A Smooth Transitional Experience Between Two Universes

Cover. Japanese Homes and Lifestyles: An Illustrated Journey Through History. Illustration: Kazuya Inaba and Shigenobu Nakayama.


This text is an excerpt from A study on Engawa: The Japanese Tradition and its Contemporary Revival by the architect and writer Siujui.



The engawa is a strip of decking, often finished in wood or bamboo, that exist between the periphery of the Japanese house and the garden, [and] covered by the part of eaves that extend from the moya*. Its reoccurrence in all kinds of art forms: ranging from Japanese traditional wooden prints, paintings, photography, architecture, films and animations, makes it a remarkable feature in the impressions of the Japanese dwelling.

* Moya [n.] Originally, in Japanese architecture, the omoya is the core or central part of a residential building.After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century, moya has been used to denote the sacred central area of a temple building. It is generally surrounded by aisle like areas called hisashi. In Japanese architecture the term  hisashi. has two meanings: As more commonly used, the term indicates the eaves of a roof, that is, the part along the edge of a roof projecting beyond the side of the building to provide protection against the weather. The term is however also used in a more specialised sense to indicate the area surrounding the moya - either completely or on one, two, or three sides.

It had faced the crisis of extinction during the Westernisation of Japan, but eventually re-gained the spotlight in contemporary Japanese architecture as architects read into it certain spatial qualities. The realisation of intriguing spatial qualities are in no doubt one of the reasons for contemporary architects to re-introduce engawa in their designs, however it would be a loss, or even fall into a gimmick, if the re-interpreted engawa has lost its authentic essence that could recall its virtue in Japanese traditions.


Mythical Orgins & Intentions of Engawa

During the search for the orgins of the engawa, it is interesting to note that the first appearance of such architectural elements remains unclear. However, it is an element that [can] not be overlooked when studying dwelling typologies, since it has always been a theme in architectural literature, with clear documentation of its functions, dimensions and organisational relationship with the house and the garden. Despite its mythical origins, the likely reasons for its timeless presence [can] be speculated [on] by looking into its historical essence.


The Functional & Symbolic Intentions

One likely cause of the appearance of the engawa is the evolution of the roof, both in a functional sense and a symbolic sense. Tracing back to Japan’s pre-historical period, [the] roof instead of [the] walls was the main body of protection. Later, walls were adopted but the roof still played an important role in protecting the dwelling from rain and sun. In Japan, where driving rains are frequent, deep eaves are essential to protect the interior. This great depth was achieved when machiya [townhouses] - within the city of the ancient period - adopted a gently sloping hisashi [peripheral section] in addition to the moya [core section]. 

This typology spread from the capital to provincial towns and became a characteristic of the ancient period, [and] the aristocratic shinden style in the Heian period. This evolution of the roof naturally created a deep covered space under the eaves - where the extension of the interior flooring would become the engawa that seemed to project out of the house. Therefore in this sense, the engawa reflects a space that serves as a refuge. It is a space where the earthed ground, the engawa's deck and roof come together, [to] form a place [genius loci] of protection for man.

As this spatial possibility was incorporated into the dwellings of the aristocrats - together with the roof - the engawa evolved into a status symbol. The use of the moya and hisashi, and the symbolism of the roof and engawa, was carried throughout the remaining Heian Period and continued its evolution in the Samurai dwelling in the Medieval Period and even Edo Period. The sophistication of the engawa involved level difference [open verandah vs lower verandah], enclosures [open verandah vs interior verandah; use of rain shutters, wood and shoji panels etc.] and materials [mattress vs wood vs bamboo].


The Japanese have always had special appreciation and admiration towards nature, while the garden and the architecture are treated as an integral part of the other. Here the engawa’s role is to firmly link the two together, and provide a smooth transitional experience between the two universes.


Philosophical Orgins

The presence of an extra space projected from the house would be meaningless if there is nothing to interact with. Therefore it draws our attention to the garden and its relationship with the engawa and the dwelling. The Japanese have always had special appreciation and admiration towards nature, while the garden and the architecture are treated as an integral part of the other. Here the engawa’s role is to firmly link the two together, and provide a smooth transitional experience between the two universes. Here the engawa exists as a vista for contemplation - ambiguous in its belonging to either side - and to reunite the experience of the house towards the garden and vice versa. This concept of projection towards nature might sound common and familiar in the western Modernist movement [such as the ideas of Le Corbusier], but when talked about in a Japanese context, it actually resonates with oriental philosophical beliefs, [and] therefore has a fundamental difference from a Western interpretation.


Aesthetic and Perceptual Essence

The engawa has existed in the dwelling for a long period of history, and has evolved and adapted to both the practical and psychological demands of different times and different people. As the styles of Japanese houses changed, one last thing to note about the endurance of engawa is its aesthetic aspect which has kept quite a constant throughout: the rhythm formed by the flooring and the poles; the lightness and horizontality it expresses as it 'floats' above the Earth; the scales and dimensions; the strong presence of a roof that gives an intimate bodily experience when one either sits or stands; and its harmony in materiality with the garden and the house. These have contributed to [a] unique space ...maintaining people’s intimacy with nature and space. 

And so, despite the unclear original inventions and purposes of the engawa, it has certainly encapsulated multiple Japanese virtues and values - making it stand out from many other Japanese spatial prototypes - and [is] loved by the people at all times. The 'Uncompromising  Westernisation'* of Japan saw a change in architectural language, with Modernist verandah's substituting traditional ones.

* Uncompromising  Westernisation [v.]. The Meiji period [1868-1912] was unmistakably and decisively an era of construction. Its 45 years witnessed the construction of a new state, a new society and a new built environment to express its identity and ambitions. This entailed the establishment of new political institutions, a reordering of the political and social hierarchy beginning with the dismantling of the status and privileges of the warrior class, and the putting in place of the political, industrial and economic infrastructure for a modern nation-state defined in Western terms. The Meiji leaders, most of who were former samurai, quickly brushed aside the architectural framework of the old order. The adoption of Western industrial technology went hand-in-hand with the forging of new social and political institutions. The 'accepted practices of the world' meant the creation of Western-style urban plans and buildings, particularly for the newly designated capital city of Tokyo. Gracious buildings of stone and brick presented to the world the new imperial and commercial order; William H. Coaldrake [2002]. Architecture and Authority in Japan. Routledge.

However, the  engawa has undergone a revival in contemporary architecture as both Japanese and foreign architects re-introduce this element into their designs, [with] some on the one hand aiming to build an architectural emblem for Japanese architecture, while some on the other hand claiming to re-explore its essence and express its legacies. 
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