Shou-sugi-ban (焼杉板), also known as yakisugi, is a technique of burning cedar for use as cladding on a building, which has been applied in Japanese architecture for centuries and has gained more recent popularity in Europe and North America. The traditional use of shou-sugi-ban would have recovered driftwood from the coast of Japan, making detritus into an object of beauty through renewed function, letting the wood reveal qualities that may have previously been hidden. The charring can vary from an ombré gradient through the wood’s natural colour to a deep, rich amber, or burnt entirely to achieve a uniform black. The technique is valuable as it prolongs the structural lifespan of wood without requiring chemical sealants or insect repellants—and in a beautiful paradox, by burning, the wood becomes resistant to burning again .
In the early 20th century, an emergent art-form called Mono-ha (もの派) took shape among a few sculptors and installation-based artists working in Japan. Mono-ha emphasised the inner qualities of a material, the relationships between natural and artificial materials, and the spatial relationships that were alternately critical and independent of human signification. As artist Kazuo Kadonaga (角永 和夫) has said, “I am not interested in creating beautiful objects. What is of interest to me is discovering and disclosing the natural beauty of natural materials” .
Artists creating through Mono-ha would provoke situations between elements that were most often simple and raw, such as wood, stone, or water. The ‘material essence’ is often explored by interjecting into an object with an uncanny arrangement or combination of gestures, such as steel rods through monolithic stones; or by activating a dialogue between the raw materials and their architectural context, as in “Limitless Condition” (1970) by Kishio Suga (菅 木志雄), where the artistic material is the object’s possibility, and the ambiguity between an unanswered question and an ‘accidental’ statement . Suga’s architecturally informed work reflects the inherent potential of matter, enlivening a material that could otherwise be dismissed as inert.
Exploring this state of material precarity, Kōji Enokura (榎倉康) frequently worked with water, often in relation to human-made structures. Enokura’s “Quality of Wetness” (1974) expresses ‘water as time’—matter making its change apparent in relation to another form. Katsuro Yoshida (吉田 克朗) worked with lumber, rope, and stone, activating architectural ‘situations’ that contrast scale and weight. Burnt wood was significant to the work of Kadonaga, who is known for installations with smoke-stained bamboo and half-charred logs . Elsewhere, “Coffin of Seele” by Toshikatsu Endo (遠藤利克) examines the concealed qualities of a thing represented by water inside of burnt wood, sealed with tar. Endo’s “Coffin” explores the nature and secrecy of interiority, with an architectural understanding that comes from the artist’s family background of carpentry for shrines and temples .
This interpretation of raw materials informs the dialogue between the materiality of Mono-ha and the architectural applications of burnt wood through shou-sugi-ban. As an architectural decision, the charred cedar used in the Wallace Street House (Campos Leckie Studio), intends a dialogue between the dwelling and the environment through a simple emphasis of the natural qualities of cedar. The gesture of shou-sugi-ban focuses attention on the relationship between the blackened wood, an allusion to a rock garden, and the blooming and coniferous trees preserved along Wallace Street.
The ritualistic and environmental transformation of wood requires the architect to consider the role of materials as always changing, and the intention or appearance of structural permanence. The fire itself, as process or as ‘the thing itself’ in shou-sugi-ban and in the experimentation of Mono-ha, is harnessed as a creative force rather than one of destruction—as unquestionably part of a work as the wetness or dryness of wood passing through a natural state of transformation.
 Mabelle Plasencia, “Shou sugi ban, or Yakisugi, the art of Charred Cedar”. http://www.inmatteria.com/2014/11/30/shou-sugi-ban-or-yakisugi-the-art-of-charred-cedar/ Accessed October 11, 2016.
 Michael Laurence, “Kazuo Kadonaga: Wood / Bamboo / Paper / Silk”, http://www.kazuokadonaga.com/document/cat-MichaelLaurence.html Accessed October 11, 2016.
 Between Potentiality and Fatality: Interview with Kishio Suga http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_feature_e/ldVFuhGyfYUWSgPkzOCJ/ Accessed October 11, 2016.
 Michael Laurence. “Kazuo Kadonaga: Wood / Bamboo / Paper / Silk”, http://www.kazuokadonaga.com/document/cat-MichaelLaurence.html Accessed October 11, 2016.
 Toshikatsu Endo, Art Front Gallery. http://artfrontgallery.com/en/artists/Toshikatsu_Endo.html
Text by Lital Khaikin.