Heinrich Engel — The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture

19.01.2020

This certainly is the book I never completely read that I think about the most. It caught my eye because of its sheer size: the book weighs 2.6 kg! When I started browsing through its pages I was mesmerized. “The Japanese House” is a monumental opus containing the most fine-grained examination of Japanese architecture one could ever imagine.

“The Japanese House” is filled with pages upon pages of detailed drawings and plans of every aspect of a traditional Japanese house. However, it does not stop there — the book becomes an elaborate study of Japanese culture, society and life. It looks into every facet that could possibly influence the way this traditional style of building came to be.

The author, Heinrich Engel In later editions referred to as Heino Engel, was a German architect. It is not easy to find information about him, though he has published several books, but this is what I could gather: Born in 1925 he studied architecture in Germany after the Second World War. In 1952 he left Germany and traveled through a number of eastern countries, before arriving in Japan. There he became fascinated with Japanese architecture and culture and stayed for three years, living with a Japanese family in Otsu. Later he taught at the University of Minnesota, returning to Offenbach, Germany, in 1964, where (from what I can tell) he spent the rest of his life until his death in 2013 I found an obituary which I suspect is about him, but I am not totally sure about this.. If I remember correctly — it has been a few years since I read the original — Engel started writing about Japanese architecture for his dissertation, which later became one of many chapters in the book. This might tell you something about the thoroughness of his writing.

The book was originally published in 1964 and after several reprints — in 1985 there had already been eleven — is unfortunately out of print today. There are some used copies to have, at wildly varying prices Depending on availability and condition prices start at 100€, but used copies also regularly go on Amazon for 800€.. I had only seen the original book at my university’s library, so I was happy when I found out that in 1985 the two chapters from the book that I care about the most had been singled out and published as a separate paperback book called “Measure and Construction of the Japanese House”, which is luckily readily available. This release is much smaller than the original and does not quite do it justice, but given its price and availability it is a more than decent surrogate. I am currently still in the process of reading this volume and will update this article whenever I read something that I find worth sharing. These are the things I learned so far:

Length unit: Ken

I was astonished by the fact that the Japanese language once had a specific word for a measurement unit which is not defined as an absolute value, but simply as a uniform length that defines the rhythm of a building:

In the latter half of Japan’s Middle Ages another length unit, the ken, appeared. Ken originally designated the interval between two columns of any wooden structure and varied in size. Heino Engel in Measure and Construction of the Japanese House, page 22

While “ken” quickly became standardized to mean a specific measurement 6 shaku or about 1.82 meter it still amazes me that a culture could have a length unit for such an abstract property of design.

The Kyo-Ma Method and the Inaka-Ma Method

Every designer knows the challenge of setting up a grid and being confronted with the decision whether the spacing between the content of the columns (or rows), usually referred to as “gutter”, is sitting between the columns or is considered to be part of the columns themselves. I have been switching between both methods depending on the project (and sometimes later regretted the decision I made), so I felt validated when I learned that the same discussion has been common in Japanese architecture for centuries, where a grid of tatami mats defines the grid of buildings. Is the wall part of the mats, or placed between?

Over time two different methods of design have been established: the “kyo-ma”, where the columns are spaced according to the width of the mats, which results in different distances between the columns for with the same amount of mats in between; and the “inaka-ma” method, where all columns are placed on a strict grid, which results in multiple sizes of mats.

A comparison between the two methods — top: “inaka-ma”, bottom: “kyo-ma”.

Historically speaking, the kyo-ma method was primarily used with in cities (“kyo-ma ken” literally means “column distance in metropolis measurement”) while the inaka-ma method was used in the countryside (“inaka-ma ken” literally means “column distance in countryside measurement”). This distinction quickly vanished however and the methods became used consistently in more general regions.

Different column distances in the kyo-ma method.

The kyo-ma method of course comes with the problem that the width of rooms which span multiple “columns” are not exact multiples of the width of the smaller rooms, which span only one “column” (see the right side of the illustration). This means you have to fill the larger rooms with additional wooden flooring on the sides. According to Engel it is the method that is predominantly used regardless.

While the inaka-ma method is more consistent, it comes with a different set of problems. Because the walls are measured as part of the rooms, the rooms become smaller. This problem is intensified by the fact that a inaka-ma ken already is smaller than a kyo-ma ken, which measures 6.5 shaku. The distance between two columns might become so narrow, that in the case of very small rooms like hallways the grid is ignored and the width is defined as an irregular measurement (i.e. 1.5 ken). Engel writes: “From the viewpoint of contemporary architecture with its standardization, such conscious tolerance toward self-imposed order is significant. For it shows that even the most unique standardization that architecture has produced still does not completely fulfill the all the demands of structure, function, economy, and aesthetics.

Interestingly Engel points out that both methods only work because the building of houses is not industrialized but handicraft. The craftsmen can adapt and react to deviations, which are unavoidable.

Structure of Content

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how the content is structured, because it represents the immense number of aspects that a design is influenced by:

  1. Structure
    1. Fabric
    2. Measure
    3. Design
    4. Construction
  2. Organism
    1. Family
    2. Space
    3. Garden
    4. Seclusion
  3. Environment
    1. Geo-Relationship
    2. Climate
    3. Philosophy
    4. Society
  4. Aesthetics
    1. Taste
    2. Order
    3. Expression

Structure of Content (Complete)

For reference, this is the table of contents in its entirety:

  1. Structure
    1. Fabric
      1. definiton
      2. stone
      3. glass
      4. bamboo
      5. clay
      6. paper
      7. roof tiles
      8. floor mat
      9. wood
      10. for contemporary architecture
    2. Measure
      1. defintion
      2. building measures
      3. early measures and shaku
      4. ken measure and module
      5. order of kiwaki
      6. traditional standards
      7. for contemporary architecture
    3. Design
      1. definition
      2. kyo-ma method
      3. inaka-ma method
      4. process of design
      5. present building regulations
      6. distinction
      7. supersticion
      8. for contemporary architecture
    4. Construction
      1. definition
      2. process
      3. foundations
      4. wall framework
      5. roof
      6. Japanese wall
      7. floor
      8. ceiling
      9. fitting
      10. translucent paper panel
      11. opaque paper panel
      12. windows
      13. picture recess
      14. shelving recess
      15. study place
      16. wooden shutters
      17. shutter compartment
      18. doors
      19. for contemporary architecture
  2. Organism
    1. Family
      1. definition
      2. moral principles
      3. manners of living
      4. influence on house
      5. influence from house
      6. for contemporary architecture
    2. Space
      1. defintion
      2. measure of man
      3. planmetric-functional space
      4. space relationship
      5. physique of space
      6. for contemporary architecture
    3. Garden
      1. defition
      2. attitude towards nature
      3. house-garden relationship
      4. standardization
      5. standard features
      6. for contemporary architecture
    4. Seclusion
      1. definition
      2. necessity of tea
      3. philosophy of tea
      4. physique of the tearoom
      5. art of living
      6. tea garden
      7. standardization
      8. for contemporary architecture
  3. Environment
    1. Geo-Relationship
      1. defintion
      2. racial migration
      3. closeness to the continent
      4. insular isolation
      5. imitation
      6. for contemporary architecture
    2. Climate
      1. definition
      2. characteristics
      3. earthquakes
      4. climatic architecture
      5. climatic adaption
      6. for contemporary architecture
    3. Philosophy
      1. definition
      2. zen-buddhism
      3. buddhist features
      4. religious expression
      5. zen and house
      6. for contemporary architecture
    4. Society
      1. defintion
      2. policy
      3. social order
      4. city community
      5. prohibition
      6. for contemporary architecture
  4. Aesthetics
    1. Taste
      1. defintion
      2. theory of genesis
      3. zen aestheticism
      4. traditional trait
      5. taste of the townspeople
      6. for contemporary architecture
    2. Order
      1. definition
      2. theory of genesis
      3. physical order
      4. spiritual order
      5. for contemporary architecture
    3. Expression
      1. defintion
      2. interior
      3. contrast
      4. individuality
      5. association
      6. exterior
      7. for contemporary architecture
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