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Designing for the moment: on 70 years of Japanese house architecture

Domestic architecture in Japan is a powerful and optimistic force in the face of imminent disaster

The perpetual renewal of Japan’s built environment is its defining characteristic. Destruction, whether by man-made or natural disaster, seems ingrained in the national consciousness. Japanese cities have endured successive waves of reconstruction – after earthquakes and tsunamis, after catastrophic fires, after bombing raids – which have, in turn, shaped urban morphologies. Again and again, the nation has rebuilt itself with speed and determination. At the tail end of the Second World War, on 10 March 1945, Tokyo woke up in ashes and the Japanese government called for urgent housing solutions. Combining prefabricated structural components with traditional elements, such as shoji screens and modular tatami mats, the hybrid solutions proposed by Kunio Maekawa and Kiyoshi Ikebe were minimal and compact. If units were under 50m2, residents were eligible to receive a loan from the housing corporation. In similar circumstances, European architects might have opted to develop large-scale housing, yet tellingly, their Japanese counterparts sought to apply rational building methods to the single family house. 

The Japanese House, recently on show in London’s Barbican between its debut at Rome’s MAXXI and final outing at Tokyo’s MOMAT (National Museum of Modern Art), retraces the evolution of domestic architectural production over the last 70 years. Social, economic and technological forces have played a crucial role in shaping house design and Japan has become a trailblazer in radical residential architecture, epitomised at one level by the quality and quantity of entries to the annual AR House awards.


Source: Kon Wajiro Collection, Kogakuin University Library

Kon Wajiro’s illustration of ‘what a woman in Fukagawa needs’ after the 1923 earthquake

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, co-founder of Atelier Bow-Wow and consultant to the exhibition, argues that more ‘institutionalised’ building types can easily be imported with a view to modernising a country. Concepts for schools, museums and hospitals can broadly be replicated, he believes, but ‘the house comes before all of this’. A home is more intimately linked to climate, social behaviour and available resources.

Western domesticity speaks of permanence and property, privacy and identity, but the Japanese house inhabits a different reality. Its average lifespan oscillates between 25 and 30 years. In the US, this rises to 103 years, and 141 in the UK. Many of the exhibited houses are now demolished. Toyo Ito’s White U house, designed for his widowed sister in Nakano, was taken down in 1997 after just 21 years, when the family finally ended its period of mourning and decided it was ready to re-establish links with the outside world.

Internal courtyard in Toyo Ito’s White U house

Internal courtyard in Toyo Ito’s White U house

Source: Tomio Ohashi

Internal courtyard in Toyo Ito’s White U house, isolated from the outside world

However, the decision to destroy the building prior to putting the land up for sale also made it more attractive to potential buyers: 87 per cent of Japan’s home sales are newly built houses, compared with only 11 to 34 per cent in Western countries. Since there is virtually no market for pre-owned houses in Japan, an astonishing 60 per cent of all its homes were built after 1980. Clearly, as soon as a dwelling is not considered simply as an instrument for profit, a myriad of possibilities opens up. And so the Japanese house became a real testing ground, an architectural object requiring scrutiny and experiment, in order to be updated and reinvented.

In this context, Kazuo Shinohara’s oeuvre is particularly enlightening, both in its architectural output and his reflections on the profession. First trained as a mathematician, he famously claimed that ‘a house is a work of art’. Since Japanese houses are ineffective at generating profit, Shinohara seeks instead to unleash the creative potential of the home, and set himself the personal goal of producing one house each year. In his earlier works, such as the House in Kugayama (1954) or House in White (1966), he revisits traditional language and uses thin structural frames and sliding partitions to fuse programmatic components into unified spaces.

Always opened or closed from a kneeling position and imposing a downward line of vision, shoji screens highlight the importance of the floor in Japanese architecture, where space is experienced from the tatami mat rather than from the chair. In his experimental Tanikawa House (1974), Shinohara places an exposed timber-frame structure directly onto earth. Both surprising and delightful, the main room is effectively a bare interior landscape covered by a white-coated pitched roof, the antithesis to Japan’s dark interiors where the brightest surface was the tatami-covered floor.

Next to the main ‘earth room’ of Kazuo Shinohara’s Tanikawa House, a narrow section of the home hosts essential living functions on two floors: a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom

In the late 1960s the emerging generation of Japanese architect was disappointed with its Metabolist predecessors, seeing their architecture as little more than entertainment spaces and corporate pavilions, a ‘hollow utopian ambition’. Paradoxically, while advocating flexibility, the monumentality of the Metabolists’ buildings was often too hefty to be adaptable. For instance, none of the seminal Nagakin Tower’s capsules was ever removed or replaced. Going back to the drawing board, a new generation discarded theoretical posturing and focused on experimentation at a much smaller scale, deriving inspiration from sources as diverse as esoteric Buddhism, children’s toys and Post-Structuralist theory. In Project House A (1968-71), Hiromi Fujii makes use of the grid’s neutrality in an attempt to reactivate user subjectivity, while in his Toy Block House series, started in 1974, Takefumi Aida joins together colourful elementary solids in childlike compositions to stress the value of individual imagination. The house was turned on its head, again.

When reacting to the lack of planning and urban chaos, particularly in the 1970s, architects conceived the house as a place of refuge. The austere geometry of Tadao Ando’s Azuma House (1976) imposes its blind concrete facade in Sumiyoshi, Osaka, otherwise dominated by timber dwellings. Ando opts for an aggressive posture to the surroundings, describing his enclosed houses as ‘urban guerrilla housing’. For several architects, it was necessary to offer individuals a place of respite from the encroaching city. When engaging with the city’s messy vitality, transparent dwellings see the light of day. Encased in glass and featuring no internal walls, Sou Fujimoto’s House NA (2011) has become emblematic of an architecture of lightness and weightlessness. 

‘Architecture can remain a powerful and optimistic force, healing and reinventing urban landscapes, building a better, if temporary, tomorrow’

Large areas of Tokyo are made up of detached houses, but plots of land are endlessly subdivided as high inheritance taxes force family heirs to maximise their assets. This has the effect of progressively fragmenting and atomising the urban fabric, leaving architects to tackle cramped and convoluted sites. While the Japanese house has traditionally been horizontal in its orientation, Takamitsu Azuma reimagined the type on a vertical axis on a 20m2 site for his Tower House (1966). Constraints, regulations and ever-changing circumstances conspire to subvert traditional ideas of domestic comfort and convention. Relentless experimentation seems the only viable response to Tokyo’s restlessness and constant pace of change, even if some of the houses might appear impossible to live in.  

Ryue Nishizawa’s famous Moriyama House (2005) occupies  centre-stage at the Barbican. A full-scale replica of the decomposed dwelling, featuring the owner’s eclectic collection of DVDs, art works and manga toys, is woven around its Brutalist interior. For film director Ila Bêka, Mr Moriyama embodies an almost extreme ‘cultural resistance to a norm of living’. As a crude example, he sleeps with just a pillow on the floor, and doesn’t even own a mirror. Although he is by no means representative of the wider Japanese population – more like a hermit than Ito’s urban nomad – his occupation of space speaks of the dual interaction between dwelling and city, blurring the threshold between inside and outside, that point where architecture effectively begins. The project’s internal ‘alleys’ permeate the plot as natural extensions of the surrounding streets, directly connecting the house to its neighbourhood, yet, as Bêka observes, ‘you don’t have the same time as Tokyo inside this house, it’s completely different’.

Source: Bêka & Lemoine’s Moriyama-san film still

Mr Moriyama occupies four out of the 10 units of Ryue Nishizawa’s communal home, where he reads every day and watches movies every night

Understanding the whole as the sum of its parts, Shinohara prefers the concept of machi, rather than city, to describe urban environments. Machi, closer to ‘neighbourhood’ in its meaning, implies that ‘a street doesn’t generate houses’ but instead it is houses that ‘make and produce the street’. While the Metabolists advocated a tabula rasa approach, Shinohara advocated a deeper understanding of the city’s informal composition. In his eyes, Tokyo’s messiness is a testament to its liveliness. This constant back and forth between the small scale of the family dwelling and the conception of the city as organic entity speaks of a life-affirming fluidity and reciprocity. As Maria Shéhérazade Giudici and Pier Vittorio Aureli argue in ‘Familiar Horror: Toward a Critique of Domestic Space’, ‘once the house became a fixed point, it also became a burial place for its members’. 

‘While disaster might be imminent, chaos unchains creativity’

Strategies of piecemeal development combined with a penchant for novelty liberate the Japanese house from established patterns and prescribed orders. Designed to meet changing economic and technological demands, the house offers a glimpse of the future rather than standing static and permanent, replicating the same codified systems from one generation to the next. It’s the exact opposite of the Western world, fixed, rigid, sure of itself. And though ‘disposable architecture’ sounds like an oxymoron, impermanence can be liberating. It provides the impetus to challenge the pre-established and start anew, to confront change and foresee the unforeseen. To see this experimentation materialising on site instead of being relegated to the realm of paper architecture is a compelling experience.

As Mitsuo Inoue puts it, ‘the present that we inhabit is nothing more than a momentary wedge in eternal nothingness’. So architecture can remain a powerful and optimistic force, healing and reinventing urban landscapes, building a better, if temporary, tomorrow. Buddhist priest and writer Asai Ryōi wrote in 1661 of how Japan in its Edo period embraced the ‘floating world’ and how life’s inherently ephemeral nature calls for a more epicurean everyday: ‘Living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo’. Nothing worldly lasts forever. And while disaster might be imminent, chaos unchains creativity.

The Japanese House : Architecture and Life after 1945

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo from 19 July to 29 October 2017

Lead image: Toyo Ito’s White U house, photographed by Tomio Ohashi

This story appears in the AR’s July/August 2017 issue on Home – click here to order a copy