When wo/man mimics nature to create what we need

Today’s lesson: humans create really beautiful, useful things when we mimic nature, and meld our creations with Her.

I listened to a lecture by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma at Takenaka Carpentry Tool Museum (yes, I went back.  I can’t seem to stay away).  His talk centered on the future of wood in architecture.  He spoke about being inspired by the ukiyo-e artist from the 1800s, Utagawa Hiroshige.  In these scenes, man, his creations, and nature “toke-au,” melt together.  Like this one: hiroshige_atake_sous_une_averse_soudaine

You can google Kuma-sensei’s own works and see what you think of his versions of blending architecture and nature.  There’s much to be shared there.  I particularly admire the ventilation system in his design for the New National Stadium which is being constructed for the 2020 Olympics.   But really what stayed with me the most from hearing him was this idea of our built spaces dissolving into the scenery.


Like this

The rail system so gently holding that man is not made of wood.  It is hand-crafted pigmented cement, designed to be unobtrusive to the main event — the waterfall, which has cut the beautiful narrow gorge.  There were thousands of hikers today who depended on these easy-to-grab, hardly noticeable rails guarding the path and keeping them safe from the steep slippery drop.  These faux-wood rails are made by sakan, yes our beloved Japanese plasterers.  I love the sensibility — to hide what we need by natural design.  In fine tea house gardens I often see spigots for the gardeners’ hoses which are hidden in a “wooden” stump.  I doubt many others notice, which is by design.   Here too, on this trail directly behind Shin-Kobe station, Kobe’s Shinkansen station, people didn’t notice they were being guided by these vine-like guard rails.  I got a few sideways looks by Japanese hikers, due to my camera being aimed in an unusual direction.  As soon as I noticed I would beam “Japanese faux-wood is amazing!” and launch in to how this “wood” is actually cement.  Each person had the same reaction: “Oh wow!  I didn’t even notice!” and noticeably gain appreciation for their country’s unique aesthetic considerations.  How beautiful is that.


I mentioned we are learning faux wood at the sakan school: gi-boku (faux-wood) and gi-ban (faux wood panel — pictured above in the post).  For the gi-boku project, we were assigned to make stumps to sit on.  Our teacher is renowned for his ability to recreate the famed tea-house cedar post, made from Kita-yama-sugi, a twisty, pale wood when skinned of its bark.  I tried making that for my stump.  It was not easy, and there are many things I would do differently next time to make it more realistic.  You’ve got to be really well-versed in the curvature and textures of different woods to make it work, and know your material and your tools well.  It’s really fun getting into this, and I hope I get many chances to utilize this trickery.


Those are some of my class’s “stumps” on the left. The kote-e (trowel art) you see will be another post, another night (thank you for your patience.)


Maybe in the future, I’ll get a chance to make an outhouse that looks like this:


That would be lovely.



2 thoughts on “When wo/man mimics nature to create what we need

  1. Hi Emily — I always enjoy reading your posts. This one resonates especially because I have “6 degrees (2 degrees?) of separation” with Kengo Kuma.(a rather meaningless concept when you think about it, but…oh well…) He designed the new expansion of Portland’s Japanese Garden currently being built. A friend, Lew Smith, ended up supplying a large amount of the stone being used in the project. It’s a type of blue granite from an old quarry in Eastern Oregon abandoned for many years. I’ve been buying landscape rock and boulders from Lew for a number of years. He told me what a pleasure it was getting to spend time with Kuma-san, taking him out to see the quarried boulders..and how delighted he was when he saw them. Up to that time I didn’t know who Kengo Kuma was. I since got a book of his work. Just last week I happened across on YouTube (nothing just “happens” on YouTbe!) a lecture he gave …..somewhere. He talks about starting from Nature, and local materials. He showed a slide of one of his buildings (and others, too) — a building called ‘Kitakami Canal Museum’ — that was the only building in the surrounding area to survive the 2011 tsunami. It’s built low into a hill and has one long horizontal window that, looking out from inside, is like looking at a scroll picture of hills, the valley and river. From the outside the building itself appears to be not much, but he said, “the building is not the protagonist — Nature is the protagonist”.

    As a one-time Garden tour guide, we learned to tell the story of how Prof. Tono, designer of Portland’s garden, tinted the concrete for the Wisteria Arbor posts and used his fingers to create the texture of bark. This is a cherished bit of Garden lore and I doubt anyone (maybe only me) knows it’s actually a ‘thing’ in Japan! The magical details you show on that bridge are mind-blowing! And I love the outhouse stumps! By the way, I’m curious what your class used to make your ‘stumps’ — did you use clay?

    Continued best wishes for all your learning endeavors…and adventures. I look forward to your next post.
    Jim Barnas
    Portland, OR

    • Hello Jim! Yes, I was aware of the Kuma-sensei expansion of PJG. There was even a hint by the garden people of saving a wall for me to plaster : ) but alas, I think the walls will be done by the time I make my way there. That is a beautiful story about the Kitakami museum. And how cool that your stone supplier got to take him to the source! I admire that he sought that out and went himself.

      Our stumps are made of cement. My understanding is that the faux-wood is meant for outdoor areas, to “blend with the scenery.” I’ve seen them disguise water fountains, etc.

      For the class, we had a cardboard tube (maybe a foot wide, maybe 1/4~3/8″ thick) as the base. That got wrapped around and over the top end with lath. We left the lath to extend about 3″ above the tube, snipped in five places or so, and folded those pieces in. Then we wired a square pice to connect those five sections and make a semi-solid base for the cement plaster (the seat). It all got covered with a thin layer of cement, being careful not to put too much on the top. I am not familiar with cement-based plasters in the US, but what we used here is called “sando”, which I presume is their pronunciation of “sand”. There’s not only light sand in it, there are little styrofoam like pieces, making it very light. The first time I used it was on the exterior of a job site, and I actually laughed out loud in amazement because it was such a crazy material, so new to me, so easy to use. So light! I don’t know what the equivalent would be over there. (You can create little branch stubs by wrapping little sections of lath and wiring it to the main “trunk.” I designed mine to be foot rests, as I often like hang my feet on something.)

      When that layer was dry, we made a typical cement/sand mix, using white cement I think, and maybe a light pigment, to create the shape of the tree. From there it was just various pigments, etching in the tree rings with a sharp tool, and creating the feel of the bark according the type of tree you are emulating. You can layer pigmented cement to get multiple shades as you etch out your bark too. To get a nice heartwood look, next time I will do better at blending the deeper red to the outer, whiter wood. Red is a really strong pigment! I will use less next time as well.

      That’s fun to learn that Professor Tono made the wisteria with his fingers. That was one of the first things to catch my eye when I went to the Portland Japanese Garden. Faux wood! So real-looking! especially with the moisture allowing moss to grow. That part of Oregon really is such similar climate to so much of Japan.

      I am diverting from my beloved clay and learning some of the world of cement. eek! I like the idea of trying this with clay though. I would like to make it rather manageable to carry, so not cobb. Just don’t leave it out during the rainy season! (or maybe a polished finish would do? with oils? lime?)

      Wishing you best Jim!

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