Do you believe that modernist architecture is western culture’s gift to the world? If so, think again. Modernism has been less disruptively original as you might think. What lies behind many of the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, or the Eameses were actually invented in the Japanese middle ages. We have just copied and pasted them into European designs and almost no one has noticed.
When JAPAN opened our eyes
It all started in Chicago. Towards the end of the 19th century when it was time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus hitting the beaches in Hispaniola. The World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago became the biggest pastiche of architecture ever built. Disney World would look like razor-sharp minimalism in comparison.
The greatest American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was horrified at the exhibition halls, all set in dated Beaux Arts style, made of wood and plaster and coated in white. None of these white buildings made history. Instead, a gift from the Japanese emperor changed the course of architecture when it caught Wright’s attention.
In little island isolated from the rest was the Ho-o-Den, the Japanese pavilion by Masamichi Kuru. It was a scaled-down version of the temple of Hō-ō-dō built in 1052 in Uji, near Kyoto. The Chicago version also called as The Phoenix pavillion, was adapted from a sacred Buddhist temple into a secular one, and it featured some of the greatest hits of more than 1000 years of Japanese building tradition.
It can be difficult to understand how Japanese architecture has been around for thousands of years but was barely known to western architects of the time. That’s why this building stood out and sparked in Frank Lloyd Wright a love affair with Japanese culture. The building felt organic and looked natural, compared to traditional western architecture.
The timing could not have been better. Wright was looking beyond the boundaries of traditional architecture to solve a prehistoric problem: how to design comfortable private homes that normal people would be inspired to live in.
Wright and other modernist architects would go on to create more innovation in the next 100 years than previous builders had done in 2000. In an age when we are continually told about the cutting-edge modernity of Western culture, it easy to forget, that homes had seen little improvement since Augustus was emperor.
JAPAN GAVE US OPEN PLAN houses
While traditional European houses were rigidly divided into separate enclosed rooms, the Phoenix Pavilion presented Wright a free plan schema with interconnected open indoor spaces that could be adapted with movable screens.
JAPAN GAVE US HOMES OPEN TO NATURE
Here is more. While traditional homes had no interaction whatsoever with the surrounding nature, the Ho O den welcomed the outdoors, with sliding doors opening to the nature with terraces.
Wright revolutionized home design, and is now regarded as the most influential American architect ever, setting the style of the new 20th century. Yet the blueprints of Wright’s Prairie houses were built on those Japanese principles of open spaces and interacting with nature. Wright’s Obsidian houses, which were meant to provide quality living for the middle classes, developed even further this Japanese idea of blurring the barriers between indoors and outdoors.
JAPan make us love materials again
The architects of the Case Study program showed what can happen when the new construction materials and Japanese-inspired designs came together, beautifully exchanging wood with steel in the best-looking houses ever.
And the western world love the idea
These Japanese features totally revised the way we consider our modern houses, how we live in them, and even how we see ourselves. Open spaces, interaction with nature, and authenticity in building materials are the lasting ideas. Their continuing appeal is due partly to the fact that they are based on a 1000-year-old proof of concept, and it still rocks.
Wright revolutionized home design, and is now regarded as the most influential American architect ever, setting the style of the new 20th century. The Disciples of Wright such as Rudolf Shindler found the perfect space to pursue their ideas into open plan house that you and I can dream about living in. Neutra, the Eames and Philip Johnson followed after, inspiring also the architects of our modern homes.
So, while you’re sitting in your modern terrace and enjoying a rosé or beer after work, you might want to spare a toast to that generous Japanese emperor who showed us what being modern is all about.
Cover picture by Yuki Yaginuma, Traditional Japanese houses by Wakiiii, Mark B. Schlemmer, Tanaka Juuyoh, and Emile B under Creative Commons license. Neutra house by Julius Shulman, Eames house by Edward Stojakovic and
Philip Johnson house by Mark B. Schlemmer.