10_WHITE_U

Can Architecture Heal Loss?

Yes, apparently, if you believe the narrative that has sprung up around Toyo Ito’s third published work, White U (1976). 

Microsoft PowerPoint - U-House Presentation.ppt

The following text dates from February 2004 and was uploaded to the blog Stories of Houses in June 2005.

The U-House was built in 1976 in the centre of Tokyo. It was designed by the architect Toyo Ito for his older sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer. In 1997 the house was demolished before Toyo Ito’s eyes. How does one explain such an ending?

The Mourners’ wishes
The client and her family had lived in one of the city’s high-rise apartment. Following her husband’s death, the widow requested that the architect build a house for her and her small daughters where they could enjoy the close contact with the soil and plants that their former home had lacked. She also suggested that the house be L-shaped to enable all members of the family to have visual contact with one another. By coincidence, the site next to the architect’s house was for sale – the same site on which the widow had lived before she was married. It was as if she wanted to grasp hold of her memories in order to help reunite her family during such a difficult time.
In the widow’s conversations with the architect, the emphasis on organising functional spaces gradually disappeared and instead turned more towards the symbolic value of the space. Thus the house changed its initial L-shape to become a concrete construction with a U-shape, a form that would create greater light effects and a stronger relationship between the inhabitants.

The life of the house
The U-House consisted of two long corridors, one of which ended at the girls’ rooms, the other of which led through the kitchen and bathroom and onto the mother’s bedroom. Both of the corridors were dark and led into the light – a source originating from the arc of the U. This multi-use space used for playing, dining and meditating, had its walls and ceiling painted white and floor covered with a carpet, also white. In this space the light was diffused and gave a soft texture, but a cut in the ceiling directed the daylight in a straight diagonal line. The powerful light effects were reinforced by the pure whiteness of the interior, which seemed flat and without any three-dimensionality. It was like a screen where the images and floating shadows of the inhabitants were projected; a space to project the human being beyond his or her body.

4914096072cbcTwenty-one years after the completion of the house, the family was ready to re-establish its links with the outside world. The first one to move away was the older daughter. She had never thought of whether or not it was comfortable to live in the house, although she refers to the house as a coffin. This was perhaps best reflected by the behaviour of her many pets, all of whom had totally refused to be alone in the enclosed courtyard. The mother later moved to a smaller flat, but being a musicologist she had enjoyed the music echoing on the bare walls in the old house. The youngest daughter was the last to move out. She had developed certain sensitivity for aesthetics in this house that was reflected in her appreciation of Kandinsky and later, her eventual position as a museum director.
The last thing we know about the story of the house is from a powerful image in a photograph that illustrates its demolition. Instead of interpreting it as a destruction of a home, it is a sign of another stage through which the family progresses. The demolition is a symbol of renewal of life and consequently, we can argue that this was a house for mourners.

On 20 July 2010 it was edited and reappeared on the site Guide for Japanese Architecture as follows. The original text is in black. New text is in  blue. Deletions are shown as red strikethrough.

The U-House was built in 1976 in the centre of Tokyo. It was designed by the architect Toyo Ito for his older sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer. In 1997 the house was demolished before Toyo Ito’s eyes. How does one explain such an ending?

The Mourners’ wishes
The client architect Toto Ito’s sister and her family had lived in one of the city’s a high-rise apartment. Following her husband’s death to cancer, the widow she requested that her brother, the architect build a house for her and her small daughters where they could enjoy the close contact with the soil and plants that their former home had lacked. She also suggested that the house be L-shaped to enable all members of the family to have visual contact with one another. By coincidence, the site next to the architect’s Ito’s house was for sale and it was the same site on which the widow she had lived before she was married. It was as if she wanted to grasp hold of her memories in order to help reunite her family during such a difficult time. In the widow’s conversations with the architect, the emphasis on organising functional spaces gradually disappeared and instead turned more towards the symbolic value of the space. Thus the  The house changed its initial L-shape to become a concrete construction with a U-shape, a form that would create greater light effects and a stronger relationship between the inhabitants.

The life of the house

The U-House consisted of two long corridors, one of which ended at the girls’ rooms, the other of which led through the kitchen and bathroom and onto the mother’s bedroom. Both of the corridors were dark and led into the light – a source originating from the arc of the U. This multi-use space used for playing, dining and meditating, had its walls and ceiling painted white and floor covered with a carpet, also white. In this space the light was diffused and gave a soft texture, but a cut in the ceiling directed the daylight in a straight diagonal line. The powerful light effects were reinforced by the pure whiteness of the interior, which seemed flat and without any three-dimensionality.

It was like a screen where the images and floating shadows of the inhabitants were projected; a space to project the human being beyond his or her body.Twenty-one years after the completion of the house, the family was ready to re-establish its links with the outside world. The first one to move away was the older daughter. She had never thought of whether or not it was comfortable to live in the house, although she refers to the house as a coffin. This was perhaps best reflected by the behaviour of her many pets, all of whom had totally refused to be alone in the enclosed courtyard. The mother later moved to a smaller flat, but being a musicologist she had enjoyed the music echoing on the bare walls in the old house. The youngest daughter was the last to move out. She had developed certain sensitivity for aesthetics in this house that was reflected in her appreciation of Kandinsky and later, her eventual position as a museum director. The last thing we know about the story of the house is from a powerful image in a photograph that illustrates its demolition. Instead of interpreting it as a destruction of a home, it is a sign of another stage through which the family progresses. The demolition is a symbol of renewal of life and consequently, we can argue that this was a house for mourners.

Many argued that this was a house for mourners, and eventually the house was demolished. What are left now are photographs of this project that a concerned brother took over to help his sister cope up with the loss of her husband and her daughters’ father.

This updated text and narrative appeared (with an acknowledgement) here on OpenBuildings about a year ago. In March this year, the mourning narrative appeared again, this time on ArchDaily. I’ll repeat the same exercise. New deletions are in bold lavender strikethrough. Paraphrasing is in light green, new text in black.

The U-House was built in 1976 in the centre of Tokyo. It was designed by the architect Toyo Ito for his older sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer. Toyo Ito was commissioned for this building by his older sister after her husband sadly lost his battle with cancer in the 1970s.In 1997 the house was demolished before Toyo Ito’s eyes. How does one explain such an ending?

The Mourners’ wishes
Theclient architect Toto Ito’s sister and her family had lived inone of the city’sa high-rise apartment. Following her husband’s death to cancer, the widowshe requested that her brother, the architect build a house for her and hersmalldaughters where they could enjoy the close contact with the soil and plants that their former home had lacked. Having lived for a number of years in a high-rise apartment, she and her two young daughers wished to move to a site which had more connection to the ground;  She also suggested that the house be L-shaped to enable all members of the family to have visual contact with one another. By coincidence, the site next to the architect’s Ito’s house was for sale and it was – the samesite on which the widowshe had lived before she was married.as luck would have it, the site next to Ito’s own house was being sold at the time. 

It was as if she wanted to grasp hold of her memories in order to help reunite her family during such a difficult time. In the widow’s conversations with the architect, the emphasis on organising functional spaces gradually disappeared and instead turned more towards the symbolic value of the space. Thus theThe house changed its initial L-shape to become a concrete construction with a U-shape, a form that would create greater light effects and a stronger relationship between the inhabitants.  The design for the house began as an L-shape, with It’s sister expressing a desire for a visual connection between different parts of the house. However, as the discussion progressed the design began to focus increasingly on the symbolic nature of what the house meant to the grieving family. This lead to the introverted, U-shaped design which separated the domain of the family from the outside world.domain of family being separated from the outside world

The life of the house
The U-House consisted of two long corridors, one of which ended at the girls’ rooms, the other of which led through the kitchen and bathroom and onto the mother’s bedroom.The internal layout of the building consists of the long curved corridor, which terminates at each end in bedrooms: at one end the mother’s: at the other end the daughters’. Both of the corridors were dark and led into the light – a source originating from the arc of the U.These ends of the corridor are dark, with the primary light source being the entrance to the internal Courtyard, near the center of the bend – at the symbolic meeting point of the family.This multi-use space used for playing, dining and meditating, had its walls and ceiling painted white and floor covered with a carpet, also white. In this space the light was diffused and gave a soft texture, but a cut in the ceiling directed the daylight in a straight diagonal line. The powerful light effects were reinforced by the pure whiteness of the interior, which seemed flat and without any three-dimensionality. 
The surfaces inside are all white, making a minimalist space for contemplative thought.White U is an excellent demonstration of Toyo Ito’s capability in the design of more spiritual, meditative architecture. While he is generally more known for his embrace of technological design, which can be seen in projects such as Sendai Mediatheque, this project exemplifies the ever-changing and adaptable approach that the Pritzker Prize jury commended him so highly for It was like a screen where the images and floating shadows of the inhabitants were projected; a space to project the human being beyond his or her body.Twenty-one years after the completion of the house, the family was ready to re-establish its links with the outside world. The first one to move away was the older daughter. She had never thought of whether or not it was comfortable to live in the house, although she refers to the house as a coffin. This was perhaps best reflected by the behaviour of her many pets, all of whom had totally refused to be alone in the enclosed courtyard. The mother later moved to a smaller flat, but being a musicologist she had enjoyed the music echoing on the bare walls in the old house. The youngest daughter was the last to move out. She had developed certain sensitivity for aesthetics in this house that was reflected in her appreciation of Kandinsky and later, her eventual position as a museum director. The last thing we know about the story of the house is from a powerful image in a photograph that illustrates its demolition. Instead of interpreting it as a destruction of a home, it is a sign of another stage through which the family progresses. The demolition is a symbol of renewal of life and consequently, we can argue that this was a house for mourners.Many argued that this was a house for mourners, and eventually the house was demolished. What are left now are photographs of this project that a concerned brother took over to help his sister cope up with the loss of her husband and her daughters’ father.
Twenty one years after being completed, and after all three family members had moved out, Toyo Ito looked on as the building was demolished. The house had had a great influence on its three residents; however, its destruction was  not a sad event. The family was no longer in mourning, and the design of White U had been tailored for that mindset. Having served it’s purpose, the house’s demolition marked the start of a new chapter for the family.

This exercise shows us how a narrative shifts over time, gets updated into more modern language and frameworks for understanding such as “a minimalist space for contemplative thought”. That sentence would not have been possible in 1976. 

However, enough of that. Does architecture help with loss or not? Let’s go to the architect’s website and see! … It tells us nothing. In two languages. A void, interrupted by facts.

white UMy main question is, how was White U tailored for the mindset of bereavement? 

white U What exactly is the house’s symbolic value? Is it the fact that there is a nothing in the middle of the house? The aperture, it’s called. Since we’re talking letters.

images

Or does the symbolic content have to do with there being nothing along the big corridor? I can forcibly make myself see some sort of association with those images of shadows on walls – filling empty spaces and so on but is the architectural creation of not one but two voids really a part of this thing we now call a healing process? Only in the world of media can a courtyard and an overly wide corridor be regarded as symbolic representations of human loss.

The reason I’m writing about this has to do with the dominant narrative. I’d have to check Japan Architect’s parent publication 新建築 to be certain, but I don’t remember this sister/mourning narrative coming from 1976, even though the facts may have been noted. I suspect a constructed narrative has become false facts that are being propagated – aka the truth as we know it.

This is not to belittle a person’s loss and grief. The very act of having a house designed and built can, no doubt, take one’s mind off a good many things. And if it’s being designed by your architect brother for a site next to his own house, then the mechanics of the process would have been that much easier, I’m sure.

But I’m also fairly sure that being close to a family member would’ve been important too. Ito would be a poor brother and human being if he could only (and with a significant time lag) express his compassion for his sister and nieces via architecture BUT THIS IS HOW THE STORY IS NOW BEING TOLD. 

* * *

Normally, after 21 years or so give or take a bit, children find jobs and perhaps a partner and move out. Parents often take the opportunity to downscale. If you owned land in Tokyo, even if it was in Nakano, between 1976 and 1997 then you would’ve watched in amazement all through 1988 and 1989 as your property value rocketed before peaking 1988-1991 prior to the inevitable plunge. In 1997, property was still 50% higher than 1976. It was going to be the last good time to sell for quite a while. 

E1-1-02

* * *

In passing, and to end, it seems odd to mention how the sister had once lived on the site next to where her brother lived. I’d wager the White U site was once the family home and architect Ito built his own house in its back garden, If so, that’s it’s curved profiled aluminium roof in that first photo and it may just even be Ito’s first work, but unpublished.

Microsoft PowerPoint - U-House Presentation.ppt

It doesn’t exist now as he designed and built the house, Silver Hut in 1984 for himself and presumably on the same site he’d lived before. This is not a large assumption as there’s not that much room to move in Tokyo. Sites don’t suddenly become available.

51473d9ab3fc4bd73c000031_ad-classics-silver-hut-toyo-ito-_toyo

Or perhaps one did and the house below Silver Hut in the next photo is the original family home? Silver Hut seems designed as an extension of this lower house, aligned in response to something, possibly creating a courtyard so as to not block a window. The truth is still out there, but it’s been obscured by a media fog – a soft focus on the beginning of an architect’s trek to stardom.

* * *

GoogleEarth imagery for 東京都中野区本町3-14-26 starts in 1997. Here’s the site then. Silver Hut is on the left of the large brown spot which is the ground floor slab of the apartment building that will replace White U.

1997

Here’s that apartment building in 2012. It has, I’d say, about 20 studio apartments and four two-bed apartments.

apartmentsWhat I’d previously called the family home (below Silver Hut) was replaced by an apartment building some time between 1984 and 1997. There wasn’t much change 2003–2007. Like in much of Japan.

2007

But by 2010, Silver Hut too was gone. Toyo Ito had moved on.

2010

This 2009 photo shows the studio apartments at the rear of (what was) the Silver Hut site and the building that replaced the adjacent (“family home?”) building.

december 2009

By August 2012 the Silver Hut site had been redeveloped with what looks like four-storey apartments, possibly studios.

August 2012

In most urban areas in Japan, the value of the building is negligible compared to that of the land upon which it stands. It’s often the case that a person can own the building but not the land on which it stands. That land is leased. (As in Britain, it’s a remnant of a feudal system.) The result of all this is that buildings are seen as transient things and, economy permitting, urban renewal is fast, sentimental attachment pointless.

2 thoughts on “Can Architecture Heal Loss?

  1. Jonathan

    Have you written to Mr Ito and asked him?
    I like the change in between aerial images and the vegetation on part of the roof and courtyard. Deliberate or spiritual.
    Although I find this PP winner more interesting than several other recent, perhaps thereby more deserving, the depth of mourning required to live there would have had to have been extraordinary.
    The commentary would therefore seem more like an episode of reality TV

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hi Jonathan, I did some more text forensics and have updated my post. Metadata shows the Stories of Houses post was the original (2004) and it’s been circling the internet since. Speaking of aerial images, I’ve added some to show how the site has changed. None show White U as it was gone by 1997. I also learned that Silver Hut (1984) was demolished by 2010. It lasted five years longer than White U did.

      This is a problem with designer houses when they’re too idiosyncratic. Once the owner no longer wants to live there, nobody else does either. I wonder if anyone has done an inventory of what Japanese houses from the 1970s are still around? I miss White U. I hope Blue Box House (Mayumi Miyawaki 1971) is okay.

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