Creat. Sp.

Pushing Limits of Leanness in Japanese Architecture: Modern Interpretations of the Frame Structure through Collaboration of Japanese Architects with Structural Engineers

Takashi Ono

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Japanese modern architecture, Frame structure, Structural Engineer, Thinness

PUBLISHED DATE January 01, 2018
PUBLISHER The Author(s) 2018. This article is published with open access at

The purpose of this research paper is to clarify the design intentions and methodology behind the experimental application of the Frame Structure by some contemporary Japanese architects through collaboration with structural engineers. The ‘Frame’ is the simplest of structure systems, but was applied to iconic structures such as the Parthenon and Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House, each example expressing artistic concepts and technical skills of the concerned era. One of the recent concepts seen in 21st century modern Japanese architecture is the ‘pursuit of transparency and thinness’. This is especially true of SANAA, are presentative group of architects, who – in close collaboration with structural engineers – pursue the quality of extreme thinness in columns and roofs, creatively exploring new methods of using framed structures. This paper focuses on three such projects that exploit the structural aspects of frame construction and, makes an attempt to understand the architects’ intention behind the designs. It presents an analysis of the contemporary interpretation of the traditional frame structure, used by the architects to apparently dissolve the material presence of the building and make it become part of the surroundings. These innovative attempts, made possible through collaboration between architects and structural engineers, signify one of the significant expressions of modernity in Japan.


Since ancient times in Japan, it is common to find buildings based on timber frame structures, with the columns supporting compressive forces and, the beams and floor slabs bearing the bending moment. Since Japan is highly prone to earthquakes, these traditional frame structures also exhibit remarkable anti-seismic structural knowledge and construction techniques. Most traditional timber frame structures were designed with standard-sized, heavy columns and beams, which restricted the sizes of interiors and created sharp divisions between interior and exterior spaces. In recent years, however, some architects in Japan, with support of the structural engineers, have attempted a modern interpretation of the traditional frame, using new materials for challenging limits of the leanness and spatial rigidity imposed by traditional frame structures. The achievements have given rise to a new, state-of-the art contemporary trend in the country.

An ancient prototype of the frame structure is the Parthenon, the monumentality and construction methods of which reflect the essence of the advanced technology of those days. There is also the other iconic example of Modern architecture – the ‘Dom-Ino House’ designed by Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in 1914, the architecture of which set a new trend during its time, with a decisive shift of both the artistic and the technical paradigm seen in the previous buildings. Contemporary architects in Japan, with the collaboration of structural engineers, have instituted yet another advancement of the Frame, integrating aesthetics and technology to accomplish new limits of ‘leanness in architecture’. The purpose of this research paper is to present an overview of these contemporary projects, primarily focusing on the designers’ re-interpretation of the frame structure as a reflection of Japanese modernity.

The three case studies to be discussed in this paper are ‘Park Café (1998)’, ‘Ferry Terminal Noshima (2005)’ and, ‘KAIT Workshop (2008)’ (Fig.1 – Fig.3). The two former examples were designed by the architectural firm, SANAA run by Ar. Kazuyo Sejima (b.1956) and Ar. Ryuei Nishizawa (b.1966) and, Er. Mutsuro Sasaki (b.1946). The third building was designed by Ar. Junya Ishigami(b.1974) and Er. Yasutaka Konishi (b.1970). Although there are countless buildings based on the frame structure which can be cited here, these three projects have been chosen on account of their simple and plain designs, the two most important

characteristics essential for analyzing frame structures. In addition, it is also notable that Ar. Ishigami and Er. Konishi, who designed KAIT Workshop, respectively trained under SANAA and Er. Mutsuro Sasaki during the time the first two projects were being designed. It is thus, that they have the same consistent idea, having inherited it from SANAA and Er. Sasaki.

Page(s) 71-80
ISSN Print : 2321-3892, Online : 2321-7154

The history of collaboration between architects and structural engineers in Japan goes back to about 60 years. Initially, this collaboration led to massive, bold and symbolic architecture. However, in the 2000s, began the ‘pursuit of transparency and thinness’, resulting in buildings seeking to extend the limit of leanness. This is seen through the three projects that have been focused on and analyzed in this paper. The projects established by SANAA, Junya Ishigami and Mutsuro Sasaki have actually accomplished an extreme transparency and thinness of the frame structure. Needless to say, the realization of the architecture conceived by the architect could not have been possible without the major role played by structural engineers, including through computer-aided simulation.

Frame structures in Japan are planned artificially and tectonically through structural rationality. The frame, in a sense, is the simplest of structures, easy to grasp through division into horizontal and vertical forces. Hence, it can be said that research analysis of the structural aspects is possible. Creative manipulations and innovative approaches to the use of the traditional frame structure is one of the aspects of modernization in contemporary Japanese architecture. As seen through the three projects studied in this research paper, dissolving the presence of the material members of the frame structure serves not only to eliminate the sense of framing of the building, but also integrates it with the surrounding environment.

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