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Japan's compact, eccentric homes: A cultural history

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A new exhibit looks at the unique conditions that created such innovative, unorthodox residential architecture

House NA in Tokyo, built in 2011 and designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects
Iwan Baan

Sometimes creativity needs a blank slate. Such was the case with Japanese residential architecture in the wake of World War II. With many cities destroyed, the country and its architects turned to small, quickly-assembled, single-family homes, which they constantly built, demolished, and rebuilt, creating a constant churn of ideas and innovations that created a legacy of creative, unorthodox homes. Scores of concrete fortresses and curved interiors in Tokyo prove that the experimental has become the everyday.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, an exhibit on display at the Barbican in London until June 25, looks for answers that explain the country’s wealth of progressive residential architecture, which has made Japan such a hotbed for creative, space-conscious design. Showcasing the work of more than 50 architects, including famous names such as Kenzo Tange and Toyo Ito the exhibit delves into incredible architecture, but more importantly, places it within the country’s unique cultural context, exploring how postwar occupation, pop culture, and a different mindset about the home created a collage of creative buildings on the streets of Tokyo.

Curbed spoke with Barbican curator Florence Ostende about the ways these modern Japanese homes rethink the connection between the home and city, how constant turnover encourages new ideas, and the country’s cinematic tradition of “home dramas.”

Tezuka Architects (Takaharu + Yui Tezuka), Roof House, 2001.
Katsuhisa Kida/FOTOTECA

How is the idea of home treated differently in Japan, especially by architects?

“In a city as dense as Tokyo, architects and clients are forced to consider types of home that effectively make use of small, constrained sites. This requires a rethinking of the relationship between home and city. Many concrete houses from the 1960s and 1970s—such as Takamitsu Azuma’s tiny, triangular Tower House, Toyo Ito’s windowless, curved White U or Tadao Ando’s austere Row House in Sumiyoshi—were conceived of the house as a quiet fortress, closed to the chaos of the outside world.”

“More recent projects such as Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Ryue Nishizawa’s Garden and House, on the other hand, have no walls and are radically open to the city. Divisions between outside and inside are not very pronounced, but are instead achieved through soft divisions, glass, and semi-exterior gardens. Is the house a protected, closed space for the family, or is it intimately intertwined with the city? Is it entirely private or does it have a public element? Japanese architects have oscillated between these two understandings of home, and it is one of the strongest themes in Japanese residential architecture.”

Toyo Ito’s windowless, curved White U home
Tomio Ohasi

How do customs, building codes, and trends play a role in creating such a different conception of home and residential design?

“One of the most important factors in Japanese residential design is that new houses are being created all the time – the average ‘lifespan’ of a Japanese house is only 25 years. This factor is related to multiple circumstances specific to Japan. The region’s susceptibility to earthquakes and its humid climate, for example, means it has a history of lightweight buildings in organic materials like wood and paper that could easily be deconstructed, rebuilt or extended. A certain ephemerality is built into the architectural tradition. Today, a combination of unusually high inheritance taxes and high land prices means the most profitable option for old buildings is often to sell them, subdivide the site and sell these smaller plots.”

“Finally, Japanese authorities place less restrictions on the aesthetics of a building than planners in the West. Consequently, Japanese streets seem like a collage of radically different kinds of buildings with no apparent concern for aesthetic coherence. The combination of these factors means that the house can take almost any form – its 25 lifespan is yoked to that of the client, and is therefore shaped very specifically to that clients’ needs, desires and interests. For architects, there is a lot of freedom in house design.”

How is Japan able to support so many residential architecture practices? In the US, you often hear that smaller firms struggle to survive off residential commissions alone.

“In Japan, the high turnover of buildings means that there is generally more work for young architects. It means an almost constant demand for new houses. This is not to say that every new house in Japan is designed by an architect – vast swathes of Japanese housing is made up of mass-produced houses that are bought ‘off the shelf’. But it does leave a lot more space for architects – young and old – to make a living from residential design.”

“Some of the most important architects in the exhibition—Kazuo Shinohara, Kazunari Sakamoto and Atelier Bow-Wow, for example—have focused almost exclusively on residential projects throughout their careers. This has allowed them to really engage with the single-family house as a building type, and in their practice you can sense a profound respect for the domestic space and its importance to contemporary architecture.”

Leek House by Terunobu Fujimori, 1997.
Photo by Akihisa Masuda

How did post-war Japanese culture, and the country's unique circumstances, redefine ideas of domestic space?

“The most obvious circumstance of Japanese culture in the immediate post-war years was the presence of the Allied Occupation, and the complex relationship to Japanese tradition and identity that this provoked. After Japan’s defeat in the war, there was a rapid period of westernization, including an influx of western products, fashions and lifestyle choices. The traditional Japanese house was relatively open plan, composed of both living and working spaces, and housed multiple generations of a family. The decades after the war saw the increasing popularity of a western model, with distinct living, sleeping and dining rooms.”

“However, this model never entirely replaced the earlier one, and in Japanese houses today it is common to find a traditional, tatami-floored room neighboring a western-style kitchen, for example. This long-standing understanding that there are multiple forms of house and multiple ways of living may be responsible for the remarkable diversity and flexibility of Japanese residential architecture. The constant play between different types of domesticity is at the heart of this exhibition, as it has produced a willingness to reconsider the very definition of the house.”

A still from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, an example of the “home drama” genre

Are there any movies, TV shows, or artwork that do an excellent job of dramatizing these ideas, or serve as a pop culture representation of these ideas?

“In the 1950s, there was a movement in Japanese cinema known as the ‘home drama’ genre. These filmmakers—chief among them Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse—used domestic themes to think about the major changes in post-war Japanese society and culture. In their films, which often take place almost entirely within the domestic space, one can see the Japanese family caught between tradition, modernity and westernization. The domestic interior acts as the stage for these social transformations, which are made visible not only in changes in family structure and relationships (especially the role of women), but also in details such as clothing, food and interior decoration. Their work argues for the importance of the domestic, suggesting that it was in the intimate realm of family life that the real historical change was occurring.

These films form the foundations of a rich tradition in Japanese cinema, focused on the family home. In the 1980s, the capitalist excesses of the Bubble years saw a weakening of family bonds and a new emphasis on the individual. This fed into films such as Sogo Ishii’s incredible comedy The Crazy Family, which recounts the increasingly irrational behavior of a middle-class family after their house is invaded by termites. It culminates in the literal collapse of the family home, reflecting the pressure on the nuclear family unit during this period.”

Were there any early examples of this radical domestic architecture that you think were cutting-edge?

“Kiyonori Kikutake’s famous Sky House is an excellent example of radical domestic architecture in the immediate post-war period. Often considered a precursor to the architect’s later Metabolist projects, it consisted of a single living space elevated high above the ground on four huge concrete piers. Kikutake wanted to create a house that could be easily transformed with the changing needs of the family over time. Within the concrete shell of the house, the kitchen and bathroom facilities were designed as replaceable units and when a children’s bedroom was later added, it was in the form of a capsule affixed to the underside of the house. This represents a technologically advanced approach to house design, but interestingly it also incorporates a lot of elements of traditional Japanese architecture.”

Kiyonori Kikutake’s Sky House, an early example of radical post-war architecture

“The idea of a single, flexible interior space that can be reorganized with the use of temporary partitions and screens is typical of Japanese houses. The Sky House also has a semi-exterior walkway that surrounds this main interior space, recalling the engawa—a verandah-like space in historic architecture that forms a soft division or intermediate zone between outside and interior. The Sky House indicates how post-war Japanese architects found inspiration in the tension between tradition and modernity, establishing a kind of architecture that incorporated both in surprising and productive ways. Its example has been followed by countless Japanese architects over the past 60 years.”