabi as a representation Japanese architectural identity.

One could argue, like wabi-sabi itself, the notion of Japanese identity is perceived sensually rather than visually.


Sukiya is a type of Japanese architectural style. It can be literally translated as ‘sophisticated, cultivated experience’, often a reference to delight of the elegantly performed tea-ceremony.

Minka are private dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants, constructed in traditional Japanese building styles.

Illustration credits

Leonard Koren, from his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, fig. 2-3

Author, fig. 1, 4-10

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