the wabi-sabi house

The book “The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty” by Robyn Griggs Lawrence attempts to bring the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi to the American homeowner.

Firstly Wabi-Sabi, like the Zen culture it comes from, is hard to describe even in Japanese. How do you describe the sound of one hand clapping? But trying to translate Wabi-Sabi into English and put it in terms understood by North Americans is even harder.

I have a fondness for Robyn Lawrence the author. She is the editor of one of my favorite mainstream green building magazines, Natural Home.¬† I reviewed the mag here. Her style is light. Her audience is your middle class white folk who like to keep a nice house and do good in the world (at least on the weekends). They like to shop but not too much, aren’t overly tormented by the state of the world but want to “be green” as long as it isn’t too much of a sacrifice. They also probably live in California. Or Sedona.

A lot of presumptions there but I’m just sharing my personal impression. These people live a nice life. Reading the magazine gives you a break from the hard edges of the world and lets you float in the good feeling of natural paints and soapstone stoves.

So the author’s presentation of wabi-sabi isn’t exactly how I would have done it, I still appreciate her approach and the mere fact that she wrote a book on such a useful concept.

As a Brooklyn green contractor I think a lot about the “green aesthetic”. Our green renovations of brownstones have a different feel than normal renovations. I’ve tried hard to describe it to clients before the job and once the job is done, they just nod and day, “Now I see.”

It’s hard to put into words.

Wabi-Sabi comes damn close to what I see as the green aesthetic.

  • Wabi-sabi| represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. …
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi
  • a basic concept of Japanese aesthetics, stressing unpretentiousness, plainness, earthiness, and satisfaction with imperfection.
    www.japanvisitor.com/index.php

Another way of describing it:

“the tiny dark lines in a much loved tea cup that has been used for generations,¬† made visible by warm tea repeatedly seeping into the minute cracks.”

The image of this tea cup is a great way of describing Wabi-Sabi.

On one hand it is about keeping the same tea cup for years. Why throw it out for a new one if it works just fine? The green aesthetic is the same. Why replace the floors if the subfloor will work fine with a little sanding and oil? Why replace the stairs if the existing one, albeit a little slanted and creaky, still work?

The tea cup has lasted generations. That is a very well made tea cup! Green building likewise is built to last. It is made with care, good materials and a long life in mind.

These are concrete things. But wabi-sabi is more than inteligent frugality. The tea cup also lasted for years because it was carefully, even lovingly, cared for. This is not a disposable tea cup. This is a tea cup you wash with gentle hands and dry carefully. The green aesthetic is no different. A green home is cared for by the residents. It is not a crash pad but an honored protection over your head.

The tea cup became more than a tea cup as time went by. It became the tea cup Grandma gave me, the tea cup my lover drank from, the tea cup that was smuggled across the border or the tea cup that mother refused to sell. It has history, emotional meaning, shared memories. It is an old friend in a world that changes too quickly. Again, green building is ripe with this same meaning. Those beat up floors, they are more than planks of wood. They supported the feet of Italian immigrants  a hundred years ago, they were where your child first learned to crawl, they were where you lay and laughed with your husband. They are part of your life.

The tea cup is not perfect. It is more like an old lady than a perfect beauty queen. Also, green building is not so concerned with perfection. Life is not about being perfect. Life is about being true to yourself, it is about loving, living, laughing and dying. Who cares if the tea cup has some cracks. Who cares if the floor has wear. So what if your wife isn’t out of a fashion magazine. As long there is love, meaning, a connection, support, then a few imperfections are more than fine.

Wabi-Sabi weaves between concrete ornaments – the stone hearth, the weathered broom – and metaphor – the weathered floor as an example of life.

Like Zen, on the one hand brutally real on the other intangibly ephemeral, Wabi-Sabi is about a lifestyle more than the object that represent it.

Wabi-Sabi came out of the Japanese culture. It is partly real and partly an aesthetic that exists only in the mind. The reality is the agrarian history of Japan. It was a poor life connected to nature and the land. It was the cracked tea cup that was passed down from generation to generation because a family could only afford that and besides it was all that was needed.

But at the same time Wabi-Sabi is the wealthy or the city bound people romanticizing that agrarian simplicity. Here they reproduce the aesthetic. They turn Wabi-Sabi into a self imposed practice rather than the imposed practice that it originally was, meaning they can choose Wabi-Sabi whereas the poor farmer can not.

And ultimately Wabi-Sabi is both real and intellectual. After all Wabi-Sabi would not exist as a concept if it had not been cultivated by the wealthy or city bound people. And it would not exist in concrete form if there weren’t thousands of years of agrarian examples to draw from.

Again, I am using too many words to describe Wabi-Sabi, a fault Robyn Lawrence also had in her book, which in my opinion could have been half as long.

But it is hard talking about something so simple yet so deep.

One great insight is by Elizabeth Gordon who writes, “When a thing is self-consciously made to be beautiful (as though beauty was the total aim) it never seems to work, and it becomes futile and knicknacky. There has to be some purpose and usefulness about the creating.”

Faux wood paneling anyone? Fake fireplaces? Laminate counters that look like stone? We all know this.

Green building takes it a step further. It looks at the whole world and then narrows down to the specifics.

Take these two examples:

1. If we rip out these old floors and replace them with new wood we will be cutting down trees. What if we sand them and oil them. They will look beautiful and we have not hurt the forests.

2. I want rustic looking floors.

Option one approaches the floors with a greater world view. It weighs the options and benefits of each desision and tries to find a solution that is good for everyone and everything. That is green building: beautiful floors that improve the world.

Option two, instead of looking at the world and going in, is purely inward facing. Me, me, me. The end result is exactly the same – sand and oil the existing floors. But we don’t live in a vacuum. The end PROCESS is NOT the same! Yes the floors are the same but the people living on the floors are very different. The reason for doing it was very different. The awareness behind it was different. Ultimately the world is different. It is subtle but so important.

Sometimes people come onto one of our green brownstone renovations and see the dust, the paint, the workers sweating, and they remark that it doesn’t look any different than a normal construction site….how wrong they are!

Sometimes the concrete elements – materials, design, technology – is drastically different, but sometimes if there is nothing exotic going on it appears to be exactly the same as a normal construction site. But the REASON for doing what we do – whether it is building a wall or laying a floor – is very different.

As green builders we make our desisions for different REASONS.

These reasons deserve their own blog post but simply put they are the triple bottom line – people, planet, profit – as opposed to the single bottom line of profit.

Wabi-Sabi is a great embodiment of these reasons.

Wabi roughly translated means to be ok with our simple lot. It is a humble acceptance of our place in this imense universe. A wabi object is a humble object that is in harmony with its surroundings. It is at peace with its place.

Sabi roughly speaking is the acknowledgment that time will unfold perfectly. The image is a flower opening its petals. Likewise, only time moves us towards perfection. The two are intertwined and there is nothing anything or anyone can do to slow it down or speed it up. You can’t control how fast the petals open without tampering in the gears of the universe.

Combine the two and Wabi-Sabi is being at peace with our place in the world and the way it is unfolding.It is being part of the past and part of the future.

A battered old tea cup.

An old house that still have many years to go. An old house that is part of the community. An old house that is cared for and gives care in return. You can’t buy this. You can’t build this. You can be part of its unfolding, though. That is what a green builder understands.

A beat up floor that has been rubbed lovingly for years and that has seen many a family pass over it. Only a green builder would even care about such fleeting acts of humanity.

These are green building principles. These are Wabi-Sabi.

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

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