Japanese Version

Japanese Traditional Architecture


From a 1994 Conversation with RAYMOND HEGE, A.I.A.



Steve Beimel: Ray, you seem to be taken by traditional Japanese architecture more than almost anyone I've ever met. How did that interest develop?

Ray Hege: I have always been very much moved when in a traditional Japanese space. There is a simplicity and almost an austerity in classical Japanese architecture that I find really fascinating and that evokes something in me. Eventually, I realized that my feeling was no accident. It was the architect's actual intention to evoke a such a state of being, of wabi  (rusticity, frugality) and sabi  (elegan simplicity, patinated).


SB: Could you describe that feeling?

RH: The feeling is peaceful, blissful. It is like sitting in a redwood forest under a canopy of trees, as the lights filters through the foliage. Japanese architecture deals a lot with shadows. There are no brightly lit spaces. With a deep roof overhang and sliding translucent paper shoji doors, the light comes through the white paper and creates an environment of shadows. It is a very peaceful, natural environment. There is a feeling of deep spirituality present.


SB: What I hear you saying is that the building functions to bring you present to the peaceful, spiritual experience that already exists inside of you.

RH: Yes, absolutely.


SB: It is not stimulating you like a multi-colored tapestry or a very ornate cathedral. It brings you here, right now, allowing the deeper reality of you to come forward from inside of you.

RH: There are those who would argue that the cathedrals were also designed to evoke something that was already there. The Zen influenced part of me says that nothing shows up that wasn't there to begin with. It is all natural. Japanese architecture happens to bring out a specific quality ·of something that is inside of us versus a punk rock club that is designed to bring out something different which, too, is already in there.


SB: So, going into a colorfully ornamented cathedral is exalting, but it also may be very emotional. For me, being in a traditional Japanese building is quieting. It is almost a mental experience because I feel sharp and focused. I feel aware of my breathing and the surroundings. It is not emotional, but it seems to enhance my mental and emotional awareness. So instead of reaching the heights and depths of emotion, I feel very present, very whole and richly moved.

RH: You look at Japanese religions, especially Shinto and the sect of Buddhism that I follow, Zen, and you see that they were designed to evoke that certain emotion. It is not a theology based on an outside God that we look up to and exalt, but rather that God exists in all of us and we are a manifestation of that. So there is no separation.

If you look at religious structures that are designed in Japan, they really fall into two categories. First there are the temple structures which house a statue of Buddha, and are similar to the western cathedral. Then there are the living and training quarters of the priests and monks, such as in the sub-temples of monasteries. These are residential structures and are basically the same as good traditional Japanese houses. In fact, often times priests' quarters were originally the homes of royalty or a shogun which had later been donated to a temple.


SB: I also see, from what you are saying, that because of the warmth of the wood and the textures, the cleanness of the lines and the way things are put together with such attention and care, one can get a feeling of self-nurturing just being there.

RH: Yes. It is designed to evoke the romanticized concept of nature as a source of all mankind. It is nature "in parenthesis" because it is not a realistic view of nature, but one that is based on either a Buddhist or Shinto view of giving nurturing and succor to you.


SB: What are some of the ways that this is accomplished?

RH: You look at a good Japanese architectural design and you see the juxtaposition of the interior and the exterior. There is the integration of the garden into the house with the use of the engawa(veranda) as a transitional space. You can see it in the way a mountain is successfully integrated into the whole of the environment. They gradually reduce the amount of plant trimming as one moves farther away from the precisely trimmed foreground to the middle-ground, and finally to the mountain background itself where at some point there is no trimming at all. Then the pond may run up to the engawa (veranda) with the roof overhangs. The walls are almost an afterthought. You've got a roof structure that is designed to be a metaphor for a forest canopy, with long overhangs and typically an unexposed wood structure. It is a very rustic, natural environment. The floor is another main structural element. The walls of a Japanese structure are different from ours, because they can be completely removed in the summertime, just leaving a roof structure and a floor to sit on, so there is a natural feel.


SB: And the floors are made of woven grass.

RH: With the tatami mat. This is very different from the floor of the cathedral, or the Gothic house made of stone.


SB: In the European house, the inside and the outside are two separate areas and they don't seem to relate to each other very much.

RH: Yes, the house is designed as a barrier to the outside, a protection. Whereas Japan seems almost like a Polynesian culture that is located in a rather inhospitable climate with freezing winters and snow. And yet they are living in houses with walls that are essentially paper. They traditionally wore nothing more than a robe with sandals. In Europe there was a feeling of man against nature where we had to conquer and overcome the environment and dominate it. Japan, on the other hand, was a society that was looking at nature as an idealized form, an expression of who we are. It was something that was to be embraced, nurtured, incorporated into life. To truly be self-expressive as a human being the emphasis was to be in touch with the natural environment.


SB: Do you remember when we visited Murin an? It  is a typical Japanese house of the 1890's built next to a European style house of the same era, with inlaid floors, heavy Victorian furniture and tapestries covering the windows and darkening the rooms.

RH: Yes. It is interesting to see the Japanese attempting to copy what they saw to be the western aesthetic. They felt that if it was a western house it needed to built of stone, which was a big change for them. The living space in  that house was on the second floor, which is getting up and away from nature. It had two or three windows per room, maximum. Well, the Japanese structure next door had removable walls that opened up to the garden. There was actually no relationship between the inside and outside in the western building. You could have been in London for all you knew instead in a really gorgeous Japanese garden. On the other hand, in a recent issue of "Architectural Digest," there was a Japanese pavilion that had been sent to the world's fair in Chicago built in 1912. After that it was moved to New York by a Japanese doctor. It is interesting to see American influence inside a "traditional" Japanese house which they had managed to clutter up and somewhat darken. It is the Japanese trying to make a Japanese house look western to fit in more with the American sensibilities.

You can't look at Japanese architecture without looking at the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony started out as an ostentatious affair based on the Chinese model. After the shift of power from the Emperor to the Shogun, we see the rise of the Samurai and their adoption of Zen as an aesthetic, starting around the year 1200. A lot of the shift in tastes came out of the changes in the tea ceremony from a decadent, heavily Chinese influenced past time of the aristocracy to one more in tune with the native Japanese sensibility. People would get together and instead of having the most ornate bowl, they would look for the most rustic, natural looking bowl.


SB: Which is of course very evocative.

RH: Yes, the aesthetic that began to permeate through the society can be clearly seen in the hut designed for a monk for his tea ceremonies. So instead of having an ostentatious Chinese palace, they created those gorgeous, handcrafted, small, pared down structures. It then became gauche to have an ornate gold bowl and preferable to have the hand built bowl of a monk.


SB: One of the things that I remember about the time we spent together in Kyoto was watching your reaction to architectural and craftsmanship details in construction of various sites.

RH: Yes, almost like a tree. I think it was Mies van der Rohe who said, "God lives in the details." For me, there are two important things in architecture: the volume and the space of the building, and a furniture kind of quality of certain kinds of architecture. Instead of being just a white plaster box or cement form, like in a cathedral where the volume is so massive that you lose the texture of the detail, there is a quality to Japanese architecture in the way the pieces fit together that are to me, like the way a poem uses words versus the way a story does. Often times you hear a story, but you lose the words. But in poetry, the words themselves become the fabric of what is being indicated. In Japanese architecture, the detail in the craftsmanship, the way the pieces are put together are like a good poem. I think the surprise you saw on my face was a result of my trying to recreate that level of detail, from having struggled with photographs and to finally be able to see first hand how things were put together. In fact, when I got back from Kyoto, I tore down an entire engawa roof canopy on my house and completely reconstructed it because I had used the wrong details.


SB: What amazes me is that you did that in just a few weeks.

RH: I tend to approach architecture in kind of a Zen way. I think about it for a long time in my head and dwell upon it, and when I actually sit down to draw, it just comes out all completed without pause or hesitation. So, I sat on the plane and thought about how I was going to tear it down and re-do it. I enjoy that part of my house, especially when it is raining, and I look out at the garden, and there is a special quality. Something about rain in Japan that goes together with the architecture. Looking at the texture of the roof as it looks out on the garden, very much evokes the taste and smell of Japan.


SB: There is a real consistency, a flow of transitions throughout traditional Japanese structures. The details seem to tie things together with that same quality of detail throughout.

RH:  I think that the homogeneousness or the consistency of space  has more to do with the fact that rooms traditionally had multiple functions. The living room might be used as the eating room and the bedroom for, let's say, the parents in a family. They might open the rooms together during meal time for the extended family or during the warmer parts of the year. So the integration that you are speaking about had to do with the fact that the rooms were used for different functions by different people concurrently. There wasn't so much differentiation between the public and private part of the house, since for the most part people did not entertain much at home.


SB: Coming back to the U.S., while driving around Los Angeles, I often see dwellings with a definite Japanese feel.

RH: Interestingly enough, much of that came from Frank Lloyd Wright. Before he went to Japan to do the Imperial Hotel, he was doing little Gothic boxes based on traditional English architecture, from the Beaux Arts. Then when he came back from Japan he introduced his unique Prairie Style, which had very long low roofs. He would use walls to encapture the garden, which came from the traditional villas he saw in Japan, with walled courtyards in entry ways. It was the influence of Japan which helped him break out of what he called "the box," where he saw that the wall no longer need to be the fundamental element of architecture. You had these planes given by the roof and the floor and then you would have periodic vertical elements supporting it. His ribbon window is like the shoji window. In Japan, especially in Kyoto where they would have the long window on the second floor. About the time he returned from Japan, there was a Japanese exhibition at the World's Fair for the first time and it became a rage in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Japanese aesthetic was picked up in the Deco Movement, and you can see a definite Oriental line in its design and with women wearing kimono. And then, amongst the very rich in California, it became fashionable to have a Japanese garden in the 20's and the 30's. You can look at the Huntington Estate as well as some other estates throughout parts of Pasadena and San Marino. There were supposed to be around 100 Japanese gardens at that time. Most of them have disappeared. Sometimes they would have a tea house built in the Japanese style or a servants' quarters. Those were often converted into residences.

After World War II, Wright came to California and worked with Rudolph Schindler and Richard Nuetra, and they were using his Japanese influenced aesthetic. There is actually a book called Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan, that shows the development of his style with examples of buildings he designed and the specific buildings in Japan that inspired them. Those long roofed overhangs were a very appropriate style for what we call the California ranch house, which is really based on a scaled down version of one of his prairie houses. The aesthetic was very good for California which was, like Japan, a wood architecture versus the masonry architecture of the east. Wright did some California ranch-style houses up in the Palos Verdes area of Los Angeles and the local builders at that time began to pick that up.


SB: The work I've seen of yours seems to be more Japanese style than the Japanese influenced style that you've been speaking about. By the way, concerning your work, what is your current architectural dream, Ray?

RH: Ultimately, I would like to build a Japanese style villa in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles for myself. I want to build my other Japanese traditional dream house on the Philospher's Walk in the eastern section of Kyoto. (With laughter and lots of sparkle in his eyes) Really my ideal is to spend spring and fall in Japan and summer and winter in California. That would be the best of both worlds!


SB: I'm ready for that!