The Beauty of Imperfection in Architecture

In an era of quick-fix consumerism, it might be tempting to eschew the flawed in favor of the refined. Why mend a broken flower pot when a shiny new model can easily, and cheaply, be acquired from any number of big-box stores that continue to pop up in our neighborhoods? Why refinish 100 year-old wood floors when synthetic, sanitized replacement planks can be laid instead? Well – why not? What is the true cost of this “modern” need to resolve all that is deficient? This is a poignant question, one that hints at a new wave of appreciation for the true and the humble in all facets of life, including architecture and design.

Wabi-Sabi House heuristic device. Courtesy of Sparano + Mooney Architecture

The idea that the rough should be celebrated as the refined is not a new concept. It is an ancient tenet of Japanese aesthetic culture known as wabi-sabi, a philosophy of beauty that embraces the imperfect, the incomplete and the transient. Wabi-sabi elevates simplicity and honesty in expression, those modest things in our world that express beauty as they weather and age. Wabi-sabi is representative of craft that rejoices in the “authentic”. It is not a well-defined term; rather, it is one that is imbued with specific cultural connotations and innate understanding. In fact, as Leonard Koren states in his book “Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”, the Japanese do not attempt to define the movement in intellectual terms, instead preferring to revel in the “feeling” such unconventional beauty bestows upon the beholder. In line with wabi-sabi is the concept of kintsugi, a philosophy that treats breakage as part of the history of an object, and therefore an integral component of that object’s life. With kintsugi, cracks are filled with lacquer or golden material so as to highlight the damage and uphold the memory of the passage of time. With both wabi-sabi and kintsugi, an eyesore is transformed into a unique design detail.

The Anahi Restaurant, Paris. Photograph by Alexandre & Emilie (Persona production) for Yatzer; in homage to the Japanese concept of kintsugi, copper leaf highlights the cracks left by centuries of use

As contemporary architects in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, Sparano + Mooney Architecture does not adhere to the values of idealistic beauty in design; rather, we seek to uphold the beauty of the subtle. We recently designed a house that embeds the idea wabi-sabi into the foundation of the residence. In conceiving the Wabi-Sabi House and while walking the site, the work began to coalesce around an idea of textures, materials, and expressed joinery and connections in the architecture.  “It is interesting that there is not a term for this concept in the English language” says project architect Nate King. “The closest that we have is the idea of ‘rustic’. This home was based around this idea of accentuating the imperfect set against a backdrop of the refined, thereby allowing these contrasting notions to build on each other. The imperfect therefore appears to give more character and the refined appears even more polished”, he explains.

Located in Emigration Canyon above Salt Lake City, Utah, this 5,000 SF home celebrates a unique elevated canyon view with a direct connection to nature. Designed for a young family, this home is separated into two volumes that float above the landscape. The north volume is oriented along a direct east-to-west axis and includes the private domestic functions to address the quiet static mountain views to the north. The southwest volume includes the more public, active gathering spaces and is oriented along the canyon axis toward dramatic views to the city below.

Upon entry, the occupant is presented with a corridor and framed view of the mountains to the west. As one progresses through the space, the shift in program is presented with the architecture of the public volume aligned directly with the canyon view. The architecture includes a lower level that incorporates a creative office space with a private outdoor patio. This Utah home, designed to LEED specifications, includes a double wall system for maximum r-value and a vegetated roof, and is being constructed to include a roof-mounted solar PV array. The Wabi-Sabi House is expected to break ground in May 2017.

 Section of a “beetle kill” log. Courtesy Sparano + Mooney Architecture

We hope to achieve a state of grace with this Utah residential design that does not shy away from natural processes, unpretentious irregularity, and heartfelt simplicity. As we continue to explore the nuances of wabi-sabi, and its potential to influence our design process, we welcome the opportunity to discuss how the concept might be applied to your next project. In the meantime, we will look to the cracks in the pavement for inspiration and reflect on how our own flaws make us each perfectly…imperfect.

Sources:

“Broken is Beautiful: The Japanese Tradition that Makes Broken Things Even Better than Brand New”, Nancy Mitchell, 19 May 2016, Apartment Therapy (online)

“Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”, Leonard Koren (Point Reyes: Imperfect Publishing, 2008)