This article is part of the report on the exhibition: “The Japanese House – Architecture and Life after 1945,” held at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2017/7/19 – 10/29).  Visit the main page for more details.

House NA (2011)  Tokyo, Japan

House NA is a “tiny house” built in metropolitan Tokyo. It sits on an unbelievably small plot of land about 16’ x 23’. This size, however, is not particularly surprising in central Tokyo where housing development has almost reached capacity. Indeed, House NA is surrounded by equally small houses built tightly packed together.

Such an environment poses fundamental questions on the way urban living should develop in the post-modern world, where an overwhelming number of people live and work in “megacities” like Tokyo. (The United Nations defines megacity as a metropolitan area with population greater than 10 million, and forecasts that there will be 41 of them on Earth by 2030)

As big cities support ever-increasing numbers of people, the space available for each individual has to diminish. However, increased demands from well-informed urban residents to achieve a life style that conforms with their values will continue to grow, while issues of privacy and security will become even more critical.

If you live in a megacity, you will quickly be faced with a classic dilemma: “Do I want to open or close?” How would you balance your desire to foster your relationship and enjoy life (open), while protecting security and privacy (close)? The answer becomes challenging when you only have about 800 square feet of total floor area available to you, like the owners of House NA, a married couple. If you try to prioritize privacy vis-à-vis your partner, and from outside community and neighbors, you may well find yourself locked in a very small cage, spending hours staring at walls that separate you from outside world.

To answer this daunting question, Sou Fujimoto re-imagined 800 square feet as a series of flat tables that come in different sizes and levels. If a conventional house tries to create a living environment as an obstacle-free, flat land, the House NA is like living in a tree.

House NA model (scale 1:10) Left: You see a car port to the right, and the entrance to the left. While this side faces the street, most of the “walls” are exclusively glass. Right: Right/rear sides of the house, which are adjacent to the car port of the neighbor separated by a very narrow path. The right side has some conventional walls.

Floor panels (each comes in a relatively small size) are connected together, using 55 mm solid square structural steel members.  Those lean steel beams, along with petite staircases installed in various parts of the house, resemble tree branches or twigs. The entire house almost feels like a series of tree houses perched on different branches.

It’s eye-opening that you could potentially overcome the limitation of a small space by chopping it up into even smaller pieces. The key is the organic undulation and the glass walls.

Just like tree branches, the fine steel structure gives you a sense of vertical potential, rather than horizontal limitations.  Also, multiple elevations create countless numbers of blind spots, as if you are covered by tree leaves.  As a result, you won’t necessarily see your partner even when she/he is close by. Likewise, your neighbors or passers-by won’t be able to see you, even through glass windows.

Also, just like being in a tree, you are, in a way, exposed to the environment outside House NA because walls are almost transparent. At the same time you still feel enveloped and protected, thanks to house’s tree-like structure, in which owners’ belongings and furnishings play the role of multi-layered leaves.  You can enjoy the feeling that you are floating in the air, overcoming the limitation of a tiny house.

House N (2008) Oita, Japan

With House NA, Fujimoto maximized the potential of a tiny house by blurring the boundaries between the rooms and letting ambiguous gaps emerge.

With House N, he blurred boundaries between inside and outside. Here, Fujimoto played with three boxes of different sizes that were placed inside each other like Russian Matryoshka dolls.

House N model (scale 1:10) Left: You see the largest box facing you. Right: You see the smallest box facing you.

The smallest shell is the most protected/private area, and the largest is the most open to the outside.  In between the middle-sized and the largest box sits a patio, which is the “outside” brought inside the house. There are multiple degrees or gradations as to what extent you want to be open.

Left: House N stands out with its ambiguous profile. Is it outside or inside of the house?
Right: The patio in between the middle-sized and the largest box.

Most private activities such as sleeping or cooking could be done in the small shell. But you’d probably enjoy the freedom to choose where to be to do other activities such as reading or eating, depending on how you feel, who you are with, and what the weather is like.

The windows are placed randomly so as it maximizes privacy. (As you may remember, Fujimoto created many blind spots by altering the level of floor panels in House NA) The design also applies the golden ratio so that people would be drawn to the windows, not to the walls.

T House (2005), Gunma, Japan

It must be clear by now that Sou Fujimoto has very unique and keen appreciation of dimensions. His architecture is not bound to the limitations of space defined by length, width and depth.

The earliest work of the three listed in this page, 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 bunch of rooms that are extended from the core like petals. Each petal comes in a different shape and size, creating different perspectives.

And once again, blind spots play an important role here: you are not really sure what you can see from each room because of the asymmetric, random shapes and angles.  You may see someone sitting at the far end of the house, but you won’t see someone sitting in the nearby room.  The entire dimension is skewed!

In addition, since all the rooms are connected via the “core,” you’d have to pass it to reach any other room.  It functions to connect everyone in the house.  However, since it’s so small, it’s not necessarily forcing you to interact with others when you pass by.  For others, you may be just emerging from one room to quickly disappear on the other side.  While you may be physically close to other family members, you can retain a mental distance.

It’s also worth mentioning that when a wall is finished with white paint, the other side is left unfinished, showing wooden surface. The background change quickly in this house, adding a more vibrant atmosphere.