Saturday, March 22, 2014

Architecture is Awesome #3: Wabi-sabi

Woven wood fence at the Portland Japanese Garden (photo by me)

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 

Most architects have at least a passing familiarity with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (侘 寂), which is a world view that embraces the authenticity of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It accepts the transience of life, finding beauty in the cycles of growth and the natural progression of time. Wabi-sabi in art and architecture celebrates roughness, irregularity, subtlety, modesty, and integrity. It acknowledges that nothing is forever perfect (if it ever was).   

The irony is so many architects labor in the pursuit of a conventionally perfect and beautiful aesthetic. Seeking perfection belies our human arrogance. We may strive for perfection but we can only sustain its illusion through great effort and at enormous expense. Time and nature have a way of taking a toll upon even the most complete and apparently flawless. The reality is building materials age, corrode, deteriorate, and decay. They’re most certainly designed and assembled by imperfect human beings using imperfect tools.

The beauty of wabi-sabi is found in the markings of existence. We see it in the weathered wood surfaces of old barns. We see it in the cracks and crevices of well-used pavement. We see it in the fleeting uncertainty of cloud patterns and ice crystals that form on windows. It’s why people favor buildings and places that age and accept change gracefully rather than resist it.

Paradoxically, architecture that is wabi-sabi is more timeless than architecture that sets out to achieve an enduring perfection. It works with the intrinsic properties of building products rather than denying them. It favors natural materials like hand-hewn wood, stone, and brick rather than machine-processed plastics, glass, and aluminum. Mastering wabi-sabi entails acquiring an appreciation for small irregularities.

Wabi-sabi also teaches humility. Architects may design great monuments but their greatness is at best fleeting. Welcoming the mutability of existence in our designs is a path toward an architecture that is truly alive and beautiful over time. Ultimately, nothing lasts forever, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Wabi-sabi points to a beauty that is inherent in the wholeness of life itself, which is undeniably AWESOME. 

Next Architecture is Awesome: #4 Perfection

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