Exhibition : Legendary Houses in Postwar Japan
Hachioji Yume Art Museum
Postwar Housing Situation in Japan
The “Legendary Houses of Postwar Japan”, an exhibition supervised by me, Taro Igarashi, is traveling through museums in Saitama, Hiroshima, Matsumoto and Hachioji from 2014 to 2015. Why are these postwar houses so important? Many Japanese architects who are known internationally started their career designing houses during the postwar years. In fact the rapid construction pace of personal houses was like nothing experienced prior. Numerous masterpieces were produced in Japan during that time, which was quite unusual as most architects in other nations were focusing on singular elaborate projects. While in Japan the demand was so great that a fledging architect would improve his skill by designing as many actual houses as possible and then progress onto big projects such as public facilities. Since most of Japan’s cities were burnt down from bombing during the Second World War, the reconstruction focused heavily on urban and suburban development. The government implemented an “own your home” policy to revitalize the economy. In a society where “all Japanese are middle class”, everyone was encouraged to purchase their own house.
Land in Japan is expensive. That is why when people mince down the land and sell it to pay the inheritance tax, they break down the shed. While the average life span of Japanese people is the world’s longest, the life span of a house of is the shortest among the advanced countries. Houses are rebuilt in a mere cycle of only 30 years, and in half a century, almost the entire town will change. I call this the “invisible earthquake”. Even if there is no actual earthquake, there is always a fierce scrap and build going on somewhere. Most houses are built by housing manufacturers or by building contractor’s offices, but still there are plenty of job opportunities for an architect. It’s not only the wealthy who ask architects to design houses. It’s rather when the budget is small, or the land is an irregular shape, or there are bad conditions, and the standard design of a housing manufacturers cannot fit, that the job comes around to a young architect, like picking up the left over crop after harvest. Even if the house or land is a “rabbit hutch” (small houses are called so in Japan), or an “eel bed” (narrow houses), which is so small that is unimaginable from a western perspective, the architect would positively interpret these marginal conditions and create a gem of a space.
Avant-garde Small Houses
In the 1950s architects pursued minimal functionalism of space by coming up with efficient plans such as the “Rittai Saishogen Jutaku (3D spatial and minimum houses)” by Kiyoshi Ikebe (1920-1979) or the “Minimum House” by Masuzawa Makoto (1925-1990). “My House” (1954), residence of Kiyoshi Seike (1918-2005), is a one-story house with only one room. There are no doors inside, and the entire space is connected. The large glass opening, the movable tatami that can also be used outside, and the usage of the same paving stones on the outside as well as on the inside create a strong connection between the interior and the garden making the house seem larger. The flexible and open house is an excellent fusion of modernism and traditional Japanese style. On the other hand, the Japan Housing Corporation was established in 1955 in order to solve housing shortages in Japan. It is an internationally rare organization that produced over 1.5 million houses, but it was important because of its experimental architectural planning and produced a 2DK (two rooms and a combination of dining-kitchen) plan for housing. Also, in the 1970s, housing manufacturers developed prefab housing and started to provide products often ridiculed as the “short cake housing” sold through advertisements.
After the war, architects called “housing artists” started to appear. And in the 1960s, houses that “fight” against the city emerged. The “Tower House” (1967), residence of Takamitsu Azuma (1933- ), is built within a triangle-shaped land with only 20 square meters’ space. It’s a house made of 6 layers of longitudinally-arranged with rooms without doors. The ultimate concrete tower with no option for planning presented a method and will to venture living within the center of the city, instead of living in the suburbs and having a long commute. Besides the usual architectural media, the Tower House was also extensively covered by a variety of other NESTED SQUARESmedia outlets.The 1/5th size model of this house is exhibited at the “Avant-Garde Art of Japan: 1910-70” exhibition held at the Pompidou Centre (1986). The residence of Kiyonori Kikutake (1928-2011), “Sky House” (1958), is also a house that clearly expresses his unique architectural thoughts by creating an inner space with intense privacy for the couple while shutting out the bustle of the city. In post-war Japan, appealing his avant-garde residence to the public was a great opportunity for a young architect to make his debut.
The Bandit Generation
Tadao Ando(1941- ), Toyo Ito(1941- ), Kikoo Mozuna(1941-2001), Osamu Ishiyama(1944-), Takefumi Aida(1937- ), Itsuko Hasegawa(1941- ), Kazuhiro Ishii(1944-2015), Kijo Rokkaku(1941- ) and Kzunari Sakamoto(1943- ) who were born in the early 1940s were architects called the “bandit generation” by Fumihiko Maki (1928- ). They were like the warriors of the “Seven Samurai”, a film by Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), who did not have masters. The recession in the 1970s due to the oil shock did not allow them chances to engage in big projects, but instead they worked on houses with strong characteristics. Mozuna’s mother’s house, the “Hanjuki (Anti-Dwelling Box)” (1972) by Mozuna, is made of triple nested qubes. It’s a design of abstract philosophy, beyond just a practical house. What is also unique is that he gave a symbolic meaning including the cosmic view. Ishiyama focused on the issues of building materials and its distribution and criticized the situation of houses being purchased as a product. The structural type of “Gen-An” (1975), a weekend house, redefined the idea of housing by using a corrugated pipe used for engineering work to surround the house. It also uses many decors, and it is a house that should be called the teahouse of architecture which consists of industrial materials.
Masterpieces of the 1950s to the 70s are introduced in the “Legendary Houses in Postwar Japan” exhibition. In the end, I would like to introduce Toyo Ito’s White-U in Nakano-Honmachi, Tokyo and Tadao Ando’s Row House in Sumiyoshi, Osaka which were both built in 1976. The former is a U-shaped concrete tube that is closed to the outside, but in the inside, white curved walls connect the symbolic spaces. The latter is an exposed concrete house that replaced the middle unit of three row houses. There are no windows in the facade. Aside from the entrance there is just a big plain wall. The entire site has been divided longitudinally in three, and a bridge is placed over the courtyard. It was meant to create a rich inner space while shutting out the outer world. While having a modernism-taste in its form, it reduced the spatial elements to the utmost limit, and it may be unexplainable from a functionalist’s point of view that you need an umbrella to go to the rest room on a rainy day. The concrete box has approximately 3.6 meter frontage with approximately 14.4 meter length and has become one of the world’s most famous small site house. Both designers are now an architects with projects all over the world. Ando designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Punta della Dogana in Venice. Ito designed the National Taichung Theater (2014). When they made their debut in the 1970s, they deliberately worked on small houses and it paid off. Postwar housing has played an important role in boosting Japanese architects to the international stage.