Bridging the Gap between Computational Design and Traditional Japanese Architecture.

The Importance Of Wood In Traditional Japanese Architecture 

The beauty and relevance of traditional Japanese architecture rely on a very unique combination of factors: The use almost exclusive of wood and the precision and skill of the artisans and carpenters to work with this material, that they perceive as a living element.  

The study about the intrinsic characteristics of wood as its flexibility, hygrometric change, hardness, grain… etc, has allowed carpenters during thousand years to develop extremely sophisticated techniques to work with the wood in many ways. Developing tools, assembly methods, and processes that allow the creation of such unique and rich buildings. 

In this process, also cultural and specific geographic factors of Japan influenced this process of sophistication: Earthquakes are a common thing in the Japanese islands. Rigid structures would have never survived, and the Japanese carpenters and architects during millennia learned that working with wood in certain ways would prevent the temples and other structures from collapse. 

The problem with wood structures was the fire. Light and heat were only provided using fire and was almost impossible to prevent the buildings to not have accidental fires during their time. 

Also, rain and the humid climate of Japan shaped their buildings with big roofs and made artisans avoid nails and metal parts to be critical to their structures. The design of nailless joints was born and was celebrated among the carpenter as a higher art.

For these reasons, Japanese carpenters assumed this temporality on their designs and their techniques, allowing their buildings and structures to be replaced, rebuild, and repair over time. Some of these architectural masterpieces are said to be designed to be dismantled and assembled in a different location. 

Passing On The Traditions  

This tradition passing through millennia from masters to apprentices is still present nowadays but as in many developing countries, this traditional knowledge is fading away as the modern and more efficient construction techniques took over in the last 100 years to supply buildings for our market-oriented economy. Many of these masters haven’t been able to pass the tradition to the new generations and today there are only a handful of people with the knowledge and the skills that are able to build as before. 

In the current global-scale market, there’s no time for someone to spend years perfecting the techniques that will require this traditional architecture. Similarly, the need in our current society for faster construction doesn’t leave much room for this bespoke construction process to happen.

But there are still many benefits that these vernacular ways to build could bring to the modern times that we are missing because of this lack of skilled people and lack of time: Sustainability, adaptability, use of local materials, mobility, warmth, and uniqueness of bespoke designs, etc…

Bridging The Gap

So how could we bridge that gap? The answer to recover tradition, and incorporate ancient construction knowledge to our current techniques could be, paradoxically, in the use of the latest technologies available: Parametric Design, BIM, Digital Fabrication, AI… 

Studying the traditions, methodologies, and skills from the traditional Daikus, we could to “download” all the experience and knowledge of those still living masters into algorithms and protocols that will help replicate some of these processes and most importantly, preserve them for future generations. 

This could be a way to speed up the learning process for the starting students that previously relied heavily on a long-term mentoring process and practice by one of these experienced master carpenters. Using these digital fabrication tools, could be a way also to speed up the “bespoke” traditional fabrication processes by doing most of the heavy work using CNC machines or laser cut that later could be refined manually by the carpenters.

We could also try to enhance the work of the traditional carpenters by using genetic algorithms like “Wallacei” to optimize the geometry of the different joints to specific parameters: to reduce the amount of material, structural optimization, ease of construction, transportability, modularity… Or given existing wood logs, optimizing the largest wood section possible within its volume, etc…

Employing these newer techniques could boost the already sustainable process of traditional design construction, enriching also the architectural language whilst adapting them to the current market needs, without losing the uniqueness of the final product.

The creation of parametric models with embedded intelligence will help designers, engineers, and fabricators to collaborate, anticipate any difficulty optimizing the resources and the time. Genetic algorithms like Wallacei can explore in seconds thousands of different options to generate physical and geometric solutions for a given range of parameters. 

These algorithms can work together with structural and environmental analysis tools as Karamba and Ladybug, which will set up the framework for the algorithm to explore geometric solutions to optimize those parameters. The number of new solutions explored in these digital maquettes could worth as much as hundreds of years of human exploration, only at a fraction of the time and cost.

Towards A Collaborative Process 

The work on digital construction models also allows us to break down the different design problems into different files, all linked together, allowing different teams to work in different parts of the building. 

As we demonstrated during the Osaka AAVS workshop, different teams developed the main structure, the connection details, the roof covering, and at the same time assessing the available material and preparing the fabrication files. 

These different trades, as in the past, were doing specialized work, virtually building the Pavillion in a collaborative environment. Lead by experienced people in each field, they were able to flag any issue, work in coordination, completing each other’s work, and delivering the pavilion in an extremely tight schedule.

The overall look and image were studied and predicted using rendering techniques. The final result albeit similar to its virtual version presented changes that came with the sometimes unpredictable behavior of raw materials and the team, poorly skilled on the art of Japanese traditional carpentry.

The workshop was extremely successful among the students and lecturers and our research was continued by some of us in a paper that was presented in the SIMAUD conference this past May. We are looking forward to continuing this research in subsequent workshops to understand better how tradition and modernity can coexist and furthermore enhance each other.

Stay tuned for more!

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