01 May 2013

Just a house

Hiroshi Sugimoto's reconstructed Chashitsu teahouse.

Japan seems to be a place where housing, the very notion of "the house", is being constantly questioned, rediscussed and reinvented.  The historical ephemerality of Japan's architecture is widely known. It is partly due to the use of wood as construction material (with good resistance against earthquakes but always endangered by fire), and partly to traditional customs, exemplified by this passage of the Book of Tea by Okakura Kazuko:

"The tea-room [...] is not intended for posterity and is therefore ephemeral. The idea that everyone should have a house of his own is based on an ancient custom of the Japanese race, Shinto superstition ordaining that every dwelling should be evacuated on the death of its chief occupant. [...] Another early custom was that a newly built house should be provided for each couple that married. It is on account of such customs that we find the Imperial capitals so frequently removed from one site to another in ancient days. The rebuilding, every twenty years, of Ise Temple, the supreme shrine of the Sun-Goddess, is an example of one of these ancient rites which still obtain at the present day. The observance of these customs was only possible with some form of construction as that furnished by our system of wooden architecture, easily pulled down, easily built up." (Okakura 1906 (2001):40) 

During my current stay in Tokyo I had the chance to visit the HOUSE VISION exhibition. In the homepage the organizers declare no less that "if you would like to see the future of Japan please come". The aim of the exhibition is to give a hint about possible outcomes of a coupling between technology firms and building industry, showing seven 1:1 scale houses/pavilions, designed by internationally renowned Japanese architects, in partnership with different firms. Kengo Kuma designed the exhibition site (in Odaiba) and the show featured, among others, architects Toyo Ito, Sou Fujimoto, Riken Yamamoto, Shigeru Ban, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, and firms like Honda, Lixil, Toto. The architects' creativity and the the firms technology were supposed to match, in order to achieve new standards and new modes of living. This resulted, e.g., in Fujimoto's blurring boundary between interior and exterior space (the street), introducing small, personal vehicles in the house or in Ito's will to have undefined and multi-functional spaces.

Even though the house of the future is a trite idea (think about the Smithsons' House of the Future), it is remarkable that this exhibition generally focused on low-profile, down-to-earth ideas, far away from the metabolic frenzy of the '60s and '70s in Japan.

Fujimoto's pavilion.

Ito's house.

Japan's land use, especially the land use of Tokyo, is characterized by small, usually narrow parcels, belonging to different owners. This is an additional reason why small, single, residential buildings incarnate the essence of Japanese architecture. The private house is, therefore, a fundamental typology in every architect's work. Even though some clear trends in contemporary Japanese housing can be highlighted, like the blurring of interior and exterior spaces (e.g. Tezuka Architects), the sublimation of walls into membranes (e.g. SANAA) and the integration of greenery and natural elements (e.g. Junya Ishigami), there remain heretic, anti-modern characters like Terunobu Fujimori, complementing the kaleidoscopic nature of the Japanese "house".

Terunobu Fujimori's house in Kokubunji, Tokyo.

Okakura, K. (1906) The Book of Tea (2001) Dreamsmyth, USA

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