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Japan Adventures: Structures

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Japan Adventures: Structures

[fusion_text]By Eric Wong

The Japanese aesthetic is unmistakable: minimalistic, functional, and balanced. And the ambience it creates equally distinct: calm, peaceful, and soothing.

The parts of Kyoto built in the new millennium represent a nod to styles of the past with a modern flair. The ancient Kyoto lives on today as it did in its earliest days, with some twenty-first century additions.

In place of the internationally recognized rock garden found at Ryōan-ji and humble window shades, modern renditions of these features are dry gardens and façade accessories. These serve their original functions but at a different setting or scale.

As an aspiring engineer and architect, Japan has provided an age-old tested and proven source of inspiration for purposeful design.


Zen rock garden at Ryōan-ji, widely considered as the world’s greatest dry landscape.

The Old

What drew me to Japan in the first place was their attention to detail and unyielding pursuit of precision, especially when it came to their woodwork. What I was able to experience was exactly the famed seamless connection details and minimal inclusion of metal that I had expected.

From simple dovetail joints to strategic plugin replacements for knots, I was truly in my structural engineer heaven.

Every element clearly reflected a great amount of thought to its purpose locally and within the overall structure, and all of this was out for anyone to see. For me, that is the greatest beauty of the sea of temples and shrines I had the opportunity to explore all over Kyoto.


Goei-dō or Founder’s Hall Gate at Higashi Hongan-ji. It is considered one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

But what is equally impressive and worthy of praise is the impeccable restoration and renovation that preserves these structural wonders to their original glory. What I’ve come to realize is that what allows these carefully crafted structures to remain as they were built is the complete and thorough understanding of the buildings.

Ancient Japanese architecture is an intricate 3-D puzzle with every beam and column playing a pivotal role with little wiggle room. But temple after temple and castle after castle, Japan’s rich history is perfectly preserved for structural engineers like me to marvel at and admire.

The New

The most exciting and interesting of the new structures that I’ve seen in Japan are what I see as abstractions. The differences are stark, but the inspiration is undeniably singular and the result, I would argue, is even more entrancing. Like its predecessors, modern Japanese architecture continues to pursue balance through deliberate design choices but what the biggest difference is the humbleness in the design.


Ryokoku Museum, a comprehensive Buddhist museum, featuring a distinctive wooden facade.

What remains of the old is associated with the other worldly, the royal, and the craftsmen. The buildings that were constructed to house these aspects of Japanese society had to inspire those visiting and elevate those using them. Whether this is achieved through grandeur in size, decoration, or surrounding the old induces a sense of admiration through its intricacies.

Why I consider modern structures as humble abstractions of the old is because there are clear design connections between the two styles. Remnants of the past are reimagined in a simple and pure form to highlight the effect that they had in their originators. From the formwork used during the casting of the concrete on interior walls leaving behind their wooden imprints, to unobstructed views into their surrounding areas, there is a distinct Japanese feeling to these structures without the intricate engravings or decorations. The same feeling of inspiration and mindfulness is achieved with minimalism.


Byodoin Museum, Uji. First hallway from the entrance featuring one of Japan’s national treasure, a temple bell, through latticework.

The Forgotten

There’s no city where there aren’t these areas, but there was something magical about the one that made me do a double take and back up a dead-end just for a picture. The cracked windows and dirt caked concrete remains of what may have been a residential building seemed to be living. It looked like a scene taken straight out of a Studio Ghibli animation, and maybe that was what captured my attention. The sight reminded me that the people come and go but the design remains. What we create will last and how it will incorporate itself into its surrounding is just as important to consider.


Abandoned building on a side street off Imadegawa.

Eric is a rising junior at MIT in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with a focus on the intersection between structural engineering and architecture. He’s interested in the power and process of design in creating sustainable, captivating structures. This summer Eric is researching structural optimization under Professor Makoto Ohsaki at Kyoto University through CEE and MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives).