Material Focus: Shou-sugi-ban

Shou-sugi-ban is the ancient Japanese technique of charring wood for use in building cladding. Paper is bound between two cedar planks which is set on-fire for several minutes before being extinguished with water, resulting in a cladding material that is simultaneously beautiful, functional, and meaningful.

The deeply black and wonderfully irregular texture of the charring process results in a carbonized surface with chemical properties that make it naturally weather, fire, and insect resistant for up to 80 years with no maintenance required. Much like COR-TEN Steel™, which gains it’s corrosion-resistant properties from a thin layer of rust, shou-sugi-ban takes advantage of the inherent combustibility of wood to protect itself against the primary forces of its own decay while simultaneously expressing in an existential way the material’s inevitable decomposition. Issues of material performance, phenomenology, cultural meaning, and natural ecological cycles are all tied up in the most fundamental of all materials: wood, and its most fundamental transformation: fire.

The project pictured here is the Coal House by Terunobu Fujimori, a Japanese architect and historian who is largely responsible for raising awareness of this ancient technique within the contemporary global architectural community. What is particularly interesting to me is how this culturally-specific technique has been adopted by architects in other regions in order to accommodate alternative wood types, incorporate modern tools, or make the process more efficient through new burning configurations. Although new high-tech, nano, and composite materials are invented each year which unquestionably expand our capacity to design high-performance, expressive, and transformative architecture, forgotten techniques like shou-sugi-ban are a reminder that there is also the potential for rediscovery and reinterpretation of forgotten techniques for use in contemporary architectural practice.

 

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