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Wabi-sabi: Beautifying the Ordinary
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Published: May 16, 2016

Sarah Karim | Article | 16 May, 2016

    Discovering the Wabi-sabi aesthetic sense of the world from an Architecture perspective.

    Designers seek to design what they consider to be beautiful. In some sense, you could say that they seek to pursue or expect to attain a degree of perfection in the ideas they conceive. At another level, it could be said that it is a way to feed their creative ego.

    Yet, the concept of beauty or perfection remains subjective. One could say that imperfection is what makes something all the more perfect. It is common (especially for designer and contractors) to see clients turn apoplectic over a tiny unnoticeable scratch found on their wooden cabinets, or to insist replacement for the slightly lighter shade of ceramic tiles to the original ones they ordered.

    Our concept of what determines beauty or perfection is habitually cultivated. But sometimes, having to choose between the binary of ‘Ugly’, or ‘Beautiful’ can occasionally hinder or limit a whole new grey area. In other words, what we define to be aesthetically pleasing, need not be categorized into a binary.

    The Japanese’s understanding of aesthetics is just that. They recognize that flaws and imperfections are part of life. In fact, these blemishes are embraced. Wabi-sabi, a term derived from Zen Buddhist teachings. It is a Japanese philosophy embracing, and perhaps even celebrating the ‘perfection in imperfection’.

    Wabi-sabi heightens our senses and brings to us to a conscious state of mind, to appreciate the beauty in the flaws found in the surroundings of everyday life. It encourages us to experience the world in its utmost authentic and raw state.

    In the world of design, Wabi-sabi translates into a design that bears both sophistication and humility. It promotes the notion of transcendental beauty derived from the nature cycle of growth, decay and death. In the book of Wabi-sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Koren described the material qualities of wabi-sabi as – the suggestion of natural process, intimate, unpretentious, irregular, murky, earthy  and simple.
    It works and favours intrinsic, natural and modest building materials (such as stone and woods) as opposed to modern machine-produced aluminium and glass.

    Here are two examples of architecture in Singapore inspired by the idea of Wabi-sabi.

    Lucky Shop House by CHANG Architects (2012)

    Located at Joo Chiat, this well-hidden old ‘Lucky’ shophouse was revamped into a modern dwelling, with a slight twist from its origin vernacular building type. Retaining its essence in the urban fabric, the interior of the building successfully exhibited a contemporary design approach to flexibility of spaces and function. This humble abode brings reminisce to the past while allowing one to rediscover.

    Front Facade Image (Left) by Ivy & Eric Ng. Entrance to Kitchen Image (Right) Albert Lim K.S. Image @ Chang Architects.

    Front Facade Image (Left) by Ivy & Eric Ng. Entrance to Kitchen Image (Right) Albert Lim K.S.  Image © Chang Architects.

     

    Rear of the Front Shophouse Image (Left) Albert Lim K.S. Fragments of the Old Boundary Wall, and the old party wall profile (Right). Image © Chang Architects.

    Rear of the Front Shophouse Image (Left) Albert Lim K.S. Fragments of the Old Boundary Wall, and the old party wall profile (Right). Image © Chang Architects.

     

    Front ShopHouse Living. Progress through the house is always to the side. Image © Chang Architects.

    Front ShopHouse Living. Progress through the house is always to the side. Image © Chang Architects.

    Stain House by Lekker

    “Stains in Singapore are a funny thing. Everyone gets them, yet they are still acutely embarrassed.”  – Lekker

    This proposed contemporary house is, indeed, ‘the white elephant’ in the realm of architecture. It is an alluring project that addresses the Wabi-sabi’s aesthetic notion of transcendental beauty in the cycle of the natural ecosystems. To perceive it as an art, the unique irregular façade design illustrates the elegance found in the ugliness of stains. This unconventional project not only function ideally as an architecture, but also raise a humility question to by-passer on aesthetic beauty.

     

    Garden View; Image of house from lower garden. Image © Lekker

    Garden View; Image of house from lower garden. Image © Lekker

     

    Stain 01; Study of Stain Channeling. Image © Lekker.

    Stain 01; Study of Stain Channeling. Image © Lekker.

     

    Stain 02; Study of Stain Channeling. Image © Lekker.

    Stain 02; Study of Stain Channeling. Image © Lekker.

    However, creating an architectural space that embodies harmony and balance (ideas of Wabi-sabi) with the surrounding environment is not an easy task many can achieve. The Wabi -sabi design approach requires deep process thinking, meticulous attention and appreciation to subtleties.

    To highly master the art of ‘Wabi-sabi’ in architecture, architects constantly challenge themselves to create minimalistic and refined structures while simultaneously embracing the mutability of natural materials that will integrate artlessly with the environs over time. As Richard Powell wrote in Wabi-sabi Simple, “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

     

    Written By : Melissa Tsang

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