What to see in Japan: houses in the city

Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima, Takeshi Hosaka, Yoshichika Takagi, Arata Isozaki, Yasutaka Yoshimura, Shigeru Ban,


Housing, Apartment,

How Japanese architecture has changed since the days of Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and Kazuyo Sejima. From Shigeru Ban to Hosaka Takeshi, the nature of the home in Japan. What to see in Japan: a voyage in discovery of the most interesting city homes.

What to see in Japan: houses in the city

We choose a specific scenario, that of residential buildings in Japanese cities, of particular interest over the past five years, and outline a path guided by the ideas of: Anthropised Nature, Shared Time, Privacy, New Perspectives, Light in Space, and The Poetics of White and of Wood.
Each of these ideas, which we propose as an interpretation of the discipline, should be viewed as the common thread running through different idioms and forms of expression, taking form in similar and recurrent shapes, solutions and materials.
The principal benefit of the power of digital media is permitting communication between opposite sides of the planet. And so a building that has been constructed (or merely planned) in Japan can now have an immediate impact on an architect working in South America. And yet we cannot ignore the confines of the geographic area when observing a project, whether it is an urban development project or a home design; it is essential to take into consideration the methods people use to relate to one another, their concept of wellbeing, the quality of the context in which they live, the multitude of different landscapes, and so on.
One example of anthropised nature is the zelkova and camphor tree trunks which, dried out like fossils and reduced to objects, are positioned on the exact spot where they once grew in the living room of Hironaka Ogawa’s home in Kagawa. Or Keisuke Maeda’s projects, such as his home in Fukuyama terminating in an overhanging volume with no horizontal surfaces, drawn around the existing trees so that the house and the trees embrace each other; or the home in the woods near Hiroshima, in which the landscape of plants is not directly used but framed on the four outside walls. Or nature may be brought into a project in an allusive way, recreated where it does not exist in today’s cities, such as the nature of Takuro Yamamoto’s White Cave House, also in Kanazawa. 

Japanese residential architecture expresses the need to rethink the dwelling space so that families, whether traditional or not, can perform their day-to-day activities together. Speaking of the need for shared time, some homes now centre around a living room without walls, onto which all the other spaces open. This theme is reflected in the work of Yoshichika Takagi in Sapporo and Masahiro Miyake in Honago City, recreating a sort of city square within the home, while Tetsuo Kondo in Aichi conducts an exercise in elimination of all possible visual and perceptive barriers between different functions, using only variations in the vertical surfaces.
Privacy is one of the most pressing problems in living today. The cost of land in our cities is driving people to build houses only a minimal distance apart in order to take advantage of every available square metre of land, reducing the amount of light and air between houses. In the past few years Japanese architects have responded with introspective homes minimising or excluding dialogue with the outdoors. Shigeru Ban suggests an entirely interior conversation in his home designed around a courtyard garden in Sengokubara, while the white cube of Michiya Tsukano’s house in Miyazaki loses all sense of scale and provocatively confuses the viewer. In search of lost privacy, many Japanese architects have translated the idea of the hermitage into a new perspective, recreated in the intimacy of the home, just as in nature, or oriented in a particular single direction on the outside. Takeshi Hosaka’s Yokohama house literally raises the ground floor up to provide the basement with a view, conveying light and air into it, while on the upper floors this mechanism ensures privacy and encourages people to raise their eyes from the city to the sky. The new perspective designed by Yasutaka Yoshimura for a holiday home in Sajima is that of the ocean: three sides of the building are mute, while the fourth is practically transparent, consisting of big walls of glass in different shapes framing the sky, the water and nothing else. Another particularly significant project in terms of perspective is Love Architecture's house in Ookayama (Tokyo), which contradicts the trend toward massive constructions, giving up a slice of land for use as a courtyard and building a completely transparent outer wall with wood-framed windows to let in light and air.

The latter example is of particular significance for understanding how important control of Light is in Japanese architecture. In what the architect calls the Daylight House in Yokohama, Takeshi Hosaka uses the roof as a single point of access for the sun in a house that is completely surrounded by tall buildings. The glass skylights let the sun’s rays into the private spaces of the upper floor, filling them with light. Light also comes in from above in Katsuma Tai’s house in Tokyo’s Minato-ku district, through skylights thatldquo;grab” the sun’s rays and pull them into the lower floors through the open stairwell and skilfully arranged glass walls. The eye of the house is a big window on the façade, which acts as a reservoir of light for the lower levels.
If Japanese residential architecture were a colour, it would be white, to reflect all the variations in light that take place during the day and protect it from the bustle of decoration in the cityscape. And if it were a material, it would be wood, like the furnishings and finishes that accompany it in a silent, essential whole.
I shall leave it up to my readers to identify examples of all the Ideas in the various residential projects mentioned and in others, testifying to a line of thought that may effectively be traced to Japanese contemporary architecture.

Mara Corradi