The Japanese House Chapter 8: Family Critiques
A house is used to accommodate the smallest social unit: a family. Whereas each family is different, the dynamics among family members is strongly affected by the larger social structure: it could be authoritarian or democratic. It could be sharing-oriented or individualistic. In Japan, paternal authority was almost unchallenged until the end of World War II. It was the foundation of the family and the home.
Traditionally, a typical Japanese family lived in a small house that consisted of common rooms such as a living room (called a chanoma), a kitchen/bath and general rooms. If you are familiar with the shoji and engawa format of traditional Japanese house, you could easily imagine that privacy or the right of individual family members were not a priority. Only a father or a grandfather, whose words were the law, would have had his own room or office.
But that completely changed after WW II, when the concept of democracy suddenly started flooding the Japanese society from bottom to top. It was a radical change that called for a soul-searching process for many Japanese families. If modern Japanese houses look unique and different, it may be because they reflect such radical changes. Chapter 8 of the exhibit “The Japanese House” captures how Japanese architects elevated the concept of a house, reflecting people’s view on family identity that have changed drastically over the last several decades.
The “Sky House” by Kiyonori Kikutake (1958)
The “Sky House” was designed by Kiyonori Kikutake in 1958 as his own home. Its central piece is a bedroom for Kikutake and his wife which is a square room hanging in the air, supported by four wide pillars. It is his declaration that a husband and a wife are equal, and that the space dedicated to the two – which overlooks the rest – is the most important part of this house. If there was one critical change in the Japanese family after WW II, it was the improvement of the status for women. The “Sky House” symbolizes this change, dating from 13 years after the end of the war.
The exposed bottom of the master bedroom looks like the bottom of a LEGO piece, and it actually functions like LEGO. Kikutake designed other parts of the house as “movenetts,” meaning that they could be added, replaced or removed based on changing family needs. During one period, the kids’ room was attached to the master bedroom, hanging from it as seen in the images below. The “movenettes” reflect the philosophy of the “metabolism” movement, in which he was the key member along with other then-young and rising architects including Kisyo Kurokawa.
It is mesmerizing to imagine the scale of the changes that Japan went through after WWII. Before there was a pre-modern, paternal authoritarian, semi-democratic/industrialized world. That had turned into ashes by 1945. Then suddenly hyper-modern, futuristic megalopolises started to emerge, replacing many of the intricately entangled small, wooden, old-fashioned communities. And this all happened in a matter of 30 years or so.
It must have felt like countless number of high-rise buildings were suddenly growing like banana trees on barren fields among the wooden ruins. Amid such social/economic changes, Kikutake imagined that the modern living environment, even though it was dominantly surrounded by inorganic materials such as concrete and steel, should metabolize as if it was comprised of organic materials. He believed that was the only way to accommodate the ever growing and changing social needs. Old cells needed to be replaced with new ones as part of a natural process. “Metabolism” architecture combined futuristic large envelopes capable of accommodating many people with small individual cells that would be born, age, then die, eventually to be replaced by new cells.
“Pao: A Dwelling for Tokyo Nomad Girls” by Toyo Ito (1985)
Metabolizing or not, Japan kept growing economically, which boosted rapid urbanization. By the 80’s, the struggle to recover from the defeat in war was finally over – both physically and physiologically. Tokyo has become one of the largest, most advanced and affluent cities in the world, embodying the dreams and desires of millions of inhabitants.
The rapid change, especially the improvements of the financial situation for average households, empowered family members who were previously suppressed. Wives and children – especially young girls – were emboldened now that it was easier for them to receive higher education, find a job and make money. Or to go out and find a boy friend. A father-centric family hierarchy suddenly started losing its relevance.
Girls fled paternal control, and started to lead booming, consumptive pop culture created by the “bubble” economy. Ito imagined that a life in Tokyo no longer belonged to a house: the entire metropolis was now home to curious, emboldened and empowered girls. In the installation “Pao: a dwelling for Tokyo nomad girls,” a sturdy house with solid walls was already the past. Girls now nested in a soft cocoon that was directly connected to a large city, surrounded by furniture that helped them apply make-up, gather information and grab a snack on before venturing out to the streets full of fun and excitement.
Light Coffin by Osamu Ishiyama (1995)
By the 90’s, it was obvious that the traditional form of family – an authoritarian father, an obedient mother and powerless children – was becoming obsolete. New types of relationships started to emerge in the vacuum created by shrinking conventional family stereotypes. The “Light Coffin,” designed by Osamu Ishiyama in 1995, was a house designed for a young gay couple. (The original name in Japanese is the “House for Doracula.”) Built using plain materials such as lightweight steel frames and corrugated roof panels, this house looks like a warehouse with no frills. The interior is also bald and bare: the entire space is divided into two simple rows, one of which consists of a bathroom and a kitchen. In a conventional sense, you may not call this building a house. But then, if this couple don’t want to raise kids or don’t need conventional functions for a conventional family, then they don’t need a conventional house. A format for a family and their life style can be a lot more diverse or peculiar. If Doracula wants a house – well, or a coffin – of course he can have one.
The House & Atelier Bow-Wow (2005)
By the 21st century, modernism, capitalism and individualism trickled down into every corner of the social fabric in Japan. People busied themselves by pursuing self-centered freedom helped by financial growth and traditional values were almost forgotten. But then, the economic euphoria suddenly disappeared as the economic bubble collapsed in the early 90’s. Japan plunged into a prolonged recession called “the lost decade.”
People had to stop and ask: “Wait a minute. Is the party over? What’s left after all that frenzy?” They realized that excessive money was now gone, leaving enormous debt, and they were left in isolation accelerated by aggressive individualism and advanced technology. The society was divided on many fronts, and the happiness, which looked to have been filling the society, quickly evaporated.
It was time to explore new values and new ways to pursue happiness.
One of the bitter realizations concerned work. In order to support booming economy, Japanese, especially adult males, worked and worked. It was one of the reasons why the value of fathers depreciated so much after the war. They were too committed to their employers, and almost ignored their obligations toward the family. The collapse of the economic bubble was a shocking wake-up call for many hard-working employees, who found out how little their hard work was rewarded. Dedication no longer guaranteed job security. And if it was not enough. They also lost support from the family who had no idea what their almost-always-absent-dad was doing all those years.
The “House & Atelier Bow-Wow” is a multi-story building that is at once a house and also an office for the Atelier Bow-Wow, which is run by an architect couple, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and his wife Momoyo Kaijima. The building is designed so that the private living areas and the office would interfere and interact each other.
This house reverses two widespread post-WWII trends in Japan: separatism and individualism. Separation and division were the key elements to pursue efficiency. Primary industries such as agriculture and the fisheries were separated from the service sector or urban areas. People’s expertise became increasingly specific. Office areas were concentrated in business districts which were far from the residential suburbs. As a result, people had to spend hours commuting to work. What you did at work had no relevance to your family or local community, and your children were not interested in learning about your job.
The house/office of Atelier Bow-Wow intentionally abandoned separation and division. Work invades your private life, and your personal space blends with work space. Except for the bedroom/bathroom situated on the top floor, the entire space is connected. People live and/or work here and share not just the space and activities, but also the atmosphere, the mood and even sounds and smells. In addition, the pillars are slanted, which force you to move your body differently, for example when you use the stairs.
When people share their living/working environment so extensively, even including the entrance or kitchen, you would know what others are doing through the sounds, smells or just by living so closely together. And at the “House and Atelier Bow-Wow,” eating looks to be one of the main activities. The kitchen, which was featured in the video streamed at the exhibit was quite impressive. (It’s Tsukamoto and Kaijima eating a meal.) It was mildly and agreeably messy with many kitchen gadgets. Obviously they cook a lot in this place. This is not a kitchen made clean to look photogenic. This is where they interact with food, use their creativity to cook meals, enjoy eating and communicating with others. I would guess good food and good meals are contagious here.
It was eye-opening. Just by eliminating the hours it takes to commute, they can spend a good amount of time cooking something sensible and eating it without worrying about missing morning trains. It’s a process to activate many parts of your body – hands, eyes, taste buds, ears and so forth. Of course, it would make a big difference to your life, but it would also increase your productivity, since your senses are now stimulated and invigorated.
The “House & Atelier Bow-Wow” remind us that work is part of your life, and work is where you leverage what you experience in your life. Life is work, and work is your life. Live like you are living from the bottom of your heart.
The “Yokohama Apartment” by Tsukasa Nishida and Erika Nakayama (2009)
The traditional hierarchical family system was disappearing. The boundaries between work and life were blurring. New opportunities were emerging after conventional houses with conventional values started losing their relevance in the post-modern society.
The “Yokohama Apartment” was designed by Tsukasa Nishida and Erika Nakayama in 2009 as a complex that consisted of four small rental units. Since the owner wanted to rent the rooms to artists, the architects created a large event space-like hall at the center of the ground floor and kept individual rooms small at about 200 square feet.
This apartment complex is a collective living environment, rather than a collection of individual rooms focused on securing privacy and independence.
The central hall has ceilings about 16 feet high, and is semi-open towards outside. In addition to being used as a workshop or a gallery, the residents hold a monthly meetings to discuss future activities. The proposals from non-residents are also considered.
The boundaries between the residential (private) area, communities and shared activities are blurred and new opportunities emerge. It reminds me of the “Rental Space Tower” designed by Sou Fujimoto.
Atelier Tenjinyama by Ikimono Architects (2011)
Now that you have opened up your house to your community, what’s next?
The “Atelier Tenjinyama,” designed by Ikimono Architects (“Ikimono” means living organisms) in 2011, opens it up toward the surrounding environment. This narrow one-room house rises as high as 26 feet, taking in as much of the outside environment as inside the house. It is enveloped by walls as thin as 180mm, two of which lean towards the inside. It is as if the entire house is a box made of paper.
While it’s primary use is a workshop, there is a tiny space for living partitioned by the 6mm-thick steel plates.
But actually, the most significant resident in this house is a eucalyptus tree which occupies the center. The entire house is filled with its scent, and butterflies and bees could wander in when the windows are open, attracted to the tree. In this house, not only people, but also everything going on outside, or any creatures that stumble upon this place, can spontaneously create an organic living environment.