The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration. So in the world are man and his dwellings.

(Kamo no Chomei, Japanese poet and monk)

“Why are Japanese homes so small?” and ”Why are buildings in Japan demolished after 30-35 years?”—are often the perplexing questions that come to mind after acquiring an adequate taste of Japanese urban life. While the general theory points to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) that proclaimed the average lifespan of a wooden house to 27~30 years, and reinforced-concrete apartment buildings to about 37 years based on reasons of alleviating pitfall construction risks, such as unprotected earthquake-proofing, roof and water leaks, and poor window caulking; profiting from better bank loans for newer homes; avoiding land depreciation value over a period of time; escaping the heavy inheritance tax; and anxiously updating to new technology, the underlying shadow beneath the “scrap-and-build” mentality may lurk from something else, something less metropolitan, such as tradition.

World-renowned architect Kengo Kuma has once lectured about the backbone of kyosho jutaku (micro home living), the prevalent Japanese standard for city residential building. He claimed that this conventional concept of compact dwelling could be traced back to the early thirteenth century, when the renowned Japanese poet Kamo no Chomei wrote about embracing the merits of simple living, and the natural flow of life changes and state of impermanence in his essay, “An Account of My Hut” (Hojiki).

Kamo no Chomei, who later became a Buddhist monk, stressed the fixated preoccupation of humans over quantity, material satisfaction and permanent possessions, while neglecting the more realistic truth that all things change, move and are inevitably transient. Thus, human dwellings by themselves, are likewise, subjected to impermanence. He writes, “The master and the dwelling are competing in their transience. Both will perish from this world like the morning glory that blooms in the morning dew. In some cases, the dew may evaporate first, while the flower remains—but only to be withered by the morning sun. In others the flower may wither even before the dew is gone, but no one expects the dew to last until evening.”

“An Account of My Hut” is a national Japanese literary classic read by all Japanese children as part of their educational curriculum. How deep and present the lingering phrases in this essay rest instinctively in the minds of the Japanese may entail another discourse, but it is apparent that the foundation of Buddhist doctrines subconsciously influence many facets of Japanese life, including architecture.

Hence, when reflecting on the elements that shape the design and construction of Japanese homes and buildings, understanding Japanese traditional roots becomes an indispensable criterion. No other colossal project has embarked on this ambitious challenge than Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation, a huge exhibition now running at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo until September 17, 2018.

Showcasing more than 100 projects from as early as 11th century temples to nagaya collective housings of the Edo era, modern classical buildings of the Meiji period, prized icons of the Metabolism craze of the 1960s until the steel and glass structures of the present age, the grand exhibition covers a complete encyclopedia of Japanese living architecture that enhances the literacy of changing lifestyles, material development, environmental influences, and the Japanese approach from cultural tradition to world assimilation, structured in nine divisions: Possibilities of Wood, Transcendent Aesthetics, Roofs of Tranquility, Crafts as Architecture, Linked Spaces, Hybrid Architecture, Forms of Living Together, Japan Discovered and Living With Nature.

The section on Possibilities of Wood is perhaps, one of the most important chapters in this exhibition as it provides the fundamental background of early Japanese traditional wood carpentry work, kigumi kouhou, the clever technique of interlocking wooden joints without the use of nails, screws or adhesives, conceptualized as early as the 7th century. A huge life-size kigumi wooden framework is displayed—the method that was commonly employed by miya-daiku, the carpenters of this technique, in Japanese temples, such as the Byōdō-in in Kyoto (1053), Todai-ji in Nara (1199), Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima (1875), and more. Evolving from ancient pit-dwelling houses, with columns dug into the ground and surrounded by grass, to structures with floors raised above the ground, Japanese architecture later developed a polished flair for aristocracy during the 11th century as witnessed by the shinden-zukuri architectural style of noblemen’s houses. It used fine symmetry within connected rooms and long hallways. Timber construction has always been the primary building material in Japanese homes, and this section reveals the creative development of wood treatment for future technology.

With the rise of political power and dominancy of the samurai class, the role of Buddhism started to become more prominent in building design, evoking the shoin-zukuri style (interior layout with a central core surrounded by aisles and rooms with fusuma sliding doors) that catered to cultural traditions, like ikebana flower arrangement and sado tea ceremony. In the Transcendent Aesthetics section, we find more Japanese buildings resonating artistic elements that express simplicity and minimalism, such as the D. T. Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa. The museum is an exquisite complex centering on a single concrete structure surrounded by a large, flat pond, luscious gardens, stone walls, and green slopes all wrapped in tranquility and unity with nature.

It is said that the roots of Japanese architecture grow from the roofs. The basic Japanese roof forms determine certain structural designs. The gabled roof (kirizuma) is typically found on shrines and local houses; the hipped roof (yosemune) on farmers’ houses; and their combined form, the hipped-gabled roof (irimoya) on temples and upper-class shoin houses. Towards the contemporary age, Japanese architects have taken advantage of remodeling the varied historical roof styles into more unconventional expressions, such as the National Gymnasium for the Tokyo Olympics by Tange Kenzo (1964), Nippon Budōkan by Yamada Mamoru (1964) and the NAOSHIMA HALL by Sambuichi Hiroshi (2015), all showcased in the Roofs of Tranquility section.

As Japan opened to the West during the Meiji era, a higher appreciation of traditional Edo crafts blossomed in many religious and commercial structures. The Crafts as Architecture section illustrates this phenomenon, for instance, in the exceptional sculptural works found in the Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shintō Shrine and the aesthetic interior design of the Osaka Royal Hotel (1973).

The Linked Spaces, Hybrid Architecture and Japan Discovered sections are testimonial presentations of Japan’s gradual move into the web of global design. With Frank Lloyd Wright’s visit to Japan in the early 1900s, which triggered his design of the much esteemed Imperial Hotel in 1923, the concept of traditional fixed structures was replaced with more open visions—wider spaces, absence of partition walls and higher ceilings, without sacrificing the “Japaneseness” taste for traditional material and immersion with nature—a crucial ingredient in both traditional and contemporary architecture. Exemplary illustrations of this viewpoint are Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefectural Government Office (1959) and Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water, Hokkaido (1988).

Finally, the coverage of Japanese architecture would not be complete without the visual presentation of public and private spaces. Since the Edo era, it has been part of Japanese culture to live in communal places—sharing common baths and toilets, lounges, and kitchens. People lived so closely to each other, without indifference towards self-privacy. Till today, many modern versions of the nagaya long rows of houses exist in hidden quarters of Taito-ku, Sumida-ku and Bunkyo-ku in Tokyo, as well as many machiya houses in Kyoto. Presently, they are called “share houses,” such as Jun Inokuma’s and Yuri Naruse’s modernly adapted LT Josai shared apartments that consist of common kitchens and lounges for inter-communication, yet keep individual and family rooms intact.

After an almost two to three-hour travelogue of viewing small and full-scale models, interactive installations, light projections, videos and mock-ups of structural materials, not to mention a full-scale replica of Sen no Rikyu’s Tai-an Tea House, the “Japanese Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation” exhibition fills one’s mind with explosive images of the astounding breadth of the rich history and dynamic spirit of Japanese living architecture, as it broadens the infinite possibilities of experimentation and re-invention, though transient and microscopic they may be. We reflect, once again, on Kamo no Chomei’s words:

In general, the past, present, and future history of human beings is a product of the is meaningless to have palaces and buildings of many stories...I have fashioned a lodging for the last leaves of my years. It is a hut where, perhaps, a traveler might spend a single night; it is like a cocoon spun by an aged silkworm…Now, I dwell in my tranquil residence. My body is like a drifting cloud—I ask for nothing, I want nothing.

Special gratitude to Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.