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Floor polish: floor as furniture in Japan

Floors in Japan have traditionally been treated as furniture, a phenomenon which has experienced a recent revival in contemporary architecture

13 house in miyamotocho2 211

13 house in miyamotocho2 211

Blurring the boundaries between floor and furniture at Tato Architects’ House in Miyamoto of 2017 

A traditional Japanese home comes furnished. Tatami, a woven grass mat of standard dimensions, is the primary furniture, as well as the principal flooring material. Edward S Morse, in his 1886 Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, gives an idea of the utility of this material, and the ubiquity it once enjoyed. He writes: ‘upon these mats the people eat, sleep, and die; they represent the bed, chair, lounge, and sometimes table, combined’, adding that tatami flooring is ‘universal from the extreme north to the extreme south of the Empire’. The dual role of floor as furniture governs the design and use of traditional homes.

Though the context and requirements of Japanese homes have changed drastically in the past century, the treatment of the floor as furniture has remained a comparatively persistent phenomenon, and one that has made a recent resurgence in contemporary architecture. 

‘One staircase requires switching mid-flight from conventional tread and riser to walking on top of a desk. The effect is somewhat comedic’

To understand its contemporary manifestations, an outline of the conventional treatment of the floor is necessary. The principal flooring materials are wood, which is used for engawa (verandas), and tatami mats, which are used for the rooms. Engawa, translated literally as ‘garden-side’, is the main manifestation of wood flooring as furniture. The floor is elevated above the surrounding ground, allowing the occupant to dangle their legs over the edge. This is a place to lounge beside greenery, untamed or manicured.

Compared with engawa, the function of the tatami is somewhat more complex. In addition to its obvious use as a surface on which one sits or lies, tatami have implications for the use of non-architectural furniture. Low tables may be used as desks or dining tables, but they can be stowed in the evening and replaced with bedding. The programmatic flexibility of the tatami room implies a sparse layout, as its daily cycle of transformation would be hindered by cumbersome pieces of free-standing furniture. 

It is important here to recognise that the visual austerity of the tatami room is partly imagined – an image produced and reproduced for both domestic and foreign consumption. The comparatively vacant tatami room is being steadily replaced in Japan with dedicated living, dining and bedrooms, complete with static collections of non-architectural furniture. 

01 house in miyamotocho 0411 (1)

01 house in miyamotocho 0411 (1)

Tato Architects’ House in Miyamoto, 2017 

This is what makes the recent re-examination of the floor by a young generation of Japanese architects so remarkable. The trend is still emerging, but its outlines are clear. It seeks to exaggerate the role of the floor as furniture and to suggest multiple readings or functions for a given space.

Takaharu and Yui Tezuka’s Roof House of 2009 was an early example of the trend. Here, the roof becomes the primary living space, a place for the entire family to congregate. Each family member has a designated hatch from which to access the roof. In the manner of engawa, legs can be dangled over the edge (the eaves, in this case), but the roof also accommodates a number of other functions: a kitchen, built-in dining table, and outdoor shower.

The Tezukas took care to ensure that this occupiable surface was still legible as a roof. If these features had been incorporated into a level roof terrace, there might seem nothing unusual in their placement. They maintained the constant slope of the roof, even under the dining table, and somehow managed to skirt building codes requiring a handrail. Use of the roof still seems somehow clandestine; which was no doubt cultivated to give a sense of danger.

‘The treatment of the floor as furniture has remained a comparatively persistent phenomenon, and one that has made a recent resurgence in contemporary architecture’

The melding of architecture and furniture has paralleled the larger movement toward highly articulated, nearly deconstructive forms in Japanese architecture. Diminution in scale has been a theme in architectural discourse at least since Fumihiko Maki’s theory of ‘Collective Form’ in the Metabolist manifesto in 1960. The grain of articulation has become successively finer, arriving at Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in 2005, in which a single residence is fragmented into an arrangement of 10 autonomous boxes.

Sou Fujimoto employs a similar scalar fragmentation in his explorations of architecture as furniture. His Final Wooden House of 2008 is a pixellated composition of solid wooden blocks. Its cave-like interior has no principal floor plane, only a series of modulated surfaces for eating, perching, reading or resting. Fujimoto produced another jumbled arrangement in House NA (2012), but here non-architectural furniture, potted plants and other elements added by the client adorn his scattering of loosely enclosed floor slabs. Fujimoto’s 2013 Serpentine Pavilion and 2015 show at Gallery MA in Tokyo established the negotiation between architecture and furniture as a central theme in his work.

Recently, Tato Architects, a small practice led by Yo Shimada in the city of Kobe, has pushed this trend to an extreme, making the relationship between architecture and furniture explicit. Shimada employs many of the techniques found in Fujimoto’s work and elsewhere, including breaking up slabs into smaller components, maximising sectional variation, and strategically juxtaposing floors to suggest multiple readings or functions. To these she adds rhetorical flair: pieces of free-standing (or apparently free-standing) furniture that take on unexpected functions.

In Shimada’s House in Miyamoto of 2017, the floor plates have been exploded and rearranged into a steady sectional progression. Movement between the small, suspended slabs is made possible by a series of materially and structurally distinct pieces of custom furniture. Each piece has been designed as an autonomous object, intended to confuse readings of what has been added to the house and what is permanent. The second step in a flight of three floating treads, for instance, is enclosed to form a wooden box that looks something like a chest. No obvious function is enabled by this enclosure; it simply makes an ordinarily architectural element look more like furniture.

Tato architects house in itami 2012 japan

Tato architects house in itami 2012 japan

The fluidity between floor and furniture if ‘somewhat comedic’ at Tato Architects’ house in Itami from 2012

Shimada’s earlier House in Itami of 2012, though less sectionally fragmented than House in Miyamoto, is even more rhetorical in its attempt to represent architecture as furniture. What appears to be a free-standing cupboard is, in fact, a bathroom. One staircase is given a similar outfit, while another requires switching mid-flight from conventional tread and riser to walking on top of a desk. The effect is somewhat comedic.

‘Upon these mats the people eat, sleep, and die; they represent the bed, chair, lounge, and sometimes table, combined’

Clearly, the projects sampled here represent only one current in contemporary Japanese architecture. Though this has become increasingly legible, it is no easier to label. There is a clear lineage in the treatment of the floor as furniture in Japanese residences, but contemporary architecture has modified these techniques almost beyond recognition. The only consistent presence throughout these recent works is a lingering Postmodern affect: one that accepts and even amplifies the ambiguities of contemporary life. Rather than attempt to simplify and order the possessions and processes required for daily existence, as Modernist residential architecture had aspired to do, this strain of contemporary Japanese design allows architecture to surrender to the objects that it contains. 

The vacancy of the surfaces as delivered by the architect to the client, and the distribution of small-scale floor slabs across sectional space, anticipates an inevitable cluttering of pristine architectural form by furniture and the other accoutrements of daily life. This is a new image of residential architecture, a fragmented white box gallery, where curated groupings of ready-made objects take centre stage. Through the articulation of the floor, the architecture itself has taken up the role of furniture, but by anticipating the presence of objects accrued over time, it has produced further ambiguities. 

The floor may still ‘represent the bed’, as Morse would have it, but now the stairs are the sofa, the sill is the dresser, and the beam is the coat rack.

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today