The Kunio Maekawa House 1942

Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986) built his own house in 1942 in central Tokyo in the wake of WWII. Called “Maekawa House,” the house has been considered one of the most iconic houses that represent Japan’s unique modernism era. After Maekawa passed away in 1986, the house was restored at the Tokyo Tatemono en (Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum) using the original materials. It is open to public.

Overview and history (this post)

Drawings and design details

Overview and history

Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa was born in 1905 amidst the rapid social change in Japan. The “samurai” era ended in 1868, and the country was in the middle of aggressive modernization and Westernization when Maekawa was growing up. He studied architecture – which was still a new discipline for Japanese back then – at Tokyo University from 1925 to 1928. Upon graduation, he took the Trans-Siberian railway and went all the way to France to work for Le Corbusier. (He was the first Japanese architect to do so.) After spending two years in Paris, he came back to Tokyo and started working for Antonin Raymond before becoming an independent architect. Raymond originally came to Japan to help Frank Lloyd Wright design and build the Tokyo Imperial Hotel (completed in 1923).

Maekawa was one of most prominent early era modernist architects in Japan who fully embraced modernism, a Western concept. As an ardent Le Corbusier follower, Maekawa especially focused on applying his philosophy in Japanese context. Many of his works were large concrete public buildings such as city hall, music hall, library or museum.

However, his own house, which was built in 1942, doesn’t quite look like his other projects. It has more explicit traditional Japanese influences, rather than Le Corbusier-style modernism.

How did his house become one of the most iconic houses in Japanese history of architecture?

The Maekawa House seen from the backyard. 

It is important to remember that Maekawa’s house was built in 1942, the second year of WWII. War significantly affected the process, even though the situation wasn’t as dire as in 1945, by which time Tokyo was under constant bombing. (Maekawa’s office was burnt down in that year.)

During wartime, you have to show your patriotism. It must have been a touch situation for Maekawa, who had been a flag bearer of Le Corbusier-style modernism and universalism. When Japanese society was going towards the opposite direction, maybe Maekawa felt compelled to look at traditional Japanese architecture, instead of universal modernism, for inspiration.   

He also faced stricter building codes and serious material shortages as all the resources were re-allocated to support war. 

By the way, Maekawa did not design his house by himself. He tapped Kosaburo Sakitani to do the job. Sakitani was Maekawa’s chief staff, and Maekawa trusted him. When the project was about to start, Sakitani was stationed in China. So Maekawa called him back. On the way back from China to Tokyo, Sakitani stopped at the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture. It is widely believed that the Ise Shrine, which maintains one the oldest traditional Japanese architectural styles, inspired Sakitani to design large gable roofs with the central column. 

Modernist design almost always used flat roofs, and Maekawa would design public buildings using flat roofs. It could have been a difficult decision for Maekawa to accept Sakitani’s proposal to employ large gable roofs that almost touched the ground. But he approved it. 

Maekawa lived in this house until 1974. It was a relatively small house (111.55㎡), but after his office was bombed in 1945, he also used it as an office. Maekawa, his wife and his employees crammed the space until he finally opened a new office in 1954, 9 years after the end of devastating war. It is believed that Maekawa loved this house so much that he saved all the original materials when he built a new house in 1974. He planned to use them for his second house, but he passed away in 1986 before he could work on it. In 1997, people who recognized the importance of this house, including architecture historian and architect Terunobu Fujimori, worked together to restore it at the Tokyo Tatemono en (Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum) using the original materials.