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Japanese Architecture - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1921 )



A. Plans. Shinto temples are distinguished from Buddhist by having " torii " or gateways of upright pillars supporting two or more transverse beams, under which it is considered necessary to pass for prayers to be effectual. Japanese houses are entered through a vestibule, and have a verandah, dining-, living-, and guest-rooms, with the recess (tokonoma) for pictures and flower vase. There are also rooms for host and hostess, but no bedrooms proper, as any room becomes a sleeping-room at will, by spreading mattress and coverlet from the side cupboard on to the floor. House treasures are kept in the " go-down " or strong-room. Screens are used to divide spaces, and are also removed to throw the whole house open to the gardens. The size of rooms is regulated by mats (tatami) used as floor coverings, which measure one " ken" (6 ft.) by one "half-ken," each room being some multiple of these (p. 823 D, F). Royal mats are 7 ft. by 3 it. 6 ins. Houses owe their bright and cheerful character to their setting in gardens with hanging flowers, fountains, rockery, water, and stepping-stones.

B. Walls.—Most houses are of wood-framing and card-board, which is safer in the frequent earthquakes than stone or brick. Temple walls are formed of timber posts and rails dividing the surfaces into regular oblong spaces, filled in with plaster, boarding, or carved and painted panels (p. 823 A). Light is introduced principally through the doorways. An elaborate system of cornice-bracketing forms one of the most characteristic features of Japanese buildings (p. 823). Immediately above the pillars there is a highly decorated frieze-like space, and over this the bracketing consists of a series of projecting wooden corbels supporting horizontal beams and rafters with decorated faces, the total projection of the roof beyond the wall often being as much as 8 ft. The disposition of pillars, posts, brackets, and rafters forming these cornices appears to be according to well-recognised modules of measurement, with which we may compare the standards of proportions for the Orders laid down by Vitruvius and the Renaissance architects (p. 542). Optical illusions are sometimes corrected by cambering the underside of beams (cf. Greek architecture, p. 71).

C. Openings.—Owing to the great projection of roofs over the window openings there is little direct light from the sky, and much of the light in the interior is reflected up from the ground. Windows are filled in with trellis-work and wooden shutters on the outside and paper slides on the inside, and are protected under verandahs (p. 823). Temples are approached by " torii " or gateways, formed of plain uprights and horizontal beams for primitive Shinto temples, and elaborate two-storeyed structures, surmounted by a muniment room with ornate roof, for Buddhist temples.

D. Roofs.—The roofs bear a general resemblance to those of China, but as a rule are simpler in treatment (p. 823). The method of terminating the upper part of the roof, as in China, in a gable vertically above the end wall (known as an " I'rimoya " gable) while carrying the lower part round the ends in a hipped form, produces a combination roof which is half hipped and half gabled (p. 823 A, H). The covering is of shingles, thatch, or tiles. Thatched roofs often have a prominent protecting ridge of tiles with an exaggerated cresting which gives a top-heavy appearance to the building, or the ridge may be of stout bamboos tied up with blackened rope and finished with finials. Tiled roofs have flattish and roll tiles alternately, while cover tiles, like antefixae (p. 861), are used to hide the joints at_ the eaves. Ridges and hips are made up of layers of tiles in mortar, finished with large moulded tile capping and crestings. A lower roof, known as " hisashi," sometimes projects below the eaves of the main roof. Hollowed bamboos form the roof gutters and down-pipes. The gable ends often have cusped barge-boards with pendants (p. 823 H, J, M).

E. Columns. Columns, which followed the Chinese type, are conspicuous in Japanese temple buildings and in the bays of the facades of palaces and gateways. In temples there was generally a columned loggia, either round three sides or forming a facade, and the outer columns are braced to the columns of the main building ; besides this there is often a portico over the approach steps which rests on timber columns, held together at the top by horizontal tie-beams, above which are the cornice brackets to the roof. In large temples and halls the internal columns are provided with much compound bracketing to support the roof. Inter-columniation is regulated by a standard of about six feet called a "ken," which is divided into twenty minutes, each minute being divided into twenty-two seconds of space. Columns when square are panelled, and when round or octagonal are reeded, and are often richly lacquered, while the upper part is painted in embroidery patterns. Columns are sometimes made to incline inwards instead of being vertical, probably on account of earthquakes.

F. Mouldings.—Just as Japanese roofs and columns are of the same material as those of China, so is there a similar absence of mouldings. The decoration of the walls, too, is largely of tiles or glazed faience, and wherever this occurs, mouldings, as in Byzantine architecture, become unimportant, and to this Japan, like China, is no exception.

G. Ornament.—Coloured and carved panels forming enclosing walls, elaborate projecting eaves to roofs, and the " ramma" or pierced ventilating friezes under the cornices are characteristic. In the friezes, panels in high relief frequently occur, representing such subjects as the chrysanthemum, the jay, stork, and pine tree. Ornamental brass caps, incised in patterns and usually gilded to preserve them from corrosion, are sometimes fixed to ends of projecting timbers, to junctions of beams and pillars, to bases and neckings of posts and on doors in order to hide the connection of stiles and rails and open joints, due to shrinkage (p. 823). Embossed gilt metalwork is also liberally applied to gable-boards and pendants. Colour decoration, introduced from China in the sixth century, is very generally applied to the interior and exterior of Japanese temples. Beams, brackets, carvings, and flat spaces are picked out in gilding and bright colours, such as blue, green, purple, madder, and vermilion. Wall paintings are generally on a gold ground and represent animals, birds, and flowers. Supporting pillars are usually black, red, or gold. Frequent subjects for decoration are birds of bright plumage, such as cranes, peacocks, pheasants, and ducks, as well as flowers, water-plants, trees, bamboos, and lions, combined with weird and grotesque demons, resulting in a curious mixture of conventional, realistic, and symbolic forms. Japanese genius for decoration showed itself in their meticulous treatment of details rather than in originality of design, and it has produced marvellous textile pictures in embroidery and tapestry with architectural features, processions, figures, mountains, and sky. All the accessories of architectural design, lacquer-work, enamels, faience, bronzes, and ivories vie with one another in minuteness of accuracy, softness of colour, and profusion of detail. Japanese art was largely inspired by Chinese, which it probably surpassed in everything except in the marvels of Nankin blue china, and in the world-famous paintings of " Old Cathay."



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