Urban Zen: Creekside Dojo Brings Spiritual and Nature Connections
Text by Cheryl Alexander Architecture by Gary R. Chandler Architects and Interiors Photography by Miro Dvorscak
Traditional Design Is Winner Of ASID Outdoor Living Award
With the popularity of all things Japanese, it is no surprise that Western architecture has begun to adopt the ages-old tenets of Eastern design, long known for its commitment and adherence to the principles of Zen. What may be surprising, however, is how a Houston homeowner has blended the design of his creekside Memorial home with his passion for martial arts, yoga and Japanese design.
The seven principles of Zen design are kanso — simplicity or elimination of clutter; enso fukinsei — asymmetry or irregularity; shibui/shibumi — beautiful by being understated; shizen — naturalness; Yugen — subtlety; datsuzoku — freedom from habit or formula; seijaku — tranquility or stillness, solitude.
There’s just something sacred about entering any space with these principles intact. Gary Chandler of Gary R. Chandler Architects and Interiors explained the appeal of Japanese architecture this way: “While traditional European architecture is more machine- and science-oriented, Japanese design puts the human being at its center. This is why it feels different to be in a space fabricated with the principles of Zen. It is instantly more spiritual, and there is a much stronger connection to the natural elements.”
Chandler, who has studied Japanese design for 30 years, explained that when homeowner Vianney Savajol hired him to construct a dojo in the backyard of his creekside home, it was a project he had been wanting to do his entire career. “Though I’ve incorporated a Japanese influence into much of my modern architecture, this project would be my first true, pure Japanese design,” Chandler said.
For Savajol, the project represented an extension of his passion for martial arts and yoga and an opportunity to fully develop the amazing setting of his home. Savajol began studying martial arts as a young man in his 20s in his native France. About 15 years ago, he added a yoga practice to his Eastern studies, and in 2010, he returned to a deepened focus on aikido, which is a combination of jujitsu, judo and karate. “The approach is unique,” explained Savajol, “in that aikido is really a mix of styles where the practitioner learns to control their actions through both meditation and sparring.”
Savajol said the location of his home and the large backyard space inspired his desire to build a dojo, the traditional Japanese martial arts practice space. Dojos are one of the most widely known venues in the Japanese setting, and the term literally translates to “Place of the Way.” A proper Japanese martial arts dojo is considered special and is well-cared for by its users. Shoes are not worn in a dojo. In many styles it is traditional to conduct a ritual cleaning (sōji) of the dojo at the beginning and/or end of each training session.
The architectural design of a dojo has its traditional roots as well. For one thing, person-specific entrances are laid out in order to differentiate the status of the person entering the dojo. Instructors have a specific entrance that is usually placed in the upper right corner. Another entrance known as the shomen, which means “front,” is placed in the lower left part of the room and is made for students. Other designs such as taiko drums, armour, weapons and kanban may be seen inside the dojo as well.
When Savajol met with Chandler to design the dojo, both expressed their intention to keep Savajol’s dojo as close to traditional design as possible. “From the placement of the doors, windows and storage spaces, to the incorporation of the artifacts that Savajol included, and even the landscaping around the dojo,” said Chandler, “this project is pure in its observance of traditional design and respect for the natural setting.”
The team faced the challenge of creating a peaceful, Zen-like environment on this property which, though it is spacious, wooded and has a creek running through it, also sits adjacent to a very busy thoroughfare that can become noisy with traffic. To overcome the noise, a solid wall facing the street and dead space in a closet were installed to absorb sound. They also used laminated glass, which is thicker than normal. Another challenge was getting the floor size just right. The mats that are put down for the practice of aikido dictated the size of the room, as they must sit completely flush with the walls.
“There is a lot of complex math involved in this kind of Japanese construction,” said Chandler. “On top of that, we had to deal with problems with permits from the city. They wouldn’t approve a construction entrance from the street, which was closer to the actual construction site. We had to completely disassemble the home’s front gate and come through the front, across the pool area all the way to the back of the yard.”
All of the challenges, however, were effectively overcome. The judges of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Texas Gulf Coast Chapter (TGCC) obviously agreed as the structure was recently awarded the 2016 Ruby Award for Outdoor Living. Of the success, Chandler said, “The dojo is an example of mature architecture — it requires no words. The structure sits so quietly, yet so confidently with no need to scream for attention. The proportion of the building to the setting allows one to be in the space, yet surrounded by nature.”
Savajol attributes the project’s success to a combination of elements. “While I was definitely attuned to the design, I deferred to Gary’s expertise. We had great communication, a great site, a great contractor, a great landscaper and a great budget. None of the pieces fell short. All of that, and it makes me very happy.”