Utopia and Nostalgic Return

  • Fred Thompson


The term ‘traditional Japanese architecture’ often causes confusion
because people want the architecture of a certain period to either
continue endlessly, or to be substituted by some kind of facsimile.
This paper maintains that the roots of Japanese architecture continue
and that these roots make themselves evident at times of upheaval
and renewal.
Japan consists of a number islands which have had periods of
isolation both internationally, and nationally from ‘political lockdown’
within. And yet these periods of isolation have often produced
a veritable zenith in the houses of what Bruno Taut called “the
peasants”, and the author has chosen to call ‘commoners (minka)’.
One example this is the Japanese tea house, which came about at a
time of heightened military dominance. Castles were the strongholds
of power complete with large rooms in which the rituals of state
demanded order by rank. Beside this show of power came the humble
tea house, used for the simple tea ceremony, sometimes between as few as two people.

The roots of this humble hut, if we can call it
such, carried with it the same structural principles as the minka, or
commoner’s house. A non-loadbearing structure of post and lintel
construction for the sole purpose of concentrating on “the sound of
boiling water”. Out of the dream of power came the need for humility.
The warrior’s power lay in the control of space; the tea master’s in the
control of time. The architecture responds. The building is an event


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Author Biography

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson is Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the
University of Waterloo, Canada. He has made an extnsive study of
the relationship between ritual and space, particularly in Japanese
culture, and the relation of these issues in Japanese culture and
Western ideas of space. In addition he has published Ritual and Space
(1988) and a pivotal thesis titled A Comparison between Japanese Exterior
Space and Western Commonplace (1988). In addition, he has been a
visiting professor at various schools of architecture, including the
Helsinki University of Technology, Finland; Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, New
York, USA; the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden;
the University of Lund, School of Architecture and Design, Sweden;
and the Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark.