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Architectural Myths #7: Purity of Form

1976 was quite a year for houses in Japan. There was Toyo Ito’s White U which we’ve already seen. There was Kazuo Shinohara’s House in Uehara – a steady favourite of mine, for reasons I may one day post.

House in Uehara And there was Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi HouseThis next photo was quite popular at the time, although the purpose of those two boxes either side of the light well over the entrance remains a mystery to this day.

485f2ad68aeebe915ed49c499812d6bcb11f3898_m This black and white photo seemed to convey the required association with tradition more than the colour ones of the time did.

Azuma house 住吉 Tadao Ando 安藤忠雄 2 Of course, the area has changed a lot since 1976.

azuma-1 Streetmap tells us it looks like this in 2013.

streetview 1 sumiyoshi 2 That makes this next photograph all the more remarkable. (How did they do that?) Note the 50cm side boundary setback, the meter box.

6152852388_de08e363c6_b Here’s the location map on greatbuildings.com or, if you prefer, 34°36’37.93″N 135°29’32.39″E. It gets you to here. The name on the pin (Azuma-tei) translates as Azuma Residence – which what the house is known as in Japanese.

sumiyoshi house Zooming in now, have a look at the south-east corner (at the bottom right).

closeupOr, on GoogleMaps.

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Yes, the Sumiyoshi House is not the shape we always thought it was. Never was, never has been. GoogleEarth service began 2005.

The reason for this missing corner could be the gas-fired boiler for the bath. When space is in such short supply, it’s a major decision to not gain that extra 8 cubic metres or an additional 5% of the total internal floor area. I suspect there’s a regulation for boiler venting at work. In 1980 in Tokyo, I lived in a ground-floor apartment with a similar heater inside the bathroom (but with an external flue) so there might have been some sudden – very sudden – tightening of regulations for the location of such boilers in new-build properties.

Or perhaps the land was never rectangular to start with? This might explain why the upper floor bedroom isn’t cantilevered over the boiler which does, after all, have a concrete roof directly above it anyway. In this next image, there slight kink in the concrete fence means it might be a minimum setback issue.

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Or perhaps there was a covenant attached to the land, only discovered at the last minute? It’s been known to happen. Japan, like Britain still has many vestiges of a feudal system of land ownership.

Or perhaps the builders just read the drawing incorrectly and everyone decided to keep quiet about it. You know, like this.

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More likely, someone thought “Who’ll ever care? It’s only a boiler! What’s that got to do with architecture?”

This next drawing is the closest to a construction drawing I’ve been able to find. (Thanks ideamsg.

row-house-in-sumiyoshi-7The much-publicised perspective cutaway section shows a complete rectangle. The plan for both levels shows a complete rectangle. The plan shows the boiler as internal, but at least it’s shown. This either implies a last-minute understanding of the regulations, a last-minute change to them, or an unsuccessful appeal if both. The rear bedroom is also rectangular. For the first time we learn that we can access the roof via that rear skylight. Behind/above the beds in the other bedroom are wardrobes – imagine! I feel really sorry for all those students who made physical models or CAD models of this house as part of their architecture course. There are some fine renders and models out there, all wrong.

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This incorrect model found it’s way to the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

Venice-Architecture-Biennale-2014-Japanese-pavilion_dezeen_468_13

And I feel sorry for all those people who have redrawn those plans incorrectly for various publications. Forgive me for asking, but from where does misinformation like this spread?

602445_428065923920897_1019664922_n Azumahouse-drawing And I feel a bit sorry for the rest of us too having, since 1976, been led to believe this house was somehow purer than it really is. Part of the myth surrounding certain architects relies upon them being thought of as more exacting, more singleminded in their pursuit of some sort of purity of expression or form. Misguided though that belief may be, it was nice to believe in it and, regardless of Ando’s later work, it was nice to believe in this house. Because of this house, adjectives such as “strong”, “uncompromising” and “pure” became part of the myth of Ando. This doesn’t excuse the conscious deceit and the misconceptions the plans and elevations continue to propagate. Personally, I believe it’s better to know the facts than believe something that’s not true. Some people will want to continue believing the myth of purity, saying that it doesn’t matter since what the house represents is more important than what it is. For them, the fact that the plans don’t represent the reality IS PROOF OF THAT, despite the evidence suggesting a clumsy compromise resulting from a legal oversight.  It looks like Ando got away with it.

建築データ 住吉の長屋(東邸) 所在地/住所 大阪府大阪市住吉区 設計 安藤忠雄/貴志雅樹(安藤忠雄建築研究所) 設計期間 1975年1月-1975年8月 工事期間 1975年10月-1976年2月 – four month construction period! 施工 まこと建設(大阪市西区) 構造設計 アスコラル構造研究所 面積 敷地面積:57.3㎡ – site area 建築面積:33.7㎡ – building area 延床面積:64.7㎡(1階33.70㎡ 2階31.0㎡) – total floor area (I wonder what accounts for the upper floor area being 2.6m2 smaller than the lower?) 高さ/階高 5,800mm/2,250mm – this second value is hopefully floor-to-floor height 建物間口 3,450mm – building width 建物奥行き 14,250mm – building depth 規模/構造 地上2階/RC造 – 2 floors; above ground, reinforced concrete 備考 第31回日本建築学会賞(作品賞)受賞[1979年]

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By way of postscript, http://yongoichi.exblog.jp/i4/ tells us that we can find the above image in this book. I doubt you’ll find it elsewhere.

1969-1996

2 thoughts on “Architectural Myths #7: Purity of Form

  1. Jonathan Strauss

    in many images of concrete japanese buildings, the concrete has this aura of purity and perfection in formwork, placement and ageing.
    the images selected here for a completely different purpose, and those of the White U House, seem to dispel that myth(?).

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Jonathan! Your impressions of Japanese concrete are accurate. Thought definitely goes into the selection, sizing and materials of formwork and because that formwork is so well made, I suspect they can use a very sloppy mix that fills those forms well. They manage to make the most incredibly sharp corners out of concrete. It’s very humid there so the concrete cures slowly and strongly. There’s a feeling of respect for the material. What I noticed recently was just how much of the stuff there was, not just in signature buildings but small and ordinary buildings like coffee shops. The quality is the same. Part of the reason for this, I think is that concrete is regarded in much the same way as stone. Thirty years ago, concrete used to be clad with tiles – because of acid rain, I heard, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now, at least not in Tokyo. There’s also a lot of exposed concrete on the inside of buildings and used unpretentiously in conjunction with timber, metal and ceramic. It looks great with them all.

      Another reason why I think concrete is regarded in much the same way as stone is the way that it’s allowed to age. I think the front of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House was given a good scrub before that frontal photo taken with an architectural camera. It’s probably the oldest building in the street, now. However, like moss on an ancient rock, things can’t stay new forever. I didn’t see Shinohara’s House in Uehara when I was there but I did find that photograph in the blog only recently. The house had aged but seeing that photo was like seeing one of an old friend a bit greyer and craggier.

      There does come a time though, when concrete needs some serious work done to it. Tange’s Tokyo National Gymnasium passed that stage many years ago and so, when I at last saw it, I saw the building after it had been excellently patched up and restored and much like it must have been in 1963. I’m not sure whether it will be allowed to age again or whether, because of that maintenance and repair, it now has to be forever frozen in time.

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