Kitsungi – the art of repair

 

Celebrating the beauty of a naturally imperfect world is a tenet of our work here at RISE Design Studio. By embracing impermanence and accepting that we are always in a state of flux, it becomes easier to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others. It is this mindfulness and ‘living in the now’ – with all its imperfections – that we try to capture in our work. An important influence on our approach is the Japanese art of kitsungi – ‘golden repair’ – which respects the unique history of an object.

Reclaimed bricks RISE Design Studio

An accidental art form

It is thought that kitsungi was developed in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke his favourite tea bowl. He was disappointed that the repair involved stapling the pieces together, which left the bowl looking unattractive. Instead, local craftsmen filled the crack with a golden laquer. This made the bowl more unique and valuable, and prompted a new style of repair. As the style developed, the lacquer was likened to natural features like waterfalls, rivers, or landscapes.

The need to accept change

We often feel regret when something breaks or is wasted. For the Japanese, this is ‘mottainai’, a feeling that dates back to the original era of kitsungi and remains present in contemporary Japanese environmentalism.

In London, we are tackling the challenge of developing a circular economy to support net zero targets – mottainai and kitsungi can provide us with the inspiration we need. In our ‘throwaway culture’, we often miss opportunities to transform broken or used objects into something new, perhaps even making those objects more rare and beautiful than the originals.

This is the essence of resourcefulness – making the most of what we already have (or what already is) and highlighting beauty alongside any flaws. The perfections and imperfections are what gives our surroundings a story and meaning.

Embracing the past in the home

What does this mean at home? It can include choosing authentic furnishings that create a lived, harmonious space. It might also mean sourcing used furniture and allowing each scratch to add to the narrative of an item’s history. It might mean repairing walls, floors and external materials to reflect the history of the building and the changes it has seen through the years. Sourcing local or reclaimed materials might also help to root the home in its local environment and landscape.

Imperfections are gifts

The art of kitsungi is not only about objects – it is also about how we live our lives. It helps us to realise that we, like the tea bowl, are all fallible. We heal and grow, and we often survive emotional blows and live to tell the story. However, it can be hard to admit our failures and accept that bad things can happen. If we are to learn something personal from the local craftsmen who repaired broken items with gold, it is that imperfections are gifts to be worked with.

We take pride in working with imperfections in our projects, whether those be in buildings with a story to tell, with materials that reflect the local landscape, or with furniture and other fittings that have existed for several generations.

Imperfection and the pursuit of happiness in architecture

 

2020 has definitely not been a perfect year. But what if we accept that any feelings of suffering we experience are a part of life? What if it is not in our remit to be completely and enduringly happy all the time? What if, in embracing imperfection, we can find happiness? These are questions that have been explored by philosophers and expressed in architectural approaches and styles.

RISE Design Studio - Mak and Bium

A philosophy of comfort

Philosopher and author, Alain de Botton, has suggested that ‘the greatest enemy of contemporary satisfaction may be the belief in human perfectability’. In today’s society, we often feel that it is in our remit to be completely happy. However, throughout history, life’s milestones and endeavours (marriage, raising children, pursuing a career, etc.) have been understood to be difficult as well as sources of happiness. Buddhists have perceived life as a ‘veil of suffering’, while the Greeks believed in ‘the tragic structure of every human project’. Christianity has also measured ‘each of us as being marked by a divine curse’.

Seeking a way forwards, de Botton argues that what we can aim for is consolation – accepting that life is a hospice rather than a hospital. Seeking to make that hospice as comfortable, as interesting, and as kind as possible. We should also seek to grasp what our problems are and know that we are not alone with them.

Embracing imperfection

In an earlier post, we wrote about the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – an acceptance of transience and imperfection. By living in the now and embracing the impermanence of life, we are more likely to learn, grow and feel more content. In architectural designs that embrace wabi-sabi, finding beauty in asymmetry and connecting with natural materials brings balance and serenity to the home. The approach also encourages us to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others.

Spontaneity can also be a source of happiness, realising opportunities as they arise and developing a fondness towards the unexpected. The Korean architectural aesthetic of ‘mak’ embodies this approach, embracing compassion for the context in which a building or object is realised. Where buildings may seem raw and unfinished, this is instead an aesthetic statement, acknowledging an innate tactility that is enshrined in Korean culture.  Diverging from the Western architectural focus on symmetry, the concept of ‘bium’ (literally translated as ’emptiness’), allows haste to overcome perfection, perhaps in misalignment of materials or uneven arrangements.

For example, in a traditional Korean house (a ‘hanok’), a courtyard provides a void of calm vacancy and an acceptance of the constraints and conditions of the house’s location. Instead of seeking perfection, rafters may remain unprocessed, or opening/doorways may fit between the warped wooden contours of beams. The unique personality of this type of home acknowledges the natural surroundings of the building.

A series of moments

Despite life’s imperfections, moments of true happiness are always possible. And what more is life than a series of moments? In architecture, we are presented with an opportunity to embrace imperfection. By welcoming the irregular and broken features of existing structures and refurbishing them in a way that incorporates the building’s history, we can acknowledge both the past and present to create the comfortable, interesting and kind life that de Botton supported.