Friday, August 19, 2005

Japanese Carpentry and Yestermorrow

The past couple of weeks I have been doing a lot of reading on traditional Japanese architecture and carpentry. I'm not sure why, I haven't really been into Japanese history or culture before, but being a part-time carpenter myself I find this shit pretty cool. The methods and skills used in Japan to construct a traditional building contrast dramatically with those historically used in the United States and Europe.

The construction of monuments in Europe were almost always made of stone and brick, in China and Korea stone was primarily used for temples and shrines, while those in Japan were usually made of wood. This got me thinking, why did the Japanese builders of the time rely so heavily on wood? Being a volcanic archipelago, with an abundance of earthquakes over the centuries, wouldn't stone be a better choice for building temples and such? What I found out was that as new political regimes came into power in medieval Japan, there was an increase in the support of traditional craftsmanship, part of the reason being economic, and part of it was a way for the new rulers to make sure the workers were kept in check. What really fascinates me is the joinery used in their carpentry. Today we use mechanical fasteners (nails and screws) and hardware to join wood, but the Japanese made these incredibly intricate joints using what we would consider crude tools, no tablesaws or routers. I would never have the patience for that, but I think it is beautiful.

The other thing that fascinated me as I read was the sacred element of building. A tree is believed to possess a spirit, and when a carpenter cuts down a tree he is committing a moral sin of sorts. Because of this, the carpenter believes he must build something of beauty from the wood. Now I am also a realist, and I realize this philosophy doesn't carry over to most building done in the Western world today, but the idea is worth pondering. Afterall, if carpentry is a creative art form, and I believe it can be, then the craftsmen are the artists. Historically, in Japan at least, carpenters were often the designers as well, not so today.

A few years ago I came across a school in Vermont that believes that designers should also be able to build. The Yestermorrow Design/Build School believes that the best built homes depend on the cooperation of designers and builders. Some of their courses include not only design and building basics, but also furniture design, timberframing, metalworking, joinery, and my favorite, treehouse design (I am in the process of building a treehouse for my daughter right now). I have yet to take a course from this school, but plan to in the future.

Listening to: J.J. Cale- Troubadour


CHW said...

Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

A decent book on the subject is "The Art of Japanese Joinery" by Kiyosi Seike.