The Convergence of the Pacific Northwest and Japanese Traditional Architecture

The PNW history of architecture is not a long one. It has been a bit more than two hundred years since Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the earlier part of this short period, its architecture was either log cabin that serves settlers and the mill industry or house styles imported from the East Coast. One can say that Japanese architecture is a major influence in recent PNW architecture. It is true when we consider the influence of Modernist architecture whose very tenets took inspiration from the traditional Japanese architecture. During the modernist period, the PNW had already produced many influential architects that has carried on its tradition while successfully integrating the regional characteristics that become something we would call Regionalism.

Gene Zema Architecture Office

Graham House by Arthur Erickson (1965)

Guest House - Bloedel Reserve by Paul Kirk (1962)

Urban Cabin by George Suyama

In my opinion, “Japan-ness” in modern PNW is a product of Modernism but also an inherent characteristic of the region. After the East-Coast-imported architecture that happened very early in the history and before the introduction of Modernism into the PNW, the regional characteristic was already the key to the similarity between Japanese architecture and the PNW architecture today. PNW architecture, if there is a source of influence, it is the abundance of forest that provides the building material of choice and the mild climate that permits the indoor / outdoor lifestyle. Natural beauty was also the important factor in shaping its architecture. In a region with such abundance of mountains, lakes, forest and mild climate, there is little desire for an architecture to be dominant or shielded off from the elements. In its short history, the PNW architecture has developed a reverence for nature, the honesty and appreciation of living among the elements and the expertise in wood building and craftsmanship. These are also the principal beliefs of the Japanese culture and architecture. Thus, there is an interesting convergence between the PNW and the Japanese architecture.

A Veranda in Traditional Japanese Architecture

That convergence manifest itself when both architecture struggle for light. Light, or (more precisely) darkness is what defines both architecture. However, in the traditional Japanese architecture, darkness is a result of structural issue while in the PNW architecture, darkness is the result of regional climate that gives short daytime half of the year and overcast days most of the time. Japanese architecture is about darkness. Because of earthquake potential, the use of light and flexible materials such as shoji screen wall and light wood framing is favorable. Such materials calls for low and large overhang roof to protect from rain and wind. This prominent design of the roof creates long and dark shadow. The Japanese aesthetic therefore came from living in such constraint.

Hiroshige Museum of Art by Kengo Kuma (2000)

The PNW architecture, on the other hand, is a story of overcoming long, dark and overcast weather by open up the interior and creating as more fenestration as possible. So, having the same result but from completely different influence, the architecture of both lend themselves similarities. “Japan-ness” in modern PNW architecture is a product of Modernism but also an inherent characteristic of the region. Due to various regional characteristics, there is no where in the country such influence or similarities realized in such closeness.

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