When Walter Gropius met Japanese architecture: The House of Prof K. Saito designed by Kiyoshi Seike
European modernism and traditional Japanese aesthetics attracted each other as if they were the north and south poles of a magnet. From the end of the 19th century to the 1960’s, bridging two devastating world wars, creators on both sides attempted to look to the other pole to answer burning aesthetic questions: Japanese artists sought a new identity in democratic, free and science-based European modernism in order to overcome tradition-blinded samurai-era social norms. European artists found aesthetic redemption in minimalistic, harmony-oriented traditional Japanese culture as aggressive industrialization was changing every aspect of peoples’ lives in the West. These interactions are fascinating in that they vividly demonstrate how apparently different aesthetics practices resolved into the universal truth, and yet how they were still influenced by the perspectives or presumptions that helped shape their respective society relative to others.
There is no doubt that the Bauhaus in Germany was one of the epicenters of such artistic infusions. Forward-looking Japanese artists, including Takehiko Mitsutani (from 1927-29) and Iwao & Michiko Yamawaki (from 1930-32), went to study at the Bauhaus Dessau, paving the way for Japanese modernism in architecture and design. Architect Bunzo Yamaguchi worked in Walter Gropius’ office in Berlin (1930-32). Then, after WWII in 1954, Yamawaki invited Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to Japan – his first and last visit – when he was 71. During his stay that lasted for three months, Gropius interacted with Bauhaus followers as he gave lectures and helped found the Bauhaus-influenced Kuwasawa Design School in Tokyo, and immersed himself in traditional Japanese architecture and craftsmanship, including a visit to the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa. It’s interesting to see that while Yamazaki – a Bauhausler in the rapidly Westernizing far East – had to figure out how to design an affordable (wooden) Bauhaus – a white, linear, minimalist building with large glass windows – without relying on concrete and steel because they were still too expensive, Gropius found the essence of the very modernism he was trailblazing in traditional wooden Japanese architecture. He wrote to Le Corbusier after his trip to the Katsura: “Dear Corbu, everything we have fought for is paralleled in ancient Japanese culture… Japanese houses are the best and most modern examples that I know of, and they really are pre-fabricated.”
After he went back to the US, Gropius wrote “Architecture in Japan” in the Yale Architectural Journal Perspecta.
You cannot imagine what it meant to me to come suddenly face to face with these houses, with a culture still alive, which in the past had already found the answer to many of our modern requirements of simplicity, of outdoor-indoor relations, of modular coordination, and at the same time, variety of expression, resulting in a common form language uniting all individual efforts.
The House of Prof K. Saito designed by Kiyoshi Seike
But unfortunately, even though Gropius felt that traditional Japanese culture was “still alive, which in the past had already found the answer to many of our modern requirements of simplicity…” it couldn’t be used in a modern economy since it was too “inefficient” in many ways. As Yamawaki experimented with a hodge-podge of Bauhaus styles using whatever materials he could access, the Japanese real estate/construction industry was too busy mass-manufacturing “efficient” houses for the first time in history to provide affordable homes for the exponentially growing suburbs. Tradition and heritage were about to be sidelined. But still, Gropius saw some hope – a “happy marriage between the tradition of Japanese architecture and modern technology” – in houses designed by ambitious contemporary Japanese architects including Kiyoshi Seike.
According to Seike, Gropius saw photographs of his work in magazines and requested a site visit. “I received a call when I was in the school where I was teaching. Since my school was very close from my home, which was actually next to the House of Prof K. Saito and the House of Prof. Miyagi – all of which I designed – I offered to walk back home to meet him myself.” Seike showed three houses to Gropius, who loved the “House of Prof K. Saito.” He later invited Seike to the Architects Collaborative (TAC), which he had co-founded with other architects in Cambridge, MA. In a letter to Seike, Gropius wrote: “We can pay you $100/week for the next 12-16 weeks if you can come join us immediately…”
Kiyoshi Seike was born in 1918 in Kyoto, Japan, just one year before Gropius founded the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. But since he studied architecture under the wartime regime, his exposure to “liberal” European architecture was rather indirect. He studied the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier – the two summits of European modernism for Japanese architects – through books, and his favorite architect was Mies van der Rohe. In fact, Japanese architect/historian Terunobu Fujimori (b.1946) called the “House of Prof K. Saito” the “wooden version of Farnsworth House,” Mies’ masterpiece.
Seike actually joined the TAC in 1954. Whereas he recollected that he didn’t communicate a whole lot with people due to his limited ability to speak English, he was impressed by Gropius’ home, which had large glass windows and automated garage doors (Japan was still recovering from devastating loss in WWII at that time). “I felt that this must be what Le Corbusier meant by ‘a house is a machine for living in.’ I realized that the emphasis was on ‘living in.’”
By the same token, he was thrilled by technological innovations in the US that supported architecture/construction. After he came back to Japan, he was involved in a project to experiment with the application of “industrialized prefabrication” on houses. But still, he said his philosophy on aesthetics did not change much after his experience in the US.
Gropius described the “House of Prof K. Saito” as a “happy marriage between the tradition of Japanese architecture and modern technology,” but if you look at the details very carefully, Seike broke many traditional protocols, both philosophically and aesthetically. As a result, his creation became not quite Japanese, but not quite European/Western either. It was simply unique.
One of the underlying themes in designing residential houses is that they reflect people’s perception on what a family is all about. Seike was definitely one of the first of the truly “modern” Japanese generation that appreciated the democratic family, not the father-first, strictly paternal hierarchy. He tried to maximize the use of limited space by eliminating walls and making the entire house into a single room. He imagined that family members should share spaces and activities a lot which must have been quite radical at that time.
He also installed a portable tatami mattress, on which people sat, read, slept and played. He had it at his own home, and his daughter remembered that it was very heavily used: Seike used it as his office, children played on it, or used it as a bed. They even brought it outside to enjoy nice weather. Seike was a great believer in “しつらい (shitsurai),” a traditional way to move around and use furniture flexibly as needed.
The tatami mattresses and shoji screen doors (partitions) are both indispensable for traditional Japanese houses, but as Seike radically converted the tatami to a raised portable floor, he made shoji screen doors incredibly large. He might have imagined it as Japanese version of Gropius-style large glass windows, since conventional shoji screens were much smaller and one perimeter of a typical room required four shoji partitions.
One of the reasons why he was able to make the shoji so large was because he eliminated “kamoi” – the horizontal beams that created dedicated space at the top of the room to insert architectural details. He left kamoi in the Japanese style guest room , which created a nice contrast against to the rest of the house.
It almost feels as if Seike embraced the clean/rational/democratic European modernism in order to keep the act of living as something fluid and undefinable.