Houses as neutral enclosures for transitory human activities, this is what Kazuyo Sejima wanted to create in her platform houses: but their reality is a great deal more imbued with presence
Since the Enlightenment, European traditions of architecture have been, broadly, idealised Classical, which imposes style on life, and idealised Gothic, which imposes life on form.
In Japan, this dichotomy is not relevant: ‘Couldn’t’, asks Kazuyo Sejima, ‘we look at a site as a place on which actions happen to pass by? … Architecture could be a temporary phenomenon that appears in an action-maker’s awareness and images, while actions move across the locale. ’ This is a beautiful, neutral, Platonic ideal of architecture which is quite impossible to achieve: Mies’ American buildings- for instance the ones at IIT-are the nearest we shall ever get to this ideal, and we all know what the practical problems of those are.
Coming up to the platform from the entrance
In her houses, Sejima, like Mies, provides lots of free space-but in her case, it is very much more specifically changed. At Platform I, a house at Katsuura in the Chiba Prefecture, she has made a quite remarkable space in the middle of a very ordinary Japanese (modeled on American) suburb. The main room, the platform-set at a half level between the sleeping (ground) floor and the kitchen on the top storey-is a big rectangular volume; the platform opens on to a deck through a glazed wall.
A refined counterscarp of wood, metal and glass
This high and mighty space is illuminated by a glass wall on to the deck and by a clerestory which gives light through what in effect are diagonally braced trusses. On top is a flowing, curving, wave-like roof made of corrugated metal which Sejima hopes will give a ‘never-ending pattern’: a cover for the play of human actions underneath but one which, she thinks, will not determine them. It is difficult for a European to analyse such a notion, because it seems so unlikely, yet it obviously has meaning in Japanese culture-at least to Sejima.
Into the big space is inserted the elegant circular glass baldacchino which celebrates arrival from the entrance level and the equally elegant but much more brutal and direct stairs, made of folded metal. These connect the platform to the cooking and eating level above where the heavy tough vertical concrete slab of the kitchen bastion contrasts with a kind of refined glacis of wood, metal and glass which becomes the dining table.
It is extraordinarily difficult for European critics to come to grips with Japanese culture and ways of thinking: only superficially can there be any interaction. Yet, underneath all the words, underneath the rhetoric, there is often something very strong, something which shows that architecture must, at a level, be an autonomous art, however much we Western liberals may dislike the notion. Sejima has embodied some of the divine fire in her Platform I (and Platform II which is only shown here in pictures). They are designs that give all architects, everywhere, cause to ponder.