The tatami is a Japanese floor mat with dimensions based on the human body. It is one of the four ‘platforms’ featured in the series of installations Platform. Body/Space. On 20th September 2016 Carola Hein, Professor of the History of Architecture and Urban Planning in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft Technical University, gave a lecture at Het Nieuwe Instituut on the historical and contemporary significance of the tatami in Japanese architecture and its associations with Western architecture. The lecture text and a selection of photographs can be read here.
A mat made of rice straw, the tatami’s history dates back to the 12th century, and while its precise dimensions have changed historically and regionally across Japan, its proportions are based on the human body: it is roughly the height and width of an adult standing with their arms open. Used traditionally as a modular flooring material that can be easily replaced, tatamis became a measuring unit determining not only the floor but also the vertical dimensions of houses, as the view of the seventeenth- century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto shows.
Far from an inert or abstract module, the tatami, which changes colour and scent as it grows older, is a dynamic platform that plays a role both in the physical and psychological perception of the surrounding space and in social organisation. Hence a room furnished with tatamis requires sitting and moving in particular ways. Yasujiro Ozu’s film Tokyo Story (1953), which depicts the conflicts and contrasts between generations within a Japanese family, shows characters evolving in and out of tatami rooms, and the filming itself powerfully conveys the sense of space in Japanese homes. Juxtaposing these images with Le Corbusier’s 1945 diagram for the Modulor shows at once the divergence between his theoretical attempt to attain standardisation and the phenomenological implications of the tatami.