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Wabi-sabi & Architecture

Wabi-sabi & Architecture

Wabi-sabi was amplified through the tea ceremony and the image of a traditional teahouse springs to mind for most people when we think of wabi-sabi architecture. But in post-war Japan there have been some fascinating buildings designed with similar principles in mind.

The Metabolists were one of the last avant-garde movements in architecture and they imagined a radical re-building of post-war Japan. The swansong of the Metabolist movement was the Osaka Expo of 1970 (picture above).  Here, the Metabolist obsession with space frames, capsules and modular living was given space to flourish.

The beauty and cosmetics company Takara commissioned the Metabolist Kurokawa Kisho  to design and build its pavilion at the Expo. The result was the Beautilion, an astonishing modular design made from steel pipe that could extend or shrink in any dimension.

Takara Beautilion Osaka Expo

The Beautilion pavilion at Expo 70

The markers of wabi-sabi are impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness, but Japanese architecture has always had these elements to it: the Ise shrine  existed long before the concept of wabi-sabi came into being. Kurokawa’s design acknowledges the futility of buildings as permanent monuments and how the passage of time reveals flaws in all designs. His modular system was meant to naturally adapt to this inevitable cycle of construction and destruction.

The slowly deteriorating Nakagin capsule tower

Unfortunately, this conceptual reliance on Japanese traditional aesthetics ran into some practical challenges. The only building that fulfilled these ideals and that was actually built, the Nagakin Capsule Tower, was a monument to Metabolism from the moment of its completion and has remained unchanged since, slowly falling into disrepair rather than continually being updated and changed as envisaged by Kurokawa.