Some wabi-sabi with your sushi?

We’re on the home straight now. I know that because I’ve seen painters and plasterers and electricians back on site. And I’ve had a conversation with the landscaper as well. I have to be honest here, at this point in the build I’ve been worn down by delays and although I’m trying to remain a champion of the design, I have little appetite left for purists. I’m in settle-and-live-with-it mode.

Even so, I managed to err on the side of design on two occasions when presented with the benefits of a quick, cheap fix. The first was relating to the bathroom on the lower floor. You may remember that there was a question over whether to rebate or not to rebate the glass walls. Though it caused delays and extra cost, I chose to rebate. Now that I see the glass walls installed, I know it was the correct decision. At the time though, I was unsure, so I relied on the architect’s advice. I’m glad I did.

The glass bathroom from the bedroom side. Shower in foreground.

The glass bathroom from the bedroom side. Shower in foreground.

There are some things about this bathroom that really make it what it is and the seamless way the glass cuts through the expanse of concrete slab is one of them. It gives the bathroom a most convincing transparent quality and the rest of the room loses nothing of its sense of openness.

The glass bathroom as seen from the front door. Cheeky.

The glass bathroom as seen from the front door. Cheeky.

You have to think about openness when you’re working to Japanese proportions. Remember, this is a house designed by a Japanese architect who has never lived in an Australian house. The sense of scale he designs to is instinctively Japanese, so any design element that conveys openness is all part of his repertoire, designed to offset the closeness of everything. Designing this way achieves the efficiency that Shimada san is looking for without compromising the sense of space that he knows he can win back with a detail like this. It’s a clever trick that I am only now appreciating with these new glass walls installed.

Looking through the glass bathroom to the bedroom.

Looking through the glass bathroom to the bedroom.

The second issue that needed to be resolved was the painting and filling of the feature ceiling on the upper floor. It’s been very controversial having to paint this ceiling. The ply that was used to build it was of such fine quality that it begged to be left as a timber finish. However, Shimada san’s design required it painted, and painted white at that.

Walls and ceiling primed for painting.

Walls and ceiling primed for painting.

Painting things matt white creates just as many negatives as it does positives. Where a matt white surface will hide small imperfections and variations in surface texture (positive) it also brings into high relief any obvious joins (negative…very negative). The joins in the plywood walls, I’m told, will always be there, even beneath a few coats of white. I’ll talk about the virtues of that later. Meanwhile, in the spaces along the ridges and valleys where the ceiling is at its most complicated, there are gaps which will need to be filled.

Ceiling primed, gaps prior to filling.

Ceiling primed, gaps prior to filling.

The experts tell us that silicone joints are the way to go here because they’re flexible and stay put during the heave and breathe of temperature changes. Yet silicone doesn’t deliver a sharp joint, more of a concave effect. The settle-and-live-with-it approach would be to fill all the joints, paint over them, and try not to notice them later. If you’re going to be a champion of the design however, the approach is more complicated. It requires sanding and filling, sanding and filling, building up the edges and then sanding them again on angles to achieve a peak where the ceiling folds.

Filling and sanding the folded edge.

Filling and sanding the folded edge.

It’s not me doing all this, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the guys who are. However, there are times in a build where you’ve got to know where to put the effort. You can give way on things that won’t be seen over time (like the fixing detail on the Barestone ceiling soffits, which no longer grate on me). But you need to imagine where the eye of the visitor will go when they see the house for the first time. We’ve all heard the first impressions cliché. In my mind, this house will be judged on the virtues of the stair design, the exposed concrete slab, and the feature ceiling on the upper floor, all things you notice first about the building.

The ceiling nexus. Several more processes to go.

The ceiling nexus. Several more processes to go.

Let’s now talk about those walls on the upper floor with their obvious joins. There is imperfection in this painted white surface, because the underlying substrate has been built using ply and it shows through in texture and line. It’s not a featureless surface like plaster which can be machine set. You can, in certain light, see the joins in the panels on my walls. You can see the wood grain too.

Primed walls with joins visible. More paint yet to go, but the joins will remain.

Primed walls with joins visible. More paint yet to go, but the joins will remain.

I have to say that I believe that many people who visit this house will not understand the rationale for constructing the walls and ceiling this way, from ply. They’ll wonder why it wasn’t done in plaster and more critically, they’ll wonder why the imperfections have been left there. They’ll perhaps write it off as a budgetary decision.

What I know about the Japanese way, however, is that imperfection, or rather the appreciation of imperfection is a thing. It’s a thing.

The Japanese call it wabi-sabi, which describes a life view where you accept transience and imperfection as virtues. It’s derived from a Buddhist teaching and it has many characteristics, including asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, and the appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes (Wikipedia quote/unquote).

Can you feel the wabi-sabi?

Can you feel the wabi-sabi?

I can see myself reciting this rationale to every critic who asks about those walls. I’ll be mounting a convincing case, especially when I get my energy for design back at the completion of the build. I’m hoping that they will appreciate my argument and nod along. I’m hoping too that they’ll feel the crafted building beneath the paint when they touch the walls. I’m hoping the structure that exists there will speak back to them in english (as well as japanese). I’m hoping especially that they won’t think of my rationale as a defensive back story or an excuse for a poor decision.

There’s another way to look at it of course. And that’s that the imperfections I see now may very well fade into the background when the full, dazzling effect of the completed house is revealed.

There are still a few weeks to go before practical completion, though and so in the meantime, I’ll worry and practice my wabi-sabi speech.