House NA, by Sou Fujimoto (2011)

House NA, by Sou Fujimoto

“The quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life” #2

This is the second part of a two-parter on two Tokyo houses: see the previous post on Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House for more context and references. The subtitle of these pieces, “The quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life”, is a Koh Kitayama line, repeated below.)

I recently took advantage of jetlag to do a very early morning visit to Sou Fujimoto’s House NA, completed in 2011. Up with the first wave of commuters, actually before rush hour, I took a few subway lines from Ginza, for perhaps 45 minutes, out to the ‘typical’ Tokyo suburb of Koenji.

Queuing technique on Tokyo subway
Koenji, from the station

Koenji is typical, but also full of interest, comprising the tangles — sometimes grids, sometimes not — of small streets typical of Japanese cities. I could spend all day in these streets, essentially residential yet dotted with shops, bars, restaurants and workplaces in an entirely organic fashion (as Ryue Nishizawa notes, if Tokyo has a masterplan, it’s difficult to see it. And it’s all the better for it.) The streets possess a perfect scale and density for pedestrians and bikes, yet are just large enough to let small vehicles, like taxis or service vehicles, through. They’re are innately future-proofed in this sense, unlike most British, Australian, American and indeed many European streets.

Koenji backstreets

The incredible heterogeneity of housing is also a key feature of these typical Tokyo streets, with every single house different to the next. I see the same patterns in the much-older, more preserved Kyoto, too. It’s a wonderfully diverse patterning, and it’s immediately obvious how homogenous and limited the typical ‘Anglo’ housing offer is, in contrast. Ironically, in societies where individual ‘market choice’ is apparently valued above all, and with a well-developed sense of individualism, our housing is not diverse at all; the north London I live in is essentially serried ranks of thousands of terraced or semi-detached houses, as if carpet-bombed from the sky by the late-Victorians. Here in Japan, a place that many in the West see as a highly conformist society, every single house is gloriously different.

In Tokyo Metabolizing (2010), Atelier Bow-Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto describes how this multi-layered street environment has come about, with a uniquely Japanese take on the imported US home ownership model, multiplied by rapid construction techniques, planning guidelines, generational cultural change, a climate that enables spatial diversity, and recently, the creation of what Tsukamoto calls “urban villages”. Whilst present, perhaps latent, for years, these become more clearly ascribed into the city, perhaps inadvertently, after the 1995 Development Plan for Disaster Prevention led to rings of deliberate fire-breaks enabled by fire-resistant 10-storey buildings lining major commercial thoroughfares. These in turn preserved and intensified the contained areas behind the urban firewall, defined by what Tskuamoto describes “a quiet expanse of densely-packed low-rise houses. These areas are teeming with greenery, and, due to the predominance of narrow, winding alleyways, there is no through traffic.” Tokyo has an undulating form within its sprawling megacity, with hundreds of these swells of lively density around train stations and lines of 10-storey buildings—somewhere between a less inflated kind of ‘transit-oriented development’ and a firebreak urbanism—quickly dropping down to these quiet, human-scale and green backstreets in-between.

There are more or less charming versions of this all over Tokyo, with more or less greenery, and differing ratios of alleys and roads, but in this “city of houses”, it’s an immediately clear pattern, apparently random and somewhat chaotic — although gloriously so, to these eyes — but Tsukamoto indicates exactly how these various models fit into three generations of Tokyo suburban development. These start in the 1920s, and so there are roughly three generation of family, or person, since, and with the lifespan of a typical house also set to 26 years, this means three generations of housing in turn, with three entirely different types. And now a fourth generation, and a chance to take stock of what a ‘fourth-generation house’ might do.

For Tsukamoto sees a clear issue with the trajectory of urban development over the previous three generations, ultimately “a trend towards intolerance in residential space”, with patterns familiar across the ‘West’: increasingly fragmented social structures leading to more private spaces than communal spaces, enclosed spaces due to air conditioning, building to the edge of the lot to maximise interior space rather than exterior space, which also leads to gaps between houses becoming so small as to be useless.

Atelier Bow-Wow have codified three conditions that ‘fourth-generation houses’ could exemplify, in order for “Tokyo to excel as a city.” These are:

  1. bringing people from outside the family back into the house;
  2. increasing the opportunities to dwell outside the house;
  3. redefining the gaps.

Tsukamoto sees a confluence of forces in favour of these conditions, and a chance for the fourth-generation house to be “liberated from this program of individuation and granulation. This makes it even more likely that we may be able to redirect the focus of residential architecture towards community and collectivity.”

In my essays on The social and the democratic, in the social democratic European city and the Battle for the Infrastructure of Everyday Life, I also describe this opportunity, though from broader urban or technological angles rather than residential architecture. Yet Atelier Bow-Wow’s buildings are powerful examples of this shift to community and collectivity, within the bounds of Tokyo’s small plots, just as Sou Fujimoto’s House NA and Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House are. Taken together, these houses by all three practices, as well as Koh Kitayama’s, are all essays on the possibility of the ‘Tokyo fourth-generation house’, and the kind of profoundly humane urban development that they could entail.

Koenji

Fujimoto’s House NA sits quietly amidst all this, on a street as typical as any other around here. As with the aforementioned work, it is a prime example of a ‘fourth-generation house’.

As with Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, it discreetly melts into its immediate urban landscape, continuing the line of other humble buildings in the street. It has the same height, setback and massing, essentially, as everything around it.

Approaching House NA
Approaching from the other side

Yet House NA soon reveals a completely different organisation of space within that volume. In fact, compared to Moriyama’s opaque white boxes, House NA’s stacked glass cubes disappear in the sunlight, enabling the small trees that sit in planters to float up into the street. Twenty different levels, almost perches, are assembled into something that would usually be three blunt storeys.

House NA, Sou Fujimoto (2011)

Niklas Maak, who clearly found himself in a similar state of reverie when standing in front of it, wrote:

The house stands on the street like an idea that is about to materialise — and in the process eliminate the conventional notion of a house.

Privacy is afforded by curtains, rather than curtain walls. As Kitayama writes in Tokyo Metabolizing, which I expand upon in the entry on Moriyama House, “the concept of ‘public’ seems to be non-existent in Tokyo.” This does not mean everything is visible; rather, much isn’t. Nor does it mean that nothing is private; in fact, much is. It’s just that this sense of visibility is not tied to this sense of privacy; the latter is articulated through “codes of behaviour” and “presence” rather than walls and hedges, as Kitayama explains. (Again, do read Maak’s Living Complex for a fascinating unpicking of privacy as regards domestic architecture.)

Beyond its conceptual function in the new Tokyo, House NA is also just a remarkably beautiful object, no matter how crass that might sound. The glass in front of the rippling white curtains, contained by the white frames and panels, the glowing early morning sunlight flowing through it all.

Those small trees feel like simple offerings to the street, rather than private possessions trapped behind privet hedges or white picket fences, just as most suburban Kyoto or Tokyo streets are lined with miniature gardens at the scale of centimetres, every spare space planted or propped with bikes or small possessions.

Even the overhead cables that, for some, ‘litter’ Japanese cities work here. Personally, I like these tangles of power lines and broadband connections strewn across the street, just as I appreciate the cats cradle of tram cables above Melbourne intersections. They lend the sensation of a protective canopy over the city’s streets, suturing the buildings, and all their possessions, together, yet still the pale blue sky expands beyond.

The blue Citröen 2CV now seems to be a permanent part of the architecture, as if representing the principle of assemblage so core to Japanese aesthetics, glimpsed everywhere in the everyday. It is a lovely little curvy counterpoint to the materials and right angles that envelop it. It also provides the opportunity for a little wabi-sabi-like texturing, as part of the assemblage, as the house’s structure is apparently in very good condition, despite being 13 years old.

Wabi-sabi may seem an odd reference, standing in the shade of this apparently pure white, clean-lined, industrial metal-framed skeletal structure, and regarding much of Fujimoto’s other work. Yet re-reading Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosphers upon returning to London, craving a mental return to the East at least, I note Koren’s opening lines:

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.

House NA is all of these things, with a closer view of the metalwork and glass revealing its own contemporary patina, as well as an impermanent and incomplete assemblage of living, constantly in flux. It is certainly, in its own utterly beguiling way, modest, humble and unconventional too.

I mention that the house is in decent condition, ‘despite being 13 years old’, as ‘Tokyo years’ for housing may be akin to ‘dog years’ for our canine friends. 13 years old is ‘middle-aged’, given that the typical life expectancy of a Tokyo building is 26 years.

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto writes in Tokyo Metabolizing about this pacy ‘clock speed’ of architecture in Japan, and sketches out the ability to develop a city through housing prototypes like NA and Moriyama, and through Tsukamoto’s own work with Atelier Bow-Wow:

The first suburbs were created in the 1920s, so the ones we’re working on now represent the fourth generation. Which means that we should be building them based on what we’ve learned from the previous three generations. In England, the lifespan of a house is 100 years. In Tokyo terms, that would be equivalent to the cycle of infrastructure engineering. Which means that in England, the architecture and the infrastructure don’t change within a person’s lifetime, and therefore, the city doesn’t change either.

However, as Ryue Nishizawa notes of Asian cities generally, “People’s lives change, and values do too, and because they change, the idea that a city that supports them should also change rapidly is indicated by its form.”

There’s a 13th century Japanese poem:

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, 1212

In fact, around 800 years later, the clock speeds of house and master have ended up being synchronised; the dew passes together.

Thus, in the contemporary suburban Tokyo home, Fujimoto’s House NA is able to explore and articulate the changing contemporary notions of individuality, publicness, privacy, collective space, function and amenity, rather than the static ‘locking in’ of 1890s, 1920s, 1930s or 1950s social mores we see articulated in the typical English suburban home. (See also the post on Moriyama House for a brief note on how this could be sustainable.)

House NA is both a real house, and a prototype. By subtly fitting into its context, it achieves the former. By progressively exploring the differences with its context, it achieves the latter. It is both a wondrous, quiet, small thing, and profoundly inspiring as serious research.

Of course House NA, Moriyama House, and the various schemes by Atelier Bow-Wow and Kitayama’s WORKSHOP are small beans compared to the macho mega-developments clogging up London, New York, Sydney, Shanghai et al. Yet it’s difficult to argue that what are essentially low-density houses ‘don’t scale’ when the context is Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. In its sheer size, with a polynodal geography of multiple centres across a continuous urban landscape evolving across Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Yokohama, all linked by high quality mass transit, we see we don’t have to build big to become big. Small grains will do just fine, if linked well via connective services that enable a networked, distributed and ultimately decentralised city. In this, it is a more interesting sketch of the future than any ‘Western’ large city, and many Asian ones.

Heading back to Koenji

Koh Kitayama says, in his introduction to Tokyo Metabolizing, “Tokyo has the potential to create change in the city through the quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life.” He also poses a question, though: “Whether Tokyo will take the lead in determining a new vision for the city is unclear.” In effect, Kitayama, and these houses, are laying down the gauntlet to the rest of the city; follow their lead, working with the unique grain of Tokyo and Japanese culture, or continue instead down a cul-de-sac of individualised or overscaled urban development. Niklas Maak, regarding these two houses in particular, asked, “What if [their] design for the private sphere were to be translated into the dimensions of a city, if one built a city out of such houses?” Tokyo is in effect just this: a city built out of these houses. Yet beyond Tokyo, these ‘fourth-generation’ prototypes contain profoundly interesting and exciting design patterns for the city in general.

For just as the various ledges, perches, boxes and volumes of House NA and Moriyama House feel like “quiet accumulations” in themselves, both houses are also part of the quiet accumulation of the city. They describe a form of metabolising the city quite different to that of their Metabolist forebears, and one that could well be at the forefront of a changing city, given their innately complex yet instinctively approachable balancing act of individual, shared and collective.

If we can better understand how aspects of Japanese culture enable and exploit these urban conditions, and their associated built articulation in humane streets, buildings and neighbourhoods, we might learn how to better metabolise cities elsewhere too.