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On Human Agency & Forms of Living

In this edited extract from The Japanese House curator Florence Ostende’s essay, ‘Architecture and Life: Human Agency and Forms of Living in the Japanese House’, we learn how the relationship between resident and architect became closer, responding to the need for individuality in the overcrowded cities.

A house and its master are like the dew that gathers on the morning glory.
Which will be the first to pass?
Kamo-no-Chomei, Hojoki, 12121

The representation of the house in art, literature, and cinema is mostly used as a stage for human drama, the composition of the space becoming a mere backdrop to the characters’ lives. By contrast, in architecture as a discipline, the house is often presented devoid of human presence. In models, plans, and elevations, the human figure is generally absent, or at best a pretext to give a sense of scale. The considerable number of publications on the history of the Japanese house are no exception.

The exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 investigates the role of the single family house as the foremost site for architectural experimentation and debate from the end of World War II to the present. Its subtitle ‘Architecture and Life’ reflects our emphasis on innovative solutions to changing lifestyles in the light of important shifts occurring in the Japanese economy, urban landscape, and family structure. […]

‘I believe that it will further become possible for the homes we create to offer a total view of what it is to be human’Kazuo Shinohara

The rapid growth of Japan in the post-war era was characterised by the transformation of the economic and political structure of the country. As a result of the housing shortage after the war, collective housing rapidly developed in the suburbs of sprawling cities. In contrast, the individual house embodied the last surviving dream of ownership of the land – a conquest of the individual over the government and companies. In his text-manifesto ‘A House is a Work of Art’ (1962), architect Kazuo Shinohara distances himself from the mega-structures of urban planning produced by the Metabolists and presents the house as a weapon against the pragmatism of mainstream industry. Against the increasing construction of functionalist buildings, Shinohara pioneered a vision of residential design as a form of art, a ‘commentary’ on the over-mechanization of society. Shinohara posits the home as being in opposition to the factory. As he explained: ‘I believe that it will further become possible for the homes we create to offer a total view of what it is to be human’. […]

The radical transformation of urban spaces in the late 1960s was stimulated by the unprecedented economic boom galvanised by the 1964 Summer Olympics and Expo ’70 in Osaka. Under the reign of information terminals and a corporate mechanical world, in 1971 Toyo Ito created URBOT-001, his very first house. A combination of vernacular and industrial architecture, the walls were clad with aluminium sheets and the interiors made of timber. Aluminium House advocated incoherence and uselessness rather than rationality and functionalism. Ito considered the house the child of a persona he called Urban Robot. In his essay ‘The Logic of Uselessness (1971), he anthropomorphises his architecture as the birth of a malformed bastard, a useless member of society. In this way, the house personifies for Ito the traditional emotions that run counter to the illusionary fate of the alienated businessman.

In his writing on White U (1976), a house built for Ito’s sister and her two daughters following the tragic loss of her husband, the architect describes how its shape was informed by the corporeality and the warmth of human breath. With no windows facing the street, the interiority of the house results from the contrast between the U-shape of the house, based on the fluid flow of air, light, and bodies, and the static courtyard of black soil. Looking for ‘unanticipated outcomes’, Ito saw the house as a musical score, a notation of ‘morphemes’ to compose changing shapes of light: ‘Rather than transmitting the gloomy history of family life, what I want from a white wall is no more than a notation of the shapes of people casually leaping about.’ Photographs by philosopher and critic Koji Taki emphasise the white curved walls on which overlapping shadows of the young daughters play under spotlights resting on the floor.

The shadows do not convey an impression of theatrical immateriality but rather the opposite, reinforcing the corporeal materiality of the inhabitants. A founding member of influential photography group Provoke, Taki saw photography as an expression of materiality rather than subjectivity. The only way to access the real existence is to let the ‘body penetrate the elusive membrane of the phenomenal world’. As a hybrid of human and machine, the camera shows objects outside of the consciousness of the subject. Photography represents a naked world beyond the self: ‘The world is woven out of the totality of anti-human structure and the raw concreteness of individuals’. […]

In the late 1990s, the formation of Atelier Bow-Wow led to the emergence of their theory on behaviour, reflecting their interest in the making of individual houses in the overcrowded city of Tokyo. The twenty-six-year life expectancy of a house in Japan meant that the dwelling had to adapt to accumulated layers of gaps and leftovers: ‘The regeneration of houses would revolve not around a core, but a void – the gap space between buildings – and would be propelled by the initiatives of individual families, rather than the accumulation of central capital.

The building must be conceived as more than the achievement of the mind of a human being

Embracing sociology, anthropology, and biology, Atelier Bow-Wow’s interest in the relationships between nature, human life, and the built environment nurtured a method of study they call ‘behaviorology’. This view, based on the observation of living things, ecology, and animal anatomy, is expressed by their signature style ‘anatomy drawings’ in which section perspectives deliver an empiric approach to materials and living patterns. The building must be conceived as more than the achievement of the mind of a human being, as inherited from the modernist scope: ‘the realm of social relationships is expanded to include nature and the whole of the cosmos, resulting in a liberation of the human imagination’. In their writings, buildings are compared to intelligent breathing creatures in search of happiness, who capture various fluxes, from the micro-phenomena of natural elements to the psychological states of human beings. The idea of orchestrating ‘ecological relationships’ and various rhythms within the house resulted in a consciousness of the temporality of architecture.

Buildings are compared to intelligent breathing creatures in search of happiness

‘The coordination of these different rhythms can result in various encounters: the past with the future, and the social with the natural, building up a spatial and temporal framework for positioning ourselves in the here and now. Such an overlay resembles the temporal arts, such as theatre and music, and relativizes compositional concepts from the twentieth century, influenced largely by the visual arts of painting and sculpture.’ The temporality of the compositional framework expands the concept of architecture to external circumstances and forces such as chaos (Sou Fujimoto), weather (Junya Ishigami and Ikimono Architects), or parallel time (Hideyuki Nakayama). Advocating that non-professionals should build their own house, Osamu Ishiyama’s working method based on continuity and discontinuity along with his belief in improvisation, craftsmanship, and happy architecture influenced the birth of Keisuke Oka’s Arimaston Building, which was begun in 2005.

‘I want to discover things as I am building. By doing so, the building will become more and more alive.’ Keisuke Oka

Digging the ground for a year and a half, Oka kept thinking about improvisation and his previous life as a Butoh dancer. Still under construction, the house looks like the scaffolding in a building site, with suspended wires, bags of sand, and no real partitions. As he explains, ‘I want to discover things as I am building. By doing so, the building will become more and more alive.’


Read the full essay in The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 catalogue, now available in the Barbican Shop. Alongside this essay, the fully-illustrated book includes essays by Hiroyasu Fujioka, Pippo Ciorra and Kenjiro Hosaka, as well as thematic introductions and detailed entries on over 80 houses.

Published by Marsilio Editori in association with Barbican Art Gallery, London and MAXXI, National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, Rome

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 is open from 23 March 2017.

Photos: Miles Willis, Getty Images.