In the previous post, we reviewed the Tai-an, a 3.6 square-meters rustic tea hut (chashitsu) designed by Sen no Rikyu in the 16th century. It showed that a radial condensation can reduce a piece of architecture to a microcosm that is almost free from gravity. It can connect you directly to the vast universe by letting you unleash your inner potential.
But obviously, a small chashitsu is almost all about the art of an exotic tea ceremony: no one has really tried to condense our houses as a standard for modern living, despite its power. Quite contrarily, today’s house market is dominated by the “bigger is better” theory – the more square footage, the better. Bigger houses represent far more than just the actual floor area, such as status, prestige, security, stability and reliability. Smallness is often considered the exact opposite of those values.
However, this perception is starting to change. With the emerging movement of “tiny houses,” we are in the middle of re-evaluating the true value of smallness in our living environment, probably for the first time in modern history.
Japanese household items brand MUJI has been a very early advocate of the small house. When it started offering homes in 2004 as an extension of the existing product line (note: the MUJI House is available only in Japan as of Jan 2018), MUJI already had a very clear idea of what kind of space they wanted to offer. And it was very different from our conventional perception of what an ideal house should look like.
By the way, the unparalleled tea master Rikyu who built the Tai-an, was also an outstanding design director who organized and coordinated the entire living environment leveraging wabi-sabi aesthetics. Called “rikyu-gonomi (selected through Rikyu’s aesthetic lens),” Rikyu made sure that everything that touched his life coherently reflected his philosophy, including how the front garden was designed and maintained, how people talked and behaved, and how the tools used for tea ceremony were made and appreciated. Whereas chashitsu was small, the sphere of influence of tea ceremony became vast. As Kakuzo (Tenshin) Okakura (1863-1913), the author of the classic “The Book of Tea” said, tea ceremony was “a religion that teaches us how to live and behave.”
In order to make sure every detail – from big to small – sent consistent message and met high aesthetic standards, Rikyu probably made everything intentionally small so that they were all within his reach and vision. Since our bodies are small, we can only manage so many things at once. For Rikyu, condensing the space must have meant condensing the quality of the aesthetics that filled the entire space with no compromise.
This is the very philosophy that applies to the MUJI House. Coming in the size as small as 90 square meters to 130 square meters, the MUJI House focuses on the edit-ability of its owners: named the “one room house,” it has no walls or complete ceilings (the typical MUJI home has two stories). It’s up to the owners to decide how to leverage the space. You could leave the entire space open, or divide it into smaller spaces using partitions or furniture as dividers.
The first model released in 2004 was the “Wood House,” which was based on the “Series of Box-Houses” designed by architect Kazuhiko Namba. When he started the series in 1995, Namba conceived the “Box House” as a rudimentary and elemental space that emerged from emptiness. In order to “architecturize” the emptiness suitable for living, he designed it with minimum resources leveraging their functionality to the fullest. The MUJI House upholds Namba’s philosophy: it is an empty house with a very strong structure, focused on selected functionalities that support owners’ creativity and passion to design their own life style.
But it wasn’t an easy sell. When the Wood House was unveiled, people were excited about the news but were also skeptical about the “one room” house concept, worrying about lack of privacy and personal space. As a matter of fact, there was only one person who decided to buy MUJI House in 2004.
But MUJI did not compromise. They were determined that a house should be a small, empty box that could be edited by the residents based on their changing needs, and the editing process had to be engaging and accessible. They also believed that a house should belong to and shape the community, rather than serving the needs of one owner and one family at a fixed point of time. It had to be basic in order to pass the test of time, exist in harmony with the surroundings, and accommodate the various needs of various people who could potentially live in it.
Basically, living in MUJI House means becoming like Rikyu. You buy it because you have a unique idea and passion to design your living environment. And the house will let you direct, manage and curate the entire living space, making sure your ideas are reflected in each and every aspect with no compromise.
Naturally, MUJI is focused on making sure their houses are helping the owners create their unique style, accommodating their unique needs. It runs a program called “家に会いに (meet the house),” through which they visit the house owners with architects, designers and artists to find out what kind of life is unfolding within MUJI House.
And it is amazing to find that each house is different. Seven people from four generations (and five cats!) live together in a house of about 125 square meters with no walls. As impossible as it may sound, they seem to be enjoying the closeness and loose connected-ness. Because there are no complete walls, you can sense where other family members are even without checking on them, as you do your own thing. Also because each member follows his/her own schedule such as work or school, different members share the space at different times of the day. There seems to be much more fluidity and flexibility than we might imagine.
Another young couple bought a MUJI House when they had their first baby. The husband said: “We already had some pieces of furniture that we loved so much, so we designed the details of this house – the materials of floor wood, the color of the walls (pure white) and so forth – so that they would match the surroundings.”
Yet another family loves gardens and chose the “Window House” of about 90 square meters, which allows owners to install windows wherever they want. So they installed large windows facing their small garden. They observe that the positions of the windows relative to the surrounding environment makes a lot of difference to the enjoyment of small living: “We designed our garden inspired by the tiny gardens of the old temples in Kyoto. Thanks to the view from the windows, this house feels much bigger than the actual square footage.” They added that they would have tried to make the floor area as large as possible, sacrificing the garden if they had not chosen a MUJI House.
Whatever your ideal way to spend your time, you can edit the MUJI House to focus on your favorite activities. And of course, if things change, you could always re-design the interior to accommodate the new situation and interests.
This is the power of condensation. By making your house small enough to fit your body size or your ability to manage possessions, you can become the best director of your living environment. Indeed, if you feel your house is full of clutter, one of the reasons is because you’ve collected items with no consistent theme. Items that send different messages collide with each other in a room, and become noise. In order to avoid this, you’d want be Rikyu and fill your environment with you-gonomi (items selected using your aesthetic lens) as Rikyu did. By the way, it’s easier with the MUJI House because MUJI already offers almost everything you’d need in your house, all designed using the same size format and coherent philosophy.