Shakkei: Borrowed Scenery

What does it mean if architecture is defeated by nature?

Ken Mogi explains that in Japan, they often use nature as part of human creation. They establish harmony between their design and the environment; instead of damaging the environment, they incorporate it with their creations.

Incorporate nature into your creations.

Nick: You're also right, a person can often shine more when flanked by people. This is why often we call our partners our better half. 

But in your book, you introduced this beautiful cultural concept of shakkei, to represent this idea. And I was fascinated when I read this, because again, this was another cultural practice, I didn't know. So what is shakkei?

Ken: When we build our garden, sometimes we use the natural background as part of the gardening principle, and it's called shakkei. So I don't know if this is working. So if you have a house like this, if this is the garden, this is a Japanese garden and the trees. So this is what the designer designed. But on top of that, you might have a mountain in the background like this. 

There might be some structures previously constructed. So, you know, these external motifs are always used to make a good Japanese garden. The most famous example would be one in Kagoshima Prefecture, called, Isoteien, there's this huge volcano there called Sakurajima.

It's an active volcano. If you go to this garden, you can see that they have used the Sakurajima volcano as part of the landscape. So that is the philosophy of shakkei. You see it everywhere in royal gardens in Kyoto, you also see shakkei.

So it is an idea that you don't treat the environment as something that is external to your creation. You actually design your creation in nagomi with the environment. I think it's a really wonderful concept. My really great friend, architect Kengo Kuma, designed the new National Stadium that was used in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. 

And Kengo Kuma always says this is the most important concept in his architecture, defeat. He always talks about defeated architecture, by which he means that it's defeated by the environment. In modern times, architects tend to impose his or her own ideas on the building, right? 

So that he or she can express themself, but Kengo Kuma, who designed the new National Stadium always says about being defeated by the environment. I think this is wonderful, and I'm really proud of the new stadium for it.

You should definitely visit because there are trees growing from the stadium already. That was his idea. So being defeated by the plants, it looks like one of these Studio Ghibli animations by Hayao Miyazaki. It's the whole stadium being defeated by plants.

Nick: It almost seems to take on Shintoism. This understanding that the natural world is something we can't control, we should embrace it and let it influence us.