What do you see when you look out your window? Is there a mountain range in the distance or a glimpse of the ocean? Perhaps there’s a city skyline or a particularly impressive tree. The ancient East Asian concept of shakkei, which translates to "borrowed landscape" or "borrowed scenery," can help facilitate a greater connection between your home and the surrounding views.
"Shakkei is the ancient technique of incorporating a distant landscape into a garden setting, so as to appear seamlessly connected to the design," says Sophie Walker, author of The Japanese Garden (Phaidon, 2017). While the technique was practiced in Japanese gardens as early as the Heian period (794–1185 AD), the Chinese coined the Mandarin term for the concept in the 17th century. Shakkei played a key role in Japanese garden design during the Edo period (1603–1868), and the design principle became popular among modernist architects in the 1960s.
While shakkei refers to the traditional technique of incorporating an outside view into a garden design, the concept also offers inspiration for connecting built forms with nature in a profound manner. But applying shakkei successfully to your home or garden involves more than simply framing a view: It requires a careful analysis of the landscape and surrounding elements to create a composition with depth, scale, and texture that integrates the "borrowed scenery" in a poetic way.
"In contrast to typically symmetrical and grandiose Western gardens, traditional East Asian gardens celebrate the natural formation of landscapes," says architect Clinton Cole, cofounder of the Sydney-based CplusC Architectural Workshop. "In architecture, this concept is emphasized by framing specific elements of the ‘beyond scenery’ to connect the exterior landscapes with the interior."
CplusC Architectural Workshop’s recent project, Totoro House, integrates shakkei as a core design concept. The Sydney home features a number of openings—circular and clerestory windows, as well as large sliding glass doors—that frame different elements of the interior and exterior. These openings connect the home’s various gathering spaces and create a natural transition between the family residence and its surrounding site.
American architect Allison Ewing, cofounder of Hays + Ewing Design Studio, came across the concept of shakkei during a two-year fellowship researching Japanese teahouses in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Since then, Ewing has evoked shakkei principles in various projects, such as the Lantern at Linkhorn Bay residence in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The geometric family home employs cantilevered rooflines and terraces, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows that call attention to the beauty of the site.
"Architects talk a lot about blurring the boundaries between inside and outside as a way of connecting humans to nature and daylight," says Ewing. "Using the shakkei principles of garden planning in building design goes one step further. In my work, I use associative elements in the foreground so that the landscape’s beauty is more fully appreciated."
Australian architect Lucy Clemenger also draws inspiration from the East Asian garden design concept—most notably in her Melbourne home, where she used the technique to expand her own sense of interior space in an urban context. "Shakkei allows the designer to embed the natural landscape into the built environment," Clemenger says. "By blurring the edges of a site, the views that lie beyond the property’s boundaries can be drawn into the interior."
The challenge, of course, with "borrowing" a distant landscape is the potential for an unexpected change in the scenery—which is an increasingly likely occurrence in our modern world. "With the growing global population, we are putting more and more pressure on the intact landscapes that would have once been incorporated as ‘borrowed scenery,’" says Walker. "Metaphorically speaking, the distant view is one we struggle to hold onto. I suspect shakkei has a very real importance with regard to our existence in relation to others."