Japan (dis) function

Rouge – Tokyo, Japan by Apollo architects
Oshikamo house, Toyota, Aichi, Japan by Katsutoshi Sasaki

It is usual for me to get caught in theoretic considerations around subjects commonly uninteresting to other people. Or so I think!
One of such subjects aroused as Japanese architecture began to gain highlights in the media. The majority of these projects are about housing, mainly single housing, which offers a relative common ground for the establishment of comparisons, analysis and hopefully, conclusions.
What got me curious in the first place were the little details that no one seem to notest (at least, not in the projects coments) that give me this general impression of…lets say…urban disorder.
It is hard for me to see this as a simple matter of lack of regulation and /or legislation. Japanese society is recognized for its order, attention to details and respect for one another, so it makes no sense to me to assume that what I am seeing is a reflection of lack of urban concerns for the city’s development by Government authorities, even if the country is undergoing huge economic and real estate pressure for some years now, but rather that I am not understanding the “big picture”.
Im guessing that what is apparently a dysfunctional urban development, has more complex layers that respond to particular functional needs of Japanese cities by a specific social and cultural background.
I decided to catalogue some of the housing examples published on architecture magazines paying some attention to the project descriptions but mainly the relationship of the projects with their surroundings.
It’s interesting how different cultures act upon their urban environment in such particular ways depending on their functional needs.

from left to right, top to bottom
Sasao house, Tokyo, Japan by Klein Dytham architecture
House in Saka, Hiroshima, Japan by Suppose Design office
Light Stage house, Hiroshima, Japan by Future Studio
Hi house, Osaka, Japan by Yosuke Ichii architect

All the wires…
One of the first things that strike your eye in these images is the wires: the narrow streets are packed with electric cables running on air suspended by wood columns – it’s such a visual noise! At first you might think: “why da hell don’t this people implant these structures underground like in so many developed countries?” Well that one is simple: because of the recurrent earthquakes, it’s safer to have the electrical infrastructure above ground. It might not look nice but it works better!

IWM house, Osaka, Japan by Urban Architecture Office
House in Miyayamadai, Osaka, Japan by Shogo Aratami architect
House in Kikuicho, Tokyo, Japan by Studio NOA

House in Takada Nolaba, Tokyo, Japan by Florian Busch architects
Double Helix house, Tokyo, Japan by Onishimaki + Hyakudayuki architects

My window faces…a wall…sometimes…
Another aspect that really drives me crazy is the lot occupation. For some reason that I still haven’t find the answer, it seems that, the concept of row house does not exist in Japan. For someone like me, who has to deal daily with alignment rules for housing lots (front: minimum 3m, side: minimum 3m and half the height; back: minimum half the height; height: depending on the urban chart, follow general street buildings height; distance to neighbors windows: 10m, and so on) it is striking to see how lots can be occupied almost to their entire extent, creating completely dense urban areas with no permeable ground (I wonder the affect it has in rainy season). The lots seem to defined for single-family detached houses but, placed very close to each other. At first glance it might seem like row houses, but actually the buildings stand aside 1 or 2 meters with windows facing each other. Why?

I always end up imagining  such situation in my country (Portugal): you were happily living in your single-family detached house until, one day, the lot on the right is bought, a house is built, very nice buy the way, and suddenly your bedroom window is facing a white wall! You get very upset… Few years pass and the lot on the left is bought, a house is built, very nice indeed, and suddenly your living room window is facing your neighbors bedroom window – it would definitely end up in death…

However in Japan it doesn’t and why is that? If we think about the traditional Japanese house, it develops inwards, the window as an opening to observe the outside world is a Western concept. The shōji  – wood and thin paper partition that allow the entrance of natural light into the interior spaces, dont allow views of the outside  so, unlike in European culture, the window is an appendix, something expendable, used just as a substitute of the shōji, to bring natural light into the interior space, but with no need for views.

A quick glimpse into these projects show how windows are always placed facing interior courtyards, or in strategic places in facades to allow the entrance of light but not visual relationship between interior/exterior. And then there are the projects that are completely open to the street, without any king of privacy protection…a different trend?

However I must admit the flaw in my thought: if you build a house 1 meter away from your window, 6m high, there won’t be a lot of light coming in will there? And why will you design a house with side windows if you already now that eventually, it will be occupied by a wall? And do you place those windows strategically so that your neighbor cannot see you and vice-versa?
I haven’t really quite understood this part…

House in Aoto, Katsushika, Tokyo, Japan by High Land Deign
Urban Hut, Downtown Tokyo, Japan by Takehiko Nez architects
House in Taishido, Tokyo, Japan by Key Operation Inc.

Vista, Nishidai Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, Japan by Appolo architects&associates
FKI house, Tokyo, Japan by Japanese Urban architecture office
Small house in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan by Junpei Nouraku

No public sidewalks, each owner is king of his street front pavement…
A friend just arrived from Tokyo, was telling me how Japanese are masters of sensitivity, the way pavements are design allow you to perfectly distinguish different paths and areas, without the need for fences or height differences. I immediate recalled the images I had been collecting and how the housing areas never seem to have sidewalks. There is only the street and the lot. Each lot is, obviously, responsibility of each owner, being the end result a sequence of walled lot, not walled, concrete pavement, sand, stones, cement, and so on, because despite the fact that I can’t exactly distinguish the rules of alignments, there seems to be a minimum distance required between street and construction, but that distance is the owner property and so, paved according to his wish. I must say I don’t really grasp in what way this is a good thing, since all I can see is a motley of patterns but, once again I haven’t found a reasonable explanation yet. Sufficient to say, it doesn’t look nice at sight, in terms of urban quality I mean, but I’m still looking for an explanation!

Gap house, Tokyo, Japan by Tetsushi Tominaga architect&associates
Box house 140, Kunitachi, Japan by Kazuiko Namba+Kai Workshop
Keyhole house, Kyoto, Japan by Eastern Design office

Box house 134, Tokyo, Japan by Kanzuhiko Namba+Kai Workshop
Storage house, Kanagawa, Tokyo, Japan by Ryuji Fujimura architects

Contemporary architecture is all about self expression, here in Japan it is no different. Some houses aim to have the presence of medieval cathedrals in 13th Century, and they truly are – in a continuous row of blend buildings sometimes you find “The House”, the one that everyone recognizes for it’s peculiar shape and foreign relationship to its surroundings. The corner lots are better for that effect, but Japanese architects are not shy, they can do a house standout when and where they want to, independent of constraints. But these ones are just following the International trend. What is interesting about that is: while these examples are so appreciated in architecture magazines worldwide, as great examples of contemporary architecture, so many times completely disconnected from their surroundings and thus, from the city they are helping to shape, they also correspond to an evolution and adaptation of traditional housing habits that are completely foreign to the same people who like them. Meaning they are appreciated for the city they are not trying to be a part of and for the layout that most dont truly comprehend. Because even if we live in a global world, we certainly dont live in a global culture!

I wonder if the fact that most of these houses develops towards inside, justifies, in a way, this disconnection from the city. The house is my world, an independent entity, from the street, the block, the city – it is my place on earth, my own place…

ABE house, Tokyo, Japan by Urban Architecture office
Cabin-et house, Hirai, Japan by Tomohino Tanaka architect atelier

House in Matsubara, Tokyo, Japan by Keinichi Otani architects
Shelton’s house, Tokyo, Japan by Itentionallies

So what seems to be dysfunctional to me, European, might be absolutely functional in Japanese society and this is what makes the world such a wonderfully place. If we could at least, learn from each other…