The Evolution of Edo Architecture

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The Edo period (1603-1867) is often considered the era from which ‘traditional’ Japanese architecture is derived. The preceding Sengoku (戦国 – warring states) period (1467-1615) had been chaotic. By contrast, the following Edo or Tokugawa (徳川) period had a highly homogenised and stable feudal system under the military dictatorship of the Tokugawa Shogunate, with a peaceful social order and isolationist foreign policy. The return of this long-absent stability to Japan facilitated economic growth; in turn, this created the conditions for an explosion in culture, art and architecture nationally for more than a quarter of a millennium. The economic, social, physical and cultural environment thus informed how this evolution occurred.

Within the traditional Japanese architecture of the Edo period, a relationship with nature is deep-rooted: nature was to be respected, not conquered. This philosophy is derived from both religious and secular traditions. A love of nature is one of four affirmations of the Shinto religion, Japan’s indigenous religion, alongside cleanliness and family, while the secular sukiya-zukuri style also includes the use of natural materials as a major pillar.

As a result, the use of raw wood in buildings of all uses was essential, as it blended nature with man-made constructions. This requirement to be in touch with nature is shown in a variety of features, especially in gardens and porches.

Another demonstration of the importance of nature is the engawa (縁側), meaning ‘edge-side’, non-matted flooring used on the outside of a building, resembling a porch of usually around 1m in width. Larger buildings, completely surrounded by gardens, would often have their perimeter encapsulated by such porches.

In the space-constrained homes typical of the Edo period, engawa may run around the outside of a tsuboniwa (坪庭/壷庭/つぼにわ – small courtyard garden), providing a walkway and space to enjoy the outdoors. The engawa porch blurred the boundary between the interior and exterior of the home, a desirable characteristic in Edo Japan.

The aforementioned tsuboniwa is a great example of these blurred lines. Machiyas (townhouses) often contained one or more tsuboniwas. They contained lanterns, steppingstones and some plants which were arranged in the traditional tea-house style. These gardens served as quasi-outdoor introductions of natural light and nature to the interior of a house. Alongside adding this touch of nature, they provided passive ventilation to the home and could help to make a relatively small house feel larger.

Gardens were often placed so home occupants (or customers, in a tea-house) could view them while relaxing or eating dinner. This made them a preferred way to divide a house into two parts: commercial and domestic. The tsuboniwa were also cheaper and more space-efficient to build than larger gardens and so were more accessible to lower-class members of society at the time. It was for these reasons that these gardens were kept in so many machiyas (townhouses) and were such a key aspect of Edo architecture.

Sketch of a tsuboniwa containing stepping stones, a pond, a lantern and plants between two walls with shoji by Maximilian Edmunds.

The kyoshitsu-bu (domestic side of a townhouse) contained sliding panels, known as fusuma (襖) and shoji (障), and sat upon a raised timber flooring. Fusuma are vertical, rectangular, opaque panels of 2-3cm thickness used to divide rooms. They use a wood lattice substructure covered with a layer of paper or cloth, often decoratively painted with natural scenes. These sliding panels, which ran along wooden rails in the floor and ceiling, were traditionally waxed for easier repositioning.

The shoji is like a fusuma in many ways, but it is translucent. They still offered the benefit of privacy, but allowed gently diffused natural light to penetrate deep into the home, providing an organic form of ambient lighting throughout. They have the additional benefit of not clearly delineating between the home’s interior and exterior as a wall, as with engawa and tsuboniwa.

Shojis also allow external effects like the shadows of swaying trees or birdsong to be appreciated from within the house. They were thought to also passively encourage residents to follow sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り) guidelines through their light design, such as moving and speaking softly and gracefully.

Both types of sliding panels were often used in many layers from the inside to the outside of the home and could be moved easily for temperature regulation. Temperatures in Japan vary greatly with seasons, and so the ability to redefine one’s home to manage this was indispensable. Historically, fusuma and shoji had only been used by Japanese aristocrats; however, due to the economic growth of the Edo period, they spread to the homes of the lower classes. Shinto affirmations, like cleanliness, and other cultural factors, played a major role in sculpting the Edo architectural style. The minimalist nature of homes can also be attributed partly to the fact that simplicity facilitates cleanliness.

The floors of Japanese-style rooms – washitsu (和室) – are usually clad with tatami (畳). A tatami is a mat woven from soft rush used to provide comfortable flooring, like carpets in Western architecture. Originally, they were only used by the nobility, yet, once again, they became commonplace in the homes of lower-class members of society during the Edo period.

Tatamis are such a staple of washitsu that these rooms are often referred to as tatami rooms, and rooms of this style are traditionally measured by the number of mats a room contains. For example, the typical size of the sukiya-zukuri style room was 4.5 tatami. Mats were typically produced in a 2:1 length to width ratio of about 0.9m by 1.8m – although half-size mats were also produced. It is extremely bad etiquette to walk on the mats with shoes, as it damages the mats and is considered generally unclean, in opposition to Shinto principles; to avoid this, a shoe storage area, known as a genkan (玄関), would typically be situated outside of a tatami room or, indeed, the entire house.

A conventional example of a sukiyazukuri interior, containing tatami and shoji.

During the Edo period, different room layouts were believed to be ‘auspicious’ and ‘inauspicious’. Inauspicious layouts were believed to bring bad fortune and so were widely avoided. A ‘correct’ layout conventionally incorporates perpendicularly placed tatami mats of correct length and width. A futon or low table also may be placed within a washitsu.

The environment during the Edo period also shaped the architectural style. The highly variable weather and geological conditions influenced the choice and use of materials greatly. The city of Edo was repeatedly struck with fires and earthquakes. This led to the development of simpler architecture that could be reconstructed more swiftly in the likely event of damage.

During The Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, for example, stone embankments were built along the river to reduce fire spread. As time passed, these embankments were torn down and replaced with dozou (土蔵) – storehouses for canal boat cargo, which also acted as firebreakers. Duzous signified social status, as they showed both that one had possessions to protect as well as the wealth to build one.

These storehouses were supported with a wooden frame and coated with a few layers of earthen plaster, fireproofing both the storehouses and their contents. Although these storehouses were fireproof, the plaster did not hold up to rain; therefore, tile roofs also had to be installed. This was highly necessary, as Japan experiences an annual monsoon season. Bricks and stone, while both fireproof and waterproof, could not be used due to the high frequency of earthquakes in Japan, to which such materials are particularly vulnerable.

Sketch of a dozou with a tile roof and earthen plaster walls by Maximilian Edmunds.

The social economy of Japan during the Edo period greatly influenced the architectural style, as existing construction techniques spread to the masses. Economic growth and isolationist foreign policies influenced everything from building materials to domestic layouts and interior design. Newfound wealth allowed lower classes to incorporate features such as sliding doors and mats, while a lack of foreign trade restricted access to only local materials, principally clay and wood.

Throughout the Edo period, the design of the ‘machiya’ (町屋/町家 – townhouses) became much more refined. The traditional wooden townhouses are one of the two categories of Japanese vernacular architecture, alongside ‘nōka’ (farm dwellings). Vernacular architecture is building done outside of any academic tradition and without professional advice. The machiya typically housed ‘chōnin’ (townspeople), comprising the two lowest social classes: craftsmen and merchants.

These townhouses typically existed in deep and narrow plots bordering the street, with the width of the plot denoting the wealth of the owner. The second character in machiya (ya) can either mean house (家) or shop (屋) depending on the kanji used to express it. This is because traditionally the face of the building would serve as a shopfront with shutters that could be opened to display goods. Behind this space was the living space called the kyoshitsu-bu (居室部). These buildings were typically one or two stories tall and used earthen walls with baked tile roofs.

One of the main developments in the Edo period was the prevalence of sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り) architecture among the lower classes. Suki means refined, well-cultivated taste and delight in elegant pursuits and originally referred to a building in which a tea ceremony would take place. For this reason, the style is sometimes known as the tea-house style.

Sukiya-zukuri is distinguished by its simple and austere style, using natural materials such as raw wood and natural earthen plaster. The characteristic architectural features of sukiya-zukuri include a nakabashira (中柱 – central column), tokonoma (床の間 – alcove) and tana (棚 – shelves), as well as freedom of arrangement with portable doors and flooring.

The graceful subtlety of the slender wood and other natural materials used, coupled with the sparsity of ornamentation, contribute greatly to the beauty of the sukiya-zukuri. The connection with nature and the humble nature of buildings are similarly of utmost importance to the design. It was only during the Edo period that this style became mainstream in the Japanese public, with most homes being built in this way.

The emphasis in Edo architecture on stewardship of nature, rather than dominion over it, has become increasingly important to modern architects the world over. As society pushes towards a future of more circular and sustainable design, the traditional Japanese architecture developed in the Edo period has become a pivotal point of reference and inspiration.

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