“Sometimes there are spaces that emerge in Japanese houses that can only be referred to as ‘sensorial’.” This is how “Chapter 11 – Sensorial” of the exhibit “The Japanese House” begins that discussion. “Sensorial” is a translation of a Japanese word “感覚的 (kankaku-teki),” which means “of the senses.” But this translation needs to be qualified because the concept of “senses” has a special meaning to the Japanese who have always held some reservations to accepting concrete logic, rational definitions or things you can explain. They always leave room for irrational, inexplicable, ambiguous or fuzzy thoughts when it comes to making decisions.
It is as if the Japanese have two channels of thought: one is logical, and the other is 感覚的 (kankaku-teki) – or sensorial. When you make decisions based on your senses, you rely on the information you receive through your sensory receptors, for example your eyes, ears or skin. But there’s more to it. You are also mobilizing something like an “alternative brain” that is directly connected to your senses and capable of shaping chaotic but meaningful perceptions, insights or judgments. When this happens, you cannot explain why you made certain decisions because your brain was not responsible for their formation. You know that what you are describing has a material existence but you just cannot use logic to describe what it is.
Chapter 11 of “The Japanese House” is a compilation of works produced by leveraging “sensorial” thinking channels. Elements such as the delicate shades created by natural or electrical lighting, subtle changes in colors, or textures felt on the fingertips; the signs, or obscure feelings such as anticipation play a significant role to help mobilize your “alternative brain”, to make your life in a “sensory house” a unique experience.
White U by Toyo Ito (1976)
The “White U” was designed by Toyo Ito in 1976 for his widowed sister and her two young daughters. While the exterior is defined by its unique geometric shape, the interior is an ambiguous, fluid space. The living room, which occupies the bottom of the letter “U,” is the largest open space and it defines this house.
There were only few windows in the “White U,” some of which were installed in the ceiling. Footlights supported natural light coming through the windows, throwing enlarged shadows on white, curved walls. You could feel the presence of other family members, even when they were in another part of the house, because voices traveled easily in this building.
The sky looks like a big moon from the patio because of the U-shaped walls. It also resembles the patio of a monastery. Did Ito design this house as a sanctuary for three young women?
The fluid walls were the signature of this house, and Ito designed them very carefully. For example, in the drawing found on the top left corner of the picture below, you can see a small knob-like hollow space in the walls that surround the living room. It’s indirectly intruding the exterior. It was inserted in the middle of otherwise evenly curved wall surfaces in order to create some pauses, or “ma” – small margins for movements to tentatively pause/arrest movement through the space. According to Terunobu Fujimori, the Japanese architectural historian, Ito once said: “I prefer walls that have some dimples over to flat walls.*” The reason is because the concave/convex element, no matter how small it is, can change the relationship of the spaces that are divided by the walls. Even though the interior and the exterior are not physically connected, small dents can shake and reinvigorate the relationship between the two.
* Toyo Ito & Shinichi Nakazawa. 建築の大転換 (The Great Transformation of Architecture). 2015. p.158.
The House in a Plum Grove by Kazuyo Sejima (2003)
Kazuyo Sejima designed the “House in a Plum Grove” in 2003. Just like Ito’s “White U,” the walls define this house but in a very different way. The load-bearing walls, made of steel, are only 16mm deep. When the model was made, they looked as thin as tissue paper. And amazingly, the house maintained the lightness and fineness felt in the model.
The total floor area of this small house is only 836 square feet, yet Sejima created as many as 18 rooms, leveraging the origami-like flexibility of thin steel walls. Rooms come in different shapes and sizes based on designated activities such as sleeping, reading or taking tea. Except for the bathrooms, no room has doors or complete partitions. You could “sense” other family members’ presence through small openings installed here and there.
The size of the bedrooms is based on the size of a bed. The library is based on the size of bookshelves. The study is based on the size of a desk. It almost feels like the smallness of each room and the focus on specific activity amplifies the intensity of the experience. Although the house is filled with “stuff” (such as shelves full of books or CDs), it is an agreeable kind of messiness, probably because the mess in each room is based on a single, coherent theme. The relationships between the divided spaces and the activities that occur there give the house a very unique shape.
The “T House” by Sou Fujimoto (2005)
Sou Fujimoto is probably one of the most “sensorial” architects working today. He often says: “I am attracted to things that ‘do not make sense’, that are ’mystifying.’ or ‘forest’-like.’” While he is very sharp and analytical, he often leverages his “sensorial” thinking channel to design unique architecture. He calls such works as “forest-like.” A forest is the collective formation of diverse organisms that come in every size, from microscopic to gigantic. They have multi-layered, dynamic existences which are constantly in flux. The abundance of forests, Fujimoto points out, comes from the fact that the whole is comprised with numberless small things. You approach, trying to understand the entire picture, but you can never really do that – they are always ahead of you.
While a forest does not have a brain that controls its entire existence using some coherent logic, it nonetheless maintains its wholeness by constantly changing its details. And the outcome is mesmerizing and inspiring. Maybe that is what being “sensorial” means to the Japanese people.
The “T House” does not come in a typical rectangular shape. Looking like a skewed flower, it has an empty “core” with no walls, and a series of rooms that extend from the core like petals. Each petal comes in a different shape and size, creating different perspectives.
Whereas the “T House” is yet another tiny house (there are so many of them in Japan!) with a total floor area of about 979 square feet, Fujimoto tweaked the dimension/perspectives to defy the limitations of its smallness. For example, blind spots play an important role in this house: you are not really sure what you can see from each room because of the asymmetric, random shapes and angles. You may be able to see someone sitting at the far end of the house, but you won’t see someone in the next room. The sense of distance takes on different forms here.
It’s also worth mentioning that when a wall is finished on one side with white paint, the other side is left unfinished, leaving the wooden surface exposed. If you are in a room with white walls, someone in the next room is seeing brown walls. Even though the family has to share limited space in this tiny house, they can maintain decent mental distance, thanks to these “pivot” devices Fujimoto embedded in order to re-define the space.
Although the “T House” is not as big as a forest, it certainly embraces the law of (chaotic) nature: it is part random, part asymmetric, part inefficient and perhaps weird. But it functions to bond the entire family by constantly allowing them to adjust their relationships both physically and mentally.
The “Double Helix House” by onishimaki + hyakudayuki architects / o+h (2011)
The “Double Helix House” was designed by two female architects, Maki Onishi and Yuki Hyakuda. This is another forest-like piece of chaotic architecture, where the long, narrow and helix stairs coil around the main building like a snake. The stairs also look like an extension of the street, blurring the boundaries between exterior and interior, public and private.
Because of the randomness of the “snake,” the interactions between parts of the structure and the surrounding environment are not totally controlled: some areas are dark, others bright; some are veiled by stairways, while others are left blank or secluded. This creates spontaneous collisions between the residents and the building on a regular basis: they enjoy picking a place that pleases them, depending of the weather or their mood.
The “O House” by Hideyuki Nakayama (2009)
The “O House” consists of an arc-shaped main building and two accompanying “lean-tos” attached on each side. There is a backyard at the rear of the left side lean-to, which is connected to the right lean-to. Purposes and functions are mixed up and shuffled in this house: residents could enter the house from the left lean-to (bathroom) without using the main entrance. You can see the living room on the ground floor and the bedroom on the second floor of the main building. They augment their symbolic quality by freeing themselves from certain functions that are typically assigned to the main unit of a house. Dimensions are distorted as if the house were a magic tree house in a picture book for kids.
Concept drawings by Hideyuki Nakayama