Hideyuki Nakayama, O-House/Empty House, 2011
The House Detective
Small is new. And the interest in small houses is global. Small is serious. The causes are economic, ecological, and in some places the need to skirt onerous building codes.
Locally, garages turned into studios or storage units and the proliferation of out-buildings can be noted in suburbia and even in the outer boroughs of New York City. It is not that we need less space, but that we are hungry for more: a tool shed, a storage unit, a guesthouse, a man cave, an office, a studio. We are insatiable. For the post-urban, the glamorous need for a retreat and the righteousness of off-grid living are easily combined. Hippie meets hipster meets anchorite.
I am not immune. My favorite Tumblr blog is not
We are talking about cocooning, playing house, nesting.
My interest in new Japanese residential architecture fits in where small houses now rule. We have no room for anything else. Or so the fantasy goes. And let’s face it, 99% of architecture is fantasy, hence cabinporn.com. But there is no fantasy behind the housing needs of reubanization.
Suppose Design, House in Fuchu, 2011. Footprint 629 sq. ft.
What Is A House?
For some time now I have been posting Facebook entries, under the heading ARTOPIATECTURE, consisting of a few words, an image, and then a link to my source, where texts (such as they are) and more pictures are available. Many of these posts have been part of my complex sampling of new Japanese residential architecture. Subsets are huts, pods, small retreats, sheds, tree houses, trailers, houseboats, out buildings, backyard offices and studios.
How did this come about? Knowing of my interest in design – in my second stint at the Village Voice I had covered craft and design -- my designer friend Tricia Foley recommended some webzines she tracks. The stand-outs were remodelista.com, design-boom.com, and dezeen.com. Soon I added designmilk.com. Then inhabit.com.
I was hooked. I became a house detective. And furthermore Facebook friends seemed to take to what I was discovering. I was not only tapping into a trend but into the cyber unconscious
A house is not just a shelter against the elements or against the neighbors. Certainly not an investment anymore. To dream of a house means many things. The house is your body. The house is a mask, a sign, an advertisement. The house is the womb. Or the inside of your head. An unusually small house suggests a hut or retreat. If it is too cute it will suggest a doll’s house. The awful term T-ny H--se is a hand servant to twee. If the house is too small and poorly designed in terms of cubic rather than linear space and lacks proper fenestration, it will conjure up a coffin or a tomb. And, if you can bear the paradox, think upon, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.”
You should also know that during my design period as a critic I wrote the first feature length article on the Miami Beach Art Deco District (in Art in America, 1981) and that I curated an exhibition called Streamline Design: How the Future Was in 1984 at the Queens Museum, located in one of the few remaining buildings of the 1939-40 N.Y. World’s Fair. Both were critiques of modernism, as then codified.
You should also know we live in a 650 square foot apartment in Manhattan and I am dreaming of a backyard studio out on Long Island. Our Florida Room, a closed-in car-port, has never been adequate for my paintings. Summers I paint outdoors like Jackson Pollock did further east.
But I am intrigued by larger issues.
SmalI is not only beautiful, it is mandatory, particularly in America where persons on average have three times as much living space as anywhere else, where five-bedroom houses sit largely empty in gated communities, but where --- like the rest of the world --- most people would rather live in cities. And populations keep growing and aging. Where are the granny houses of yesteryear? Why are today’s youth deserting suburbia? What will urban living look like in the future?
NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg recently initiated a RFP for an apartment house that must have 75%, 300 sq. ft. micro-units, temporarily suspending the building code, which was designed to be anti-tenement and anti-SRO. San Francisco is toying with units even smaller, from 290 to 150. Both projects are geared to providing sorely needed affordable housing where it is most needed --- downtown where the lights are.
Apollo Architects: Grow, 2012. 700 sq.ft. plot.
Why Japanese Houses?
Well, all of the above, plus Japanese Neo-Modern houses force reconsidering what a house is. Even looking at pictures of them changes your body. Could you live in a house with a 300 sq. ft. footprint? Would your body image shrink or would you grow to fill those atriums?
Click here for my Pinterest board of 125 new Japanese houses.
The publication of Cathelijne Nuijsink’s How To Build a Japanese House, NAi, Rotterdam (2012), is the occasion for this essay. It is available at amazon.com.
Of the 23 architects interviewed, you might know Kazuyo Seijima and Ryue Nishizawa, the architects of the New Museum on the Bowery in Manhattan. What happened? Was the New York context too taxing for them? Or was it just that small house achievements do not necessarily mean big building success. The New Museum has some of the worst exhibition spaces I have ever seen and is totally claustrophobic. The proportions are all off. It is indeed a narrow site: 71 x 112 feet. But the headroom afforded by high ceilings only works on the 4thfloor. Difficult sites are what the new Japanese architects are supposed to be good at.
On the other hand, not too far away on the Bowery, Norman Foster’s much narrower 25 X 100 foot building for the Sperone, Westwater Gallery uses headroom (27 foot-high first floor with a mezzanine above) perfectly. Is it the gigantic elevator? In itself it can be used as a moving gallery space. Or is it the impeccable attention to details?
If someone will stake me, I will gladly go to Japan and check out the alluring “pet architecture” and the photogenic neo-modernism now proliferating. I think I am fairly good at reading photographs, computer drawings, and floor plans (with some videos thrown in). But you never know. As we say in Artopia: Photography is the mother of all lies.
How many architecture surveys are given by those who have never been to Rome, or Athens or stood beside the Great Pyramids of Giza? How many professors have praised Gehry’s Bilboa Guggenheim Museum without ever looking at an exhibition there?
|Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim|
Looks Like Art, Smells Like Art.
If you line up all the Japanese Neo-Modern houses since 1995 (?) they would show rapid, nonutilitarian, stylistic changes and are therefore art. I refer to art-historian George Kubler’s definition in his The Shape of Time (1962), a touchstone of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
New Japanese houses are given titles, e.g. M House, K House but also Living Through House, Ant House, Skate-Park House, Mineral House, Sunken House, Sway House, 3-Way House with Rock Climbing, Rosie, Roadscape House, Sway House, House Towards the Cherry Tree, A Life With Large Opening, Rainy/Sunny House and Empty House, the extremely narrow house on the cover of Nuijsink’s book..
The center of Hidyuki Nagayama’s O-House or Empty House (see above) is a kind of visual pass-through, with the practical parts pushed off to the sides. The two-story drape is used for drama, privacy, and/or signaling people are at home inside, somewhere, if not always visible. In itself this enormous length of cloth may be a reference to Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House in ancient times (i.e. 1995).
Furthermore, some of the architectural firms have names that sound more like rock bands or political collectives than businesses, i.e., Three Ball Cascade, Alphaville, Bow Wow Atelier, I.R.A. Suppose Design, LEVEL Architects, or Shigeru Fuse. Uh-oh, must be art!
So I did not wonder if these small houses were art, but why Pet Architecture existed at all. This is the term used by Ryuji Nakamura (b.1972) of Atelier Bow-Wow to mean “new buildings squeezed into leftover urban spaces.”
There are other small neo-modern houses being built in Europe, the Americas, Australia. But none are as weird and challenging as those being built in Japan. Some of this strangeness effect (another sign of art) is because of local conditions:
1. The Economic Bubble
The Japanese economic bubble burst in 1991. Japan has never been the same. Japanese architects are forced to design small houses because few other commissions are available. The good side of this is that the houses are built quickly and there is more room for experiment. In fact, competition makes sure of that.
“Architects were unlucky and unable to obtain bigger projects anymore,” says Taro Igarashi, in a “monologue” in Nuijsink’s book (pg.141). “Young architects nowadays have to continue their career designing houses. that is why this generation considers interior design, installations, and renovations as real architecture projects. But the advantage of small commissions is that they can innovate a lot...”
2. Strange Plots
Japanese inheritance laws guarantee that plots keep getting divided into smaller and smaller parcels. Of 1.8 million real estate parcels in Tokyo 1.7 are occupied by single-family houses. Furthermore, if you Google Map Tokyo, you will see that there is no grid. Most lots are not rectangles but irregular triangles, polygons, or “flagpole sites.” Japanese prefab houses are not easily adapted to these sites, cannot use ubiquitous alleys as light wells, cannot borrow views, cannot stand out. And cannot irritate or engage the neighbors. Hence the market for houses designed by architects.
3. Short-Term Housing
The average lifespan of a Japanese house is 30 years. Therefore clients are not hamstrung by conformist projections of market conditions down the road. In the U.S., two-car garages, heated driveways, in-ground swimming pools, marble kitchen-counters, two bathrooms and other dubious necessities, supposedly will guarantee re-sale when your house goes underwater, you jump ship, or you want to upgrade. In Japan it is more the land that is purchased than the house. New owners will likely build another house tailored to their own needs.
And there is a cultural leaning to the ephemeral. Japanese temples are not built to last for centuries, but are periodically rebuilt, which is exactly how they become eternal.
4. Hobby Housing
Architected houses, even in Japan, are for the elite who usually have individualized demands. Sound-proof rooms for music practice; hobby-spaces. I have come across Super Car House, for an automobile collector (which features a special display space or a collectible auto in the living room; Skate Park House for a skate-board enthusiast; and Rock-Climbing House with a practice wall for its rock-climbing couple.
Instead of family-centered houses, the demand is for couple or individual-centered ones. Extra space is more for hobbies than for children.Children grow up and move away to other living units, whereas hobbies stay.
Be-Fun Design, Outdoors Indoors, 2011. (House for rock-climber.)
Japanese clients are explicit:
I want a house with a built-in, off-street garage for my orange Miata on the isosceles-triangle plot inherited from my father-in-law when his land was split four ways; an all-white house, inside of which I can practice mountain climbing, my wife can weave, and my daughter practice her cello in a sound-proof studio. A sauna. And, oh, yes, a view of the cherry tree across the street and upstairs a skylight so I can see the skyscrapers above and on a clear day Mount Fuji. In six months please.
5. The Culture of the Anti-Monumental
Monumental buildings are not within the Japanese purview. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was originally a villa, and not a large one at that. Even if you add the landscaping --- which you should --- the scale of this cultural icon is modest and decidedly unmonumental. Mansions are considered vulgar.
Although bereft of furniture in the Japanese tradition (or because of the siren-call of the photogenic), these new houses often have amazingly complex interiors. They look small from the outside, but like the TARDIS Police Box of Dr. Who they are much bigger inside. Skylights, glass walls, exposed staircases, high ceilings, mini-atriums, and windows that glean “stolen scenery” open up the modest interiors. Built-ins leave more room for getting around.
When looking at online picture albums of new Japanese house, it always comes as a shock when you see a briefcase, a shoe, or even a toy, never mind a painting. We know that clutter is not unknown in Japan. See photos of the way some Japanese really live in Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s Tokyo: A Certain Style, Kyoto Shoin, 1997, in which color photographs of apartment clutter seem to illustrate the dictim of anarchist Sakae Osugi (1885-1923) that proclaims “Beauty is to be found in disarray.”
Nevertheless, the new architects count on the Japanese anti-clutter ethos. In traditional houses, there are mats rather than chairs and sofas and tables and beds. Stuff --- and flesh is always heir to stuff – is stored away when not in use. Anti-clutter is Japanese.
Japan is on the cutting edge of urban, small-scale housing. Japan can’t afford to be anything else but extreme. Of course, housing everywhere is shrinking. Both the young and the elderly want to live in cities where there’s entertainment, education, conviviality, art, proper healthcare, and mates on parade. There is currently not enough affordable housing for young people or for the retired. New living quarters can be smaller because take-out is the norm.
Note here the experiments in San Francisco and New York towards allowing smaller living units in order to attract the necessary workers and consumers. We are entering the era of the home base or the base camp as opposed to the home. The 7.5 x 12 x 7 salaryman capsules of the Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) were ahead of their time. Ironically the Capsule Tower is now threatened and may be demolished.
Sound pollution is less and less of a problem no matter what the traffic decibel level or the infant proximity; everyone wears earphones and can choose a personalized sound environment or just go the route of sound-blocker earphones or foam earplugs.
7. The Dorm Is the Norm
The base camp has the stamp of approval. This is not at all strange to me. Our base-camp is a 650 sq. ft. tenement apartment in the East Village. The bathtub is in the kitchen. Renovated apartments of the same heritage now go for at least $2,500 a month. The East Village is now the campus that N.Y.U. prides itself in not having. Our neighbors are no longer Ukrainians or junkies, but graduate students who rotate annually or per semester. None of them entertain at home (which is a blessing); they meet their friends, if they have any, in coffee bars. None of them cook: no burnt offerings to the culinary gods. Generous stipends from mom and dad or trust funds allow them to rely on cutting edge take-out food. This means we have some of the best and priciest take-out in N.Y.C. --- Luke’s lobster rolls, Belgian French fries, porchetta sandwiches. A splendid raw food venue. And Korean, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese offerings, along with the usual Italian.
In Japan, curiously enough, Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower (1972) is now in disrepair. This Metabolist masterpiece features 7.5 x 12 x 7 cubicles – meant as pied-à-terres for commuting salarymen -- with built in kitchens, bathrooms, and furniture and one giant porthole in each. The plug-in pods were designed to be replaceable, so they can easily be updated . I hope
Skeda Yushie Architects: Shakujii-Y House, 2011. For astronomy enthusiast.
How Japanese Is It?
Because of global realities the new Japanese residential architecture is congruent with developments elsewhere. I say this with some misgivings because surely my attraction to these new houses is their strangeness. I have been to Japan four times and each time, once I had slipped beneath or fell through the global-familiar, it seemed like another planet. There are Hondas, Toyotas, buses, subways, department stores and McDonald’s. IKEA rules. But then you turn a corner and you don’t know where you are or which end is up. A symbol of this alienation-effect for me has always been the fact that street addresses are not consecutive but numbered by when each house was built.
The 23 interviews in How to Make A Japanese House are also uncanny and inspiring. I will leave you with these samples:
I believe what is important is the relationship between things. When you are interested in light, you also have to consider darkness. When you want a space to look bigger, you will have to incorporate narrow spaces. Making a certain atmosphere or environment doesn't mean you can only focus on one kind of spaces. It is important to include the environment right next to your design as well. Even when you are designing a cup, for examples, you will have to consider the atmosphere in and around the cup. The first thing I do when starting to design a new building is to consider the surroundings.
Makoto Tanijiri [Suppose Design]
One of the most shocking things in Japan today is that single elderly people die alone in their houses and are not discovered for months....
Yoshiharu Tskukamoto, speaking against “introverted housing”.
Art is something on the border of two things.
Ryuji Nakamura, quoting his teacher Koji Rokakku.
I make a distinction between a nest and a cave. For me, a nest it a functional space, assembled for a certain purpose. A cave, however, is something that’s already there: an existing space people can find a use for. The cave-like space is richer and has more possibilities for use. ....Once people live in it, the cave will gradually become a nest.
I am more interested in stories than in shapes. The stories are not narratives, just small relationships....I draw a line on a piece of paper. with the line the paper is divided into two spaces. when you look at the paper now, you can discover a perspective. But what is the meaning of this line? If I draw a chair next to the line, the line starts to look like a floor mat. If I draw the shadow lines of the chair, the line starts to look like the divider between a floor and a curved vertical wall....
In our office, an imperfect way of communication is very important. For example, my sketches and perspective of my architectural ideas are deliberately ambiguous. I pass them on to my staff and they have to detect a shape....Just by the placement of the furniture, there are many ways of reading my drawings....This is our way of making a shape out of stories and lines.......
Hideyuki Nakayama [Empty House]
And now for something completely different.
I am inspired to think that the gist of How To Build A Japanese House (my new touchstone) can be communicated by the titles given to the interviews:
SUBURBAN TOY HOUSE
LEVELS OF COMPLEXITY
UNDER THE CANOPY
ACTIVATING THE GAPS
VOID IN A VOID
CURVES FOR PRIVACY
TWO UNIFIED VIEWS
A VIOLIN INSIDE A ROCK
RULER OF THE SITE
John Perreault is on Facebook and on Tumblr: http://thehousedetective.tumblr.com/ and
John Perreault is on Facebook and on Tumblr: http://thehousedetective.tumblr.com/ and
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