The Japanese Paper House

I have always been attracted to the aesthetics of the Japanese paper house. The culmination of a series of Zen inspired architectural traditions, the final design is known as the sukiya style, a medieval form that has had an enormous effect on the way modern architects think about space, the things it might or might not contain, and how we make use of it. And not just modern Japanese architectural practices — both Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and the Bauhaus traditions are obvious Western examples of sukiya influenced forms.

From a design perspective, there is something extraordinary about a house designed, as is much of Japanese architecture, on the basis of impermanence. Extraordinary and eminently sensible: As the relatively recent Tohoku earthquake so savagely demonstrated, Japan’s geographical position means it is much more vulnerable to nature’s extremities. Houses built to ‘float’ or ‘move’ — houses easily rebuilt, that contain not much, that are light — are deeply functional. They understand nature.

Such understanding is by no means limited to the apocalyptic. Unlike Western architectural practices, which are largely based on the concept of the cave, the paper (and clay and wood and straw) house is constructed according to principles as defined by the pillar. Pillar architecture forms spaces that are by definition vague. The idea of the ‘room’, so fundamentally concrete in Western architecture, holds no solid definition in paper house architecture. The wall is not a support. The wall slides. It can be moved, disappeared, grown. Rooms in the paper house grow and shrink according to use.

And in traditional Japan, where gods are found in the things of the world, in nature, the vagueness of the paper wall, its translucent and fluid qualities, allows for a necessary lack of definition between what is inside and outside. Like the interior and roofless Japanese courtyard garden, the paper house is nature harmonised by the line — vertical and horizontal. It is an abstracted form of nature. It is nature met, and aligned with, rather than vanquished.

In such a space, it is not so much the space per se that matters, but rather the relationship between the objects, and so between people. The relative paucity of objects in the traditional paper house is defined by the notion of introspective discipline. The paper house is not a place of distraction. It is severe, austere, clean. Free of the ornate, the human is reduced to thought — self-thought and the thought of others. Hence the importance placed on formality, on distance, on the detail, on position.

All of which, dare I say it, is what I mean when I say that a Studio Makgill design is about real simplicity, about a form of communication that finds beauty in function — first and last.

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