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Historic Japanese Notions Of Shinto And Zen In Buddhism

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This research paper focusses primarily on the theme of ‘Critical Regionalism’, a significant architectural movement. I will discuss and outline the main themes involved in critical regionalism and analyse ‘The Water Temple’ by Tadao Ando located in Hompukuji, Japan. I will evaluate the success of this building in restoring traditional Japanese architecture by using contemporary styles and materials, focussing on the primary themes involved in critical regionalism, such as the location and placelessness as well as historic Japanese notions of Shinto and Zen in Buddhism.


Critical regionalism refers to the movement in architecture which is a reaction to the lack of identity in the international style and ornamental individualism of postmodern architecture. It was first introduced by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in their essay ‘The Grid and the Pathway’ in 1980, employing a concept whose origins goes as far back as Vitruvius. Tzonis and Lefaivre recognised that Post-Modernist buildings ignored vernacular architecture traditions and understood the value of the uniqueness of regions, the quality of the social ties and the physical and cultural aspects.

Later it was introduced by Paul Ricoeur as a response to his question: “How to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilisation and take part in universal civilisation.” According to Ricoeur he believes that the globalisation of human culture and advancements in technology have resulted in monotype cities, lacking both variety and respect to the traditional cultures present in those areas. He states that architecture can be modern while still relating to its traditional heritage, creating finished designs that are controlled with sensitivity to the specifics of the sites location and relying on local materials, climatic and cultural characteristics. This fact becomes more obvious in developing countries, by providing identity-forming capabilities of architecture in a place which doesn’t have much to historicise.

Moreover, Kenneth Frampton, an important architectural historian, echoed similar ideas to Ricoeur, aiming to create a more in depth understanding of the cultural identity of places and their contemporary demands by his critical phenomenology . Although initially Frampton’s views were highly criticised, in one of his essays “Towards a Critical Regionalism” Frampton shows understanding of the general background of critical regionalism - opening with a quote from Paul Riceour’s essay – demonstrating critical consciousness. In this essay he argues similar views to an important predecessor Lewis Mumford, about how it is vital to adopt the universal values of modernism by addressing its surrounding geographical and cultural context, creating a heterogenous dialectic “a place-conscious poetic” as Frampton terms it, however, makes no reference to Mumford in his essay. Frampton explains how he believes architecture should involve analysing the local character of the area and reinterpreting them in contemporary terms rather than completely adapting the traditions. In Frampton’s ‘Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, he proposed a critical regionalism with new theoretical perspectives which has region at its centre, about bringing back the main components of architecture such as topography, tactile, light, climate, tectonic traditions .

Frampton has mentioned Tadao Ando as being a successful critical regionalist and celebrates his work as an aim to express his own ideas . In order to gain a better understanding to analyse the Water Temple, it is important to know a bit of background about the architect. Born in Japan, Ando is a self-taught architect who trained to become a boxer before settling down in the field of architecture by apprenticing to several designers and city planners. Although Ando has never used the term “critical regionalism” to describe his work, he has also not rejected it, and his architectural works clearly demonstrate some of the main characteristics as described by Tzonis, Lefaivre, and Frampton. In his essays “Beyond Horizons In Architecture” Ando recognises that “modernist architecture had become mechanical, and postmodernist styles endeavoured to recover the formal richness that modernism appeared to have discarded.”

Ando’s architecture has a deep connection with its surrounding context and important traditions as he was raised in Japan where the religion and style of life strongly influenced his architecture and design. Similarly to Frampton, Ando has strong views that, “you cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see.” In his work, Ando attempts to recover the lost language created by modernism, through the use of Critical Regionalism, creating a poetic and symbolic expression by reinterpreting traditional Japanese architecture.


The Water Temple is one of Ando’s best works, which has enriched the architecture of Japanese religious spaces. It was built in 1989-1991 in Hompukuji, Japan in the northern region of Awaji Island. The careful use of materials and the organisation of the sequence of spaces in this Water Temple is far different from the traditional Buddhist temples. The approach Tadao Ando has taken to this design is a journey oriented, thought-provoking, process through the temple. This elaborate approach, through the long journey upon a white sand path which winds up the hilly landscape, until reaching the Water Temple, symbolises the start of the purification process believers undertake before they arrive at the sacred temple. The effect that Ando has tried to create through this continuous journey is an attempt to facilitate moments of contemplation and spirituality throughout, as each step augments one’s removal from reality. Eventually the route reaches a large opening at one end of a 3-meter-tall freestanding concrete wall.

This circuitous path leading to the temple is also known as ‘roji’ which is common in traditional Japanese gardens. In Buddhism the roji symbolises a “path which leads away from the mundane world and a way to clear the heart” , facilitating contemplation and reflection. This incorporation of culture and geographical context is common in Ando’s works, as he believes “To create architecture is to express characteristic aspects of the real world such as nature, history, tradition and society, in a spatial structure, on the basis of a clear, transparent logic.”

There are three immediate impressions of the Water Temple:

  1. Materiality – Large concrete walls
  2. Tactility – Hard walls which seem soft to the touch
  3. Emptiness – Encouraging meditation

Ando doesn’t limit himself to just using wood or concrete which both have tangible forms, however he goes into more depth including natures elements of light and water, creating a sensory experience. The intention of this building is so the man and nature confront each other to evoke spirituality.

The heavy use of concrete is very contrasting to traditional Buddhist Japanese temples with their primary structural material comprising of wood. This exposed concrete draws special attention, and is the first introduction to the temple, to admire the blank concrete façade one is faced with, demonstrating the initial impression of emptiness. “I do not believe architecture has to speak too much. It should remain silent and let nature in the guise of sunlight and wind.” Smooth cement wings shield the lotus pool behind from view, making it impossible to imagine what lies beyond these structural walls, channelling the visitors on the long uninterrupted path. “If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.” The softness of these walls contrasts the striking light patterns that fall down to shade them. This soft texture of the cement surface created is also supposed to resemble the water, hinting clues of what may be around the corner, through the different vibrations, ripples and textures of the water. Although concrete is a strong structural material, the neutral grey colours effectively blend in along with surrounding nature of bushes and trees.

Continuing along the path, upon turning the corner, the large oval lotus pond is immediately revealed, with panoramic views over Osaka Bay, creating emphasis on the view after the long concrete obstructed journey. The journey continues along the ponds edge, which is in fact the roof of the sunken temple beneath, reaching a concrete cast staircase, that slices through the middle of the pond, marking the entrance to the sacred temple.

The temple is partly built underground, to leave the hilly landscape undisturbed, blending the architecture into nature. The narrow staircase which is lined by concrete on either side leads the visitors down into the holy space of the Buddhist temple. Additionally, the blue-grey iron handrails complement the concrete stair with the neutrality of the colour, while also acting as simple lines which increase the safely around the pool. After descending down the stairs, one is confronted with a space flooded with a strong colour of vermillion, the traditional Buddhist colour , creating the impression of a large red volume where even the air itself seems to be saturated with colour. The effects of this use of colour creates a warm and spiritual environment inside the temple accentuated by the lit candles, replicating the atmosphere of the Western Paradise Pure Land .

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Similarly to the design above ground, there is no immediate access to the sacred space due to the basic geometrical elements that Ando has applied in this design. One is gradually directed down a route which leads to the place of worship at the centre of the space, creating interesting places of reflection along the way. The oval shape of the pool is mirrored below, creating the circular plot of the temple, with the long stairway dividing the space into two allocating one side to the sanctuary and the other half to the adjacent rooms. These nestled geometries aim to suggest harmony and balance within the temple, creating the mystic quality of space . Its circular form encloses an important wooden structure, built based on the traditional form of the Shingon temples, with a statue of Buddha located within.

The sanctuary is formed by a wall of tightly lapped Japanese cypress boards painted in vermillion. The sacredness of the room is accentuated by the strong use of colour and light. Natural light filters through the only window located on the west behind the statue of Budda, which in the evenings, filters in the setting sun. This is common in Japanese designs and similarities can be seen for the relationship between temple and western light through Ando’s precedent called “Jodo-ji Jodo-jo Temple” in Hyogo-ken . The unlikelihood of finding light underground almost accentuated the sense of drama and creates a mysterious environment.


The Japanese aesthetic has deep roots in culture and religion, a key theme involved in critical regionalism. “I want to make something which no one else could, a very quiet piece of architecture … I would like to make architecture that has that subtle sensitivity. I would like to create something that only a Japanese person could do.” Both Shintoism and Buddhist beliefs played a huge role in the design of this temple. Ando took a traditional temple as a reference for his design and manipulated it while maintaining similar qualities to the original temples.

Shinto is a set of beliefs that recognises “Shinto gods” also known as “Kami”, deeply engrained in the Japanese people and traditions . These spirits take the form of nature - wind, rain, mountains, trees and rivers – with more sacred areas located within natural areas of beauty. Ando follows this belief to great extent and highly worships nature, with an intention to invest his designs with emotion by bringing nature into them. The location of the shrine was built on a hilly terrain surrounded by nature in order to house the vast number of kami in these areas.

Moreover, through Ando’s design it is clear that many principles of Buddhist Zen philosophy have been applied to ensure there is a strong connection to the Japanese culture . Expressed by ‘shizen’, naturalness is a principle that seeks to create a balance between architecture and its natural environment through the incorporation of light, vegetation, wind, water and topography in the design. This is evident by the plays of light which Ando describes as being an “important controlling factor” , and the incorporation of the oval lotus pond, symbolising birth and regeneration. Walking between the lotus flowers in the pond, it feels as so this is a place which transcends day-to-day life, a place where the blend of architecture with nature leads to meditation and deliberation.

Meditation is another important Zen quality expressed in various places. This principle known as ‘seijaku’ takes these properties of meditation and replicates them into a physical design. This is demonstrated through the stillness of the design due to the calmness of the lotus pond, and the use of white gravel creates a correlation to a peaceful state of mind.

Zen buildings follow similar approaches through their simplistic designs, also known as ‘kanso’. A space shouldn’t be expressed in an excessive way, but only what is necessary. “architecture has forgotten that space can be a source of inspiration”. This also follows the concept of emptiness and austerity (known as the concept of koko), as this simplistic design and monotonous use of colour is a feature Ando employs to focus the visitors on what is important. The use of the 3-meter-tall obstructive concrete walls spanning great lengths, provide an element of subtlety in the design. “When I design buildings, I think of the overall composition, much as the parts of a body would fit together. On top of that, I think about how people will approach the building and experience that space.” Ando believes in the importance of not revealing everything in a single instant, rather gradually revealing elements at different points, stimulating imagination and creativity demonstrated in the approach to the temple. Subtlety also allows perception to access higher states of consciousness, as one is not burdened with excess of information.


Ando clearly puts nature at the heart of his works, making full use of the topography, climate, light, tectonic conditions and water in this temple and uses them to inform the design. He has a strong belief that “When you look at Japanese traditional architecture, you have to look at Japanese culture and its relationship with nature. You can actually live in a harmonious, close contact with nature – this very unique to Japan” . Ando goes beyond the tangible by creating more references to nature stressing the importance of natural elements as part of the Shinto beliefs.

The relationship to the context is a vital theme of critical regionalism demonstrated in the design. The contrast between the blank concrete façade and the instantly revealed sweeping views over Osaka Bay upon turning the corner, stresses the importance of the context. It almost seems as the building isolates itself on the one characterless side, but on the other it couldn’t feel more open or connected to the environment, focusing on what is important. This is a common Japanese technique sharing many qualities with Zen Gardens, by creating a highly controlled environment and the conscious awareness of being in an alternative place and “the feeling of gradual separation and liberation” .

The simplicity of the design of Ando’s temple is enhanced by the complexity of plays of light and use of reflection creating a powerful sensory experience. Ando explains, “I hope to achieve simplicity, but I also hope to achieve depth … I believe it is important that architecture should be a space where you feel spiritually empowered.” There is a clear connection to the Japanese historical heritage through the physical and spiritual effects the water creates and its association to the architecture. Ando creates a distinct connection to the environment through the relationship between the land and the body of water which surrounds the island. By bringing water onto the island through the lotus pond, this creates an immediate sense of placelessness. Including water in the design of the temple creates a poetic expression through the rippling and flowing sounds in various places. The intention is to relax people’s minds through the calm and elegant surface of the pond. This creates a more in depth understanding of religion as experiencing the water provides an awareness of the religious qualities and provides the environment with meaning, while unconsciously referring back to the roots of nature.


In conclusion, critical regionalism is an adapted and reformed modernism movement which has survived due to addressing the flaws modernism created – placelessness and lack of identity. This concept has been successful worldwide, influenced by Ando, to provide a sense of authentic and modern architecture to people while maintaining close connections to the surrounding context and environment.

The geometric and spatial qualities achieved, makes the Water Temple one of the highest points of Ando’s career, communicating a whole universe of symbolism, important in the Japanese culture. As Kenzo Tange agrees: “There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart.”

The Water Temple embodies the qualities of traditional Japanese temples while maintaining cultural identity and using modern Western methods and materials, “representing a radical change in the age-old tradition of Japanese temple architecture” . Although the design contrasts to traditional Japanese temples, there are countless similarities through a variety of references to historical and cultural theories that are communicated through the design such as traditional Shinto and Zen beliefs. However, the design could be deemed as confusing to individuals who do not have an understanding of Japanese architecture and their heritage.

Overall, Tadao Ando has largely contributed to the development of architectural thinking by incorporating his own philosophy, deeply rooted in the sense of identity. He has continued to reform modernism through the Water Temple, which is a significant piece of architecture, successfully stressing the importance of critical regionalism through the entirety of its design.

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Historic Japanese Notions Of Shinto And Zen In Buddhism. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
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