Spiritual as well as practical needs

Already in prehistoric and classical times the roofs of Japanese houses were obviously not just a protection against climatic influences, but were symbols too. They gave the dwelling a measure of harmony according to the Asian philosophy of life. Their shape implied a polar harmony similar to the Chinese principle of Yin-Yang (jap. iny™). The original type of the house plan also shows a division into a 'high' and elaborated dwelling and sleeping part and a 'lower' part, the 'earth-space' (doma, Fig. 4a, see also Eder 1963). The floor of the higher part is covered with boards or with tatami. The lower part is the working space and kitchen. Conventionally, the floor of the doma is only of stamped earth. Often this part is also called niwa, garden, courtyard. The plan thus implies a polar unit of contrasting categories, such as above/below, artificial/ natural, costly/ simple and, in the widest sense, heaven and earth as well.

This is not just a vague supposition. This polar division is preserved as an important feature throughout the development of the Japanese farmhouse, during which it is mainly the upper part which is differentiated (Fig. 4b, c). The intimate connection with evolved tradition provides a unifying factor within the manifold forms of the Japanese house-forms Fig. 5a, b; Fig. 6). The earthen part is usually left open towards the internal roof space and thus permitting a view of the tremendous beams of the roof-structure, which are often left roughly curved and natural (Fig. 7). Most of the ancient Shinto shrines too show similar oppositions. The closed and most sacred part is elevated on piles and is contrasted sharply with an open access part which is defined by elements like "flowing" roof styles and curved stairs (Fig. 9).

Harmonious complementarities of this kind are to be found in all Japanese homes, from the inconspicuous hut to the imposing farmhouse and on to the urban dwelling house of the well-to-do middle classes. The spatial order of the seats is determined by the polar relation of the holy board (kamidana), the Buddhist ancestral altar (butsudan) and the cult niche (tokonoma) on one side and the access room of the house (genkan) on the other side (Fig. 10). <7> Certain spatial values are thus implied. They guide the behaviour of the dwellers (and guests) in the sense of the popular German notion >gute Kinderstube< (good upbringing). That is to say, this structure and its inherent value system is integrated into thought, language and behaviour. Felt daily in its elementary form from childhood onwards, it forms part of the individual's education and continues to be similarly effective on a broader scale throughout the whole of society (Fig. 11). <8>

These brief indications of important aspects of the Japanese way of life should to some extent have clarified the contrast with conventional architectural observation, which only grasps the materially constructive and the formal. On the other hand, a consideration of important aspects of the Japanese cultural tradition, insofar as they are related to the house, permits the following comments: <12>

In this context too it is evident that the Japanese type of dwelling has preserved some very ancient space concepts. Architectural research has not reported on such circumstances, because the house, as a source of cultural aspects of human life has been ignored. It was essentially considered as something which is constructed, designed, on the highest level, something conceived as art, and, in its functions created for a type of life which one always thought to know in advance. But just this tacit assumption of "general human needs" is revealed as highly questionable in the case of Japan.

Continue to part 3
To Figure Captions
To Notes
To Bibliography
To 'Egenter: Complete Bibliography' 1
Back to homepage