How the Ancient Concept of “Shakkei” Can Enhance the Beauty of Your Home

The traditional East Asian design principle involves incorporating elements of a distant landscape, or “borrowed scenery,” into a garden setting.

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.

The Tairyu-Sanso garden in Kyoto, Japan, was designed in by pioneering Japanese garden architect Ogawa Jihei VII, who also laid out the idyllic Heian-jingū and Murin-an gardens. "Here, Ogawa incorporates the distant view of Mount Higashiyama," says garden designer Sophie Walker, author of The Japanese Garden (Phaidon, 2017). "With the carefully composed natural scenes framed by windows and sloping roofs, you would never know that this private property is surrounded by the modern city of Kyoto." 

"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.

Japanese practice Kengo Kuma and Associates teamed up with Suteki America to build the Suteki House for the 2017 NW Natural Street of Dreams residential construction showcase in Oregon. The home "envisions a new mode of suburban living by combining Japanese spatial principles and a nature-based, American way of life," according to the architects.

The common spaces in the Suteki House deliberately frame exterior views. "The beautiful oak trees on the opposite side of the creek are still ‘belonging’ to this house by the use of shakkei, which expands limits visually," explain the architects.

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.

Genkō-an, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, features two distinctly shaped windows that symbolize enlightenment (the circular window) and delusion (a neighboring square window). "The ‘borrowed landscape’ that is offered by these windows is carefully orchestrated—just as a painter would compose a painting," says Walker.

Jikkō-in is a small temple near the Sanzen-in Temple in Ōhara, Kyoto. The peaceful grounds include the Keishin-en Garden, which was designed to incorporate "borrowed scenery" from the mountains across the valley.  

The Adachi Museum Garden in Yasugi, Japan, has been ranked as the country’s most beautiful garden for 18 consecutive years by the Journal of Japanese Gardening. The garden, which was designed according to shakkei principles, features rugged stones that evoke the craggy mountains in the distance.

"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."

"Shakkei can act as a core design component in an interior living space, with the same objective of bridging ‘the beyond scenery’ into the site," says architect Ryan Ng, who cofounded CplusC Architectural Workshop with architect Clinton Cole. "In the Totoro House, every window and door opening acts as a frame that captures a different element of the backyard."

The renovation and extension of the Totoro House deliberately removed boundaries from the Sydney residence. The walls that previously separated the kitchen, living, and dining areas were reimagined as vertical thresholds, and parts of the rear extension were pulled outward to form the open-air dining and lounge area. A circular window on the ground level overlooks the backyard, framing the transition between the interior and exterior.

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.

The principal bedroom in the Totoro House features a circular window that was inspired by the East Asian concept of shakkei. A small hatch allows fresh air to enter the interior, while a built-in cushion on the window frame acts as a small seat for the homeowners’ children. "The window allows the clients to be private, yet also connected to the rear courtyard," says architect Clinton Cole.

In Suzhou, China, the UNESCO-listed Master of the Nets garden is home to the Moon Gate, which also exhibits a circular motif. "The symbolic borrowing of the moon as a tool for shakkei can be found in both China and Japan," says Walker. "At this 12th-century garden, the Moon Gate offers a view of some carefully clipped bonsai trees, which reference the wild landscape of China."

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.

American architect Allison Ewing utilized cantilevered rooflines and terraces to emphasize the beauty of this family residence’s site in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "The building forms, detailing, and material selections all draw on the concept of shakkei," Ewing says. 

"The home’s hovering roof planes reinforce the natural horizon, shoreline, waterway, and distant woods and sky," the architect explains.

"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."

A sliver of the landscape is captured between the second-floor deck and the roof at the Lantern at Linkhorn Bay residence. "By borrowing from the scenery, the horizontal emphasis of the building calls forth the qualities of place," reveals the architect.

An outdoor pool at the Lantern at Linkhorn Bay residence foreshadows the more distant view of the bay.

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."

Australian architect Lucy Clemenger utilized shakkei principles to dissolve the boundaries between her home and the neighboring park. "A glazed open-plan living space visually embraces the park," Clemenger says. "The floating timber-clad extension was designed to frame views of the landscape while also providing privacy in the sleeping quarters."

Inside Clemenger’s home in Melbourne, Australia, the careful arrangement of furniture and curtains helps to frame specific views of the nearby park while blocking out other parts of the urban setting.

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." 

Related Reading:

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Wild California Meets Manicured Japan in This Family’s Backyard Garden Oasis


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