The Japanese House Chapter 4: House is a work of art
“A House is a work of art.” It is a famous declaration made by a maverick and legendary Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006), who continues to be the great influence in Japanese architectural world for his keen, critical eyes and uncompromising pursuit for geometric aesthetics (he was also a mathematician). Using his statement as a title, the Chapter 5 of the exhibit “The Japanese House” exclusively discussed Shinohara’s works. The section started with another set of eye-opening quotes from him.
“Ordinary people’s houses are like mushrooms.”
“You could have replicated the aesthetic essence of a mansion for (medieval) aristocrats in any place, whether Kyoto or somewhere else. It is because they were pure architecture, designed to fulfill aesthetic ambitions. It is completely different from ordinary peoples’ houses, the gist of which were articulated in the houses located at the heart of abundant nature. Harsh environment helped shape tough expressions on them. In that sense, peoples’ houses are not architecture. It is simply part of nature.” (Translation by the author.)
“What we’ve lost is the resonation played by, and in the space.”
“I believe that a house has to be beautiful, and the space has to be filled with sound and harmony. But modern lifestyle that emerged after the World War II pursued efficiency and tried to override the old-fashioned values. And it prevailed – for the most part. It just deprived of rich resonation from Japanese houses.” (Translation by the author.)
(NOTE: “Reonation,”sound” or “harmony” is a translation of the word “響き” (hibiki), which could also include natural sounds, vibrations, vibes, interactions, resonation or reverberations.)
House in White (1966)
Throughout his career, Shinohara attempted to place his work in the context of a Japanese architectural heritage. He had particularly sharp observations about “民家” (minka), traditional houses of ordinary people, and the houses (or mansions) designed for people in power, such as aristocrats.
Shinohara observed that a minka was 1) closed in, 2) a space for domestic activities, and 3) black. Traditionally, houses were small and enclosed in order to facilitate various domestic activities, such as cooking. People used charcoal for fires, so the upper structure of the house was covered with soot and looked black. On the other hand, aristocrats’ houses that originated from 寝殿造 (shinden-dukuri) in the Middle Ages were open to outside, so as the owners could enjoy beautiful views. No productive activities occurred inside because servants did all the work in separated areas, including fixing meals for their masters. Social elite’s houses were thus represented by white, the purity that could only be achieved by rejecting tedious domestic work.
Closed/black and open/white is a stark contrast. According to Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atlier Bow-Wow), the Chief Advisor of the exhibit, the “House in White” was the first attempt to combine “closed” and “black,” the two elements that belonged to opposite side of the Japanese architectural metric.
White is such a pure form of color. Can you enclose such pureness in a house filled with daily activities? Shinohara realized it partly thanks to modern technology that has made cooking soot-free. Applying transitional Japanese design principles, the structure was supported by columns, beams and a roof truss to support a square, pyramid-shaped roof. The square space under the roof was divided into two areas with an asymmetrical 2:1 ratio. The smaller half was further divided into two stories. This minimal, two acts of division augmented geometric abstractness. In addition, Shinohara emphasized the pureness of the white and sealed it in a small yet clean space by stripping away some of the typical traditional architectural details such as cornices or engawa.
As it looks decisively clean and pure from outside, the interior also highlights the beauty and abundance of white. The living room used “shoji” (a Japanese screen door that is constructed from a wooden frame and a paper screen) to divide it from outside, as you see it on the right hand side of the picture. A Shoji is a very fragile, opaque partition that lets the weakened sunlight come through it. That delicate light increases its mythical, symbolic effect, as if you are inside a religious building, thanks to the white walls that occupies the area above the shoji. (Shoji usually are the height of a door, but Shinohara used it only for the bottom half.)
Also stunning is a large pillar that stands, dignified and dominant, in the middle of the living room. It looks like a mainmast of a ship in an otherwise white and abstract interior. Shinohara chose not to make it a part of the load-bearing structure. It’s a symbolic manifestation that becomes even stronger because of that.
In a sense, Shinohara disassembled the traditional meanings of architectural elements and re-assembled them as a very personal and private vehicle. This was a house that posed a question: “what does life and living mean to you?” Who would’ve thought that a house could be a vehicle for a philosophical pursuit?
A house is a work of art,” he said. So is “living.”
Tanikawa House (1974)
Shinohara’s uncompromising quest to design a house “as a work of art” continued to evolve. In 1976, he designed the “Tanikawa House,” a summer house commissioned for a renowned Japanese poet, Shuntaro Tanikawa. It was located in Karuizawa in the Nagano prefecture, which is a popular summer resort surrounded by beautiful woods.
Although it is called a house, it’s very unconventional. First of all, it was built on a slope of a hill without flattening the foundation. Not only was the floor slanted, it was partly finished (or unfinished) with bare dirt (!) It could be called a unique interpretation of the “doma” (dirt room), an area commonly found in Japanese traditional house. Doma was used for semi-outdoor activities such as cooking or maintaining tools. But Shinohara’s dirt area did not look to be tied to a specific functionality as was the case with a doma. It almost seemed as if Shinohara was attempting to bring untamed nature inside the house.
Contrasting with the crudeness of the dirt was a sharp, geometric aesthetics. The roof rose sharply at a 45 degree angle, and some columns also rose at a 45 degrees angle in the middle of a room. 45 degrees is the middle point of the horizontal and vertical expansion. It is so forceful.
At the Tanikawa House, naturally slanted dirt (chaos?) collides with strong geometric beauty (aesthetic order?). They don’t seem to belong to the same world and the dissonance is almost brutal.
When asked if it was comfortable to live in this house, Tanikawa, a household name whose poems appear in the textbooks for elementary school kids (he is also known for his marvelous translation of “Peanuts” by Charles Shultz), answered: “I do not seek comfort for a house because it has to be the representation of your spirit. Comfort is its enemy.”
For Shinohara and Tanikawa, a house and living itself were literally works of art.
House in Uehara (1976)
The House in Uehara was built two years after the Tanikawa House, and his signature 45 degree columns are also present in this house. In order to leave enough space for parking on the ground floor (the left hand side of the picture), the second floor had to be cantilevered. As a result, the bare concrete columns intruded into the rooms. The third floor, which resembles a human face, is a vault that was added at the last minute as kids’ room. Since the vault was totally different and did not belong to the rest of the building, Shinohara called this house “utter anarchy.”
At the exhibit site, they streamed an interview with the owner of the House in Uehara. The owner (the son of the original owner, I think but I could be wrong.) said: “Everyone asks if any of us ever bumped our head against the concrete columns and we say, we never had problems with them. They don’t disturb our activities.”
Shinohara’s declaration in 1962 that “a house is a work of art” stirred controversy. Architects need clients, most of whom consider a house as an envelope that makes their lives more beautiful, easier and more comfortable. Architects are not supposed to design whatever they want, simply driven by their creative impulse.
Of course Shinohara knew this. But he still had say what he believed because modern capitalism and technology was starting to sweep the Japanese housing market in the 60’s by providing cost-effective, efficient and functional models designed for mass production. Individual projects commissioned by architects based on artistic inspiration were looking increasingly “inefficient.” But it was in this “inefficiency,” where Shinohara saw new potential in residential houses.
A house is a product of a nature-human relationship. Especially when people are forced to face and accommodate harsh nature, a house becomes a hub that harbors various activities, behaviors and styles that collectively form wisdom and aesthetics for local communities to live in harmony with nature. Those are the values that cannot be gauged by efficiency. Shinohara intentionally used the word “art” in order to free a house from being entangled in a game of economic efficiency. He believed that a house could have higher aspirations, capable of providing critical perspectives to society through the act and art of living, which is the accumulation of peoples’ wisdom.
Inspired and encouraged, many talented young architects followed his path and designed their version of the “work of art” architecture. They are often called the “Shinohara School,” and it includes Kazunari Sakamoto, Itsuko Hasegawa and Toyo Ito.