A fascinating new book chronicles unorthodox Japanese residential architecture over the past almost 80 years.
When World War II ended, Japan found itself not just battered and broke, but also in the midst of a severe housing shortage. An estimated 2.1 million homes had been destroyed during the war, and with soldiers and returnees from abroad coming back to start families, the country fell about 4.2 million housing units short of where it needed to be. The government quickly began churning out loans to encourage people to build residences, but as Japanese family units shifted from a traditional structure of multiple generations under one roof to a more nuclear unit, builders could barely keep up. Money was tight in the country in general, and materials were scarce, even for those who managed to get a loan.
But gradually, with the help of local architects, designers, builders, and a series of economic windfalls, the country got through it, crafting millions of new homes that asked not only "how should people live?" but also "what kind of housing is needed if we want to help people get there?" The Japanese House Since 1945, a new book by Tokyo-based American architect Naomi Pollock (with a foreword by Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando), takes a look at what’s happened in the nation’s housing market in the nearly 80 years since WWII, capturing beautiful images of some of the country’s most innovative homes, as well as architectural drawings, resident interviews, and descriptions of the circumstances surrounding their construction.
After the war, Pollock writes, Japanese homes could look pretty much however the owner wanted, as long as they weren’t in a few existing historic districts. Most homes in Japan don’t share party walls for fear of fire. And because of the country’s high inheritance taxes, many houses actually aren’t passed down through families, but rather sold and torn down when someone passes, giving each a sort of impermanence that’s resulted in the average Japanese home only having a 20- to 30-year lifespan. While that’s a little disappointing in terms of historic preservation and use of materials, it does mean that, after a teardown, buyers are able to customize their new homes in accord with their exact needs and specifications.
Going through each postwar decade with an eye toward trends and the exceptional, Pollock highlights a number of Japan’s most interesting (and often long gone) homes. While many are small—the average city home, she explains, is only about 1,080 square feet, though most residents view that form of compact living as a fair trade-off for the convenience of living in the city—many of the urban homes in the book’s collection make interesting use of light, outdoor space, and materials, as well as form and vertical space.
In 1948, for example, Kiyoshi Ikebe’s House No. 1 bucked the construction industry’s move toward prefabricated homes in favor of a more forward-thinking and reimagined design. Though it was just four rooms spread across two floors under a single, slanting roof, House No. 1 had what Pollock calls "fluid but functional zones" that "made the most of the home’s limited area while facilitating easy communication and a relaxed, family-oriented atmosphere." Inspired by their European peers, Japanese architects like Ikebe aimed to produce an ideal "minimum house," one that would fill all the needs of its residents while also adhering to the idea that there really is no need—or place—for anything more. Everything in a minimum house had a function and a purpose, and everything served to meet a need.
In the ’50s, architects were able to draw from an expanding pool of building materials, thanks in part to Japan’s Korean War procurement contracts from the United States, which led to a boost in the country’s economy and overall steel production. Though the country was still about three million housing units short of where it needed to be by 1955, the units that were out there were increasingly privately owned, a switch from the prevailing trend before the war, when about 70 percent of properties on the market were rentals.
It was around then when Kenzō Tange built his family home in Tokyo’s Seijo area. (Tange, who’d already earned a commission to design the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, would go on to become one of Japan’s most significant 20th-century architects.) Situated above the ground on pilotis, the Tange House had basically one big room with tatami mat flooring and very little privacy. The sleeping area was at one end of the house while Tange’s study was at the other. There were shoji sliding panels between some of the interior spaces, and most of the home’s vantage points and windows were arranged so that they’d look best from either a zabuton floor cushion or a very low-scale chair, a nod to traditional Japanese furnishings.
As Tange’s daughter Michiko Uchida describes in the book, those vantage points and screens meant that she could sit in the bathtub at night while watching TV in the living room or carrying on a conversation with her father while he ate a late dinner. It might sound like a lot, but this type of open home comes up again and again in Pollock’s book, with a number of residents saying that it helps create family harmony, as well as a sense of fluidity within the residence.
Another of the book’s coolest structures, Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1958 Sky House, was built with a different kind of family living in mind. Again elevated by large concrete columns, the Sky House was designed to grow and shrink with the needs of the family in mind. When a new child was born, say, the family would simply add on a sort of hanging box room Kikutake called a "movenette," which was suspended from the porch and could (in theory) be moved around the home’s perimeter if the residents so desired. The galley kitchen and bathroom were also in those boxes, and the whole thing worked out so well that the home not only supported a family of five with a dog and a whole mess of playground equipment, but also Kikutake’s studio, which was set under the home’s massive columns.
In the ’60s, Japanese architects really started to push boundaries even further, with Kazuo Shinohara pulling from traditional design to craft his beautifully intricate Umbrella House in 1961 before shifting to something a little simpler for his House in White in 1966, which Pollock says really proves his assertion that "a house is a work of art." With its pure white interior, milky white shoji screens, and single central cedar column, the home is somehow both stark and luscious, austere and comforting. The same is also true for Takamitsu Azuma’s Tower House in Tokyo, which rose six levels into the sky while also having just 700 square feet of floor area. With only one room per floor, the triangular home was a bit of a concrete anomaly, with no interior doors and a sort of familial fluidity throughout.
Another big theme in both Pollock’s book and Japanese architecture is the merging of nature and the home. Many, many of the houses Pollock features are clearly constructed with this in mind, with sweeping glass vistas, sliding doors that make for ideal indoor/outdoor living, and central courtyards that make even the most urban space into a bit of a residential oasis. This harmony between the realms is probably best exemplified, though, in Riken Yamamoto’s Yamakawa Villa, built in the Nagano Prefecture in 1977. A home that’s entirely without walls, the pavilion-like structure features six white stucco boxes set under a large open roof. The kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, and more are inside those boxes, but otherwise, the home is wide open, meaning that animals like wild boar are welcome to just strut on through or find refuge during the winter.
See the full story on Dwell.com: The Evolution of Japan’s Modern Houses Tells the Story of Its Postwar Comeback