8 December 2023
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As we wind down a year of carefully considering our most closely held core values, we have come to the subject of mindful awareness. The practice of mindful awareness — of being present — feels essential in creating spaces that promote a sense of serenity and wellbeing. In his connection to nature, reference for craft and attention to detail, Takashi Yanai — whom I have long admired — embodies the type of thoughtful awareness I so appreciate: a practice of slowing down and paying close attention to the senses. These elements of Takashi’s practice, as well as our shared reverence for simplicity in design, drew me to his work, and led to our last conversation for 2023, an exploration of mindfulness awareness and wellbeing. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Takashi Yanai heads the residential practice of EYRC, an architectural firm with studios in both Southern and Northern California that was honored with the American Institute of Architects National Firm Award in 2015. Rooted in a contemplative relationship with the landscape, his work continues the tradition of modernist design, while infusing it with his own interpretations of Japanese principles of design, space, and life.

Born in Japan, Takashi moved to California at the age of two, a self-professed “California kid.” An inquisitive polymath, his interests included photography, art, literature, and the humanities. His circuitous route to the practice of architecture included an undergraduate degree in literature with a focus on poetry, four years at the venerable design magazine GA in Japan, and a graduate degree in architecture from Harvard. Ever attentive, he recognized the connections between his various disciplines, adding to the richness they would eventually bring to his architectural work.

Poems are visual and structural — there is an analogy to architecture there.

After graduating from Harvard, he returned to California, where he joined Steven Ehrlich in 2000, a partnership he attributes to good chemistry and good timing. In the ensuing years, he built the firm’s residential studio, modeling both a design approach and firm culture steeped in the practice of being fully present. He returns to Japan several times a year, underscoring the importance of the country’s culture to both his outlook and his design practice.

In your practice, you have chosen to focus on residential architecture, a smaller typology.

I like to know the people I’m creating an environment for, and make an impact, one client or family at a time. When I see that I’ve improved their lives through their living environment, that’s the most satisfying to me. Even in residential architecture, there can be an extravagance of space in larger projects that can get away from us, and we lose the intimacy we are striving for. We must be mindful of that.


What does mindful awareness look like in the context of your architectural practice?

Every moment I am in a space, I am cognizant of what else is existing in that space alongside me, physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Your work has such a quiet, minimalist quality. Is minimalism in design an imperative for you?

I don’t necessarily need it to be minimalist, but I’m striving for simplicity.

Can you explain what you mean by simplicity versus minimalism?

The difference between minimalism as an aesthetic and simplicity as a practice is that one goes deeper. Striving for simplicity goes beyond architecture to a way of existing in the world.

Your roots in Japan play an important role in your approach to the modernist tradition, and your place within it. Can you explain that connection further?

There is definitely a conversation between mid-century modernism and Japanese design. There is an honesty in materials, and economy of space and, most importantly, a connection to nature that is integral to well-being. Here in California that conversation comes naturally.

An awareness of nature is so important to our sense of well-being…

I try to design moments that promote an awareness of where you are on the planet — nature, streetscape, where the sun hits, how the wind blows. Time of day, season, weather patterns, all ground you in that awareness. This is a very Japanese concept, knowing your place in the world and your place in the day. Even if you’re not thinking about it, it is part of your consciousness, your awareness.

How do you translate that awareness of space to your client’s experience?

Within each project, I want to consciously create moments for contemplation, for mindfulness. Knowing how to integrate those moments into the design is part of the process of knowing the clients, and what they need.

You mentioned that as part of your design process for every home, you ask each family member to write a letter to their architect. Why is that important to you?

I want to get to know my clients, so I can understand how to design things they might not even know they need in their home, enhancing their well-being. In those letters, I’ve received everything from a single sentence to a volume. It’s a great way to dive into getting to know our clients.


Do you have a spiritual practice that informs your viewpoint?

That’s a great question. Japan is largely non-religious, but the foundations lie in Buddhism. I’m agnostic, but I do believe in an essential energy, and I feel an abstract connection to Buddhist principles. There is a strange dichotomy in the world between good and bad. I believe most everything exists in the in-between. In the end, we’re all human.

You mentioned that you considered majoring in philosophy at one point.

Architecture could be viewed as an existential device – a vehicle for understanding where we are in the world, and why. At its best, it is a vessel for living your best life.

How do you encourage your teams to maintain the level of close attention in a world that pushes them to be so busy and can be so distracting?

No matter how small, we assign at least two people on every project. It is a way to make sure that someone is fully engaged in a project at all times. Our teams actively engage with clients and consultants. This makes the projects better, makes the practice better and makes their lives better. There is a mindfulness in the totality when the staff is fully invested.

Any last thoughts?

Being mindful of your place in the world requires close attention. Architecture can become an object, rather than a vessel or a place. We try to always make it a place.