Wood, Temples and Japan


We spend most of the day talking about rare materials and imposible structures, but we need to look back to understand the present. Japanese temples are the perfect example of a proper use of materials and technique; manly composed by wood and clay, those structures became a reference for current architecture.  

Wood is the elementary material of Japanese architecture, product of the rich forest environment of this country. Japanese wooden buildings range from the smallest architectural spaces, tea-rooms to one of the largest wooden existing buildings in the world.

The largest wooden structural members reach one meter in diameter with a weight of approximately six tons. Among Japanese wooden architectural monuments, the oldest existing example is the western temple precinct of Horyu-ji, built at the end of the 7th century.

Regarding construction the fundamental characteristic of Japanese architecture is the wooden post-and-beam structure, based on a system of joinery in which the structural pieces meet at right angles and are joined by means of mortise-and-tenon connections using wooden wedges and pegs to secure the joints. 


Also metal fasteners such as nails and cramps are sometimes used, but only for relatively small members which have no primary structural role. Because of this structural characteristic, it is possible to adopt the technique of “repair with dismantlement” which is common in the conservation of buildings in Japan.  This is a very practical type of system in an earthquake-prone country such as Japan. Another fundamental characteristic of Japanese architecture is that the structure itself is the main element of the architectural design, where the structure is not hidden within the walls but exposed to express the form and pattern of the traditional design aesthetic.

Not only wood is needed to create the perfect environment and a symbol. The roof is another important element which characterizes design of Japanese architecture. The large triangular volume of the roof with its deep overhangs makes the roof form the dominant element of the exterior composition. The deep eaves that evolved in response to the rainy climate provide a sheltered "indoor-outdoor space" which gives traditional houses a sense of unbroken continuity with nature.

Traditional roofing materials originally included organic materials such as miscanthus thatch and cypress-bark shingles, but together with the introduction of Buddhism the techniques of clay-tile roofing construction were implemented. 


The roof of Japanese architecture is composed of complex curves, which require a sophisticated geometric system to determine how to precisely cut the angles of the surface where the framing pieces meet. Carpenters need a highly developed knowledge of this geometry to connect these pieces exactly, calculating the depth of the eaves, the degree of the curve and the shape of the cutting surface of each piece. This system is called kiku, one of the most important subjects in the training of traditional carpenters.

The kiku system was fully developed as a system of mathematical and geometrical calculation of measurement and line drafting using the standard carpenter's square to draw the cut lines on the surface of the lumber.


Photo by Oskar Krawczyk, Dominik Vanyi and Charles Deluvio.

Spaces, EditorialMurph