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Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

The 1950s in Japan were a time of rediscovery and renewal in art,

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graphics,

Kawanishi Hide, The Stone Garden, 1959, Color woodblock with blind stamping. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Douglas Berman and Peter Daferner in honor of Richard A. Born, 2004.131.

furniture,

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photography,

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ceramics,

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woodblock prints,

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cinema,

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literature,

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textile design,

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and architecture.

Kazuo Shinohara was a Japanese architect who lived 1925–2006. This is his first house, House in Kugayama, completed 1954.

Kugayama 1954 view

It was very much of its time, as was Kenzo Tange‘s first and only house of 1953.

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Shinohara’s house had a steel structure but both houses play it both ways in allowing foreign commentators to pick up on an essential Ise Shrine-ness as well as the box-on-columns of you-know-what.

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The plan of the House in Kugayama is rectangles inside rectangles and determined by the structural supports.

Kugayama 1954 Plan

In 1954, square tatami would have been highly unconventional by the way. As they would be now. Normally, a tatami room of this size and shape would be a four-and-a-half mat room with the extra half in the middle.

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Kugayama 1954 Interior 1

There’s no refrigerator. In the 1950s Japanese people would have bought fresh and daily. Even now many Japanese have little taste for dairy products. 

This method of planning isn’t unique to Japan but follows naturally from timber construction. It’s a good thing. It’s simple, has structural and construction advantages, can do most things a plan really needs to do. It is a good thing to do. Shinohara also used this method of planning for, amongst others, House in Kugayama No. 2 of 1958, the Umbrella House of 1959 and the Tanikawa House of 1961.

Umbrella House has strong and popular Japanese associations both inside and outside Japan.  These days, I see it more in terms of a plan following its own logic independent of the structural enclosure. 

Umbrella House 1961

Check how that offset post affects the tatami room (top middle, below). The internal walls don’t go all the way up to the roof. The bathroom and tatami rooms have ceilings but the space above them is exposed.

House with an Earthen Floor of 1963 is small even by Japanese standards but I like how Shinohara thought that slight curve on the roof was necessary.

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House in White 1964. Untitled 30

The bathroom is that covered box in the corner. With this house, I also like the economy of documentation. A Japanese carpenter could build this house from these three drawings. I particularly like the sheet of details in compressed plan.

I also like how not everything has to be an event. This is the door to upstairs.

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Shinohara’s residential output is usually discussed in terms of his own categorization as having four distinct ‘styles’ but remember that those were the days when all Japanese architects were adept at interpreting their own work and generating elliptical theories. Seeing everything in terms of those four styles I think prevents people from making up their own minds and seeing other things that might be of value. It’s generally good to be sceptical about anything an architect says about their own buildings.

But it is true that Shinohara’s 1970s houses did become more white, more geometrical and more self-conscious with names such as Uncompleted House, Sky Rectangle, Sea Staircase, etc. Early on in his career, he did say “Houses are Art” but I think he meant he wanted his houses to be thought of as Art. Hence the artwork names. Some may be artworks but on what level is a question never asked. Given the photographs Shinohara approved for publication, it doesn’t involve the uncontrollable messiness of living. My impression is that if something could not be aestheticised then it was of little interest to him.

One day, circa 1980, we were all sitting around observing pieces of coloured paper get test-stuck onto model columns and trying to have opinions on which colour was best. The mood was subdued for, the day before in Paris some Japanese guy Sagawa had just been arrested for killing his Dutch girlfriend and keeping her in the freezer and eating bits of her occasionally. So when I say subdued… Eventually the elephant in the room became too large and Shinohara asked a French research student present at the time what she thought about incident and she said oh yes everybody in France was talking about “how wonderful it must be to be loved so much that somebody would like to eat you.” This lightened the mood immediately.

The Japanese no longer had to worry about being thought of as cannibals or – worse still – barbarians in Paris the Capital of Culture. More importantly, the incident could be reduced to an aesthetic judgment and safely tidied away. To this day I think that to aestheticize a problem is to ignore it. I don’t know where I read it but some say that certain buildings are beautiful only because they choose to solve so few problems.   

These days there’s a lot more images of Shinohara’s buildings available on the internet but this 2G book is probably the best print introduction around. For the houses.

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Many have been rephotographed and it’s been mostly good seeing how these houses have aged and become more lived in. The later residential work I’m now not so keen on. It’s more appropriate for a small house to carry a simple idea than it is for a large house. The later and generally larger houses lack that charm. In passing, the later smaller houses seem to me to carry ideas too big for them but this is now standard for small Japanese houses. We continue to be fascinated by the audacity of these houses. “These people have no money and little land – how amusing to attempt to build architecturally innovative houses!”

This might say more about us than the Japanese, especially if the only blurring of boundaries we consistently admire is between the worth of a building and value of the property on which it stands. When one doesn’t have Johnsonian, Farnsworthain, or even Savoyean amounts of property on the other side of the glass, how the interior space is enclosed, divided and lit are the only variables left to vary.  But here’s what I mean about simple ideas and biggish houses.

House in Itoshima 1976

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House in Ashitaka 1977

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House on a Curved Road 1978

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House Under High Voltage Lines 1981

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The only exception for me is House in Uehara 1976.

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The structure was supposedly determined by the need to secure space for two cars but I wonder if cantilevering two-thirds of a house is the easiest way to do that? Down the left side of the site is an alleyway with possibly buried services so there may be some reason why footings along that boundary weren’t an option. It could be true.

Internally, the life of the house is organized around the structure that appears in every space. In the tatami room (middle right, below) there’s just the shadow of the tree structure on the lower wall. It was quite beautiful actually, this shadow of a serious structure. You’ll never see a photograph of them, but the washroom and bathroom are extraordinary. Just you and the structure.

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Getting a plan within that structure presented two problems that were solved in the simplest way possible. The first was to move part of the bedroom wall to provide a passage around the inclined column blocking the way.

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The other solution is at the front end of that bedroom wall. It doesn’t meet the front of the house as neatly as it’s drawn on the first floor plan. The wall is where it has to be and so is the structure (and the window/ventilation panel). “Ahh, free plan!” you may think but au contraire! Le Corbusier’s walls skirted around the columns to show how free they were. This wall dodges the column so a Japanese person of average height has a good chance ducking under it.

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The requirement for an extra room on the roof was a late change to the brief the story goes. I’m not so sure about that because I don’t know how the parents, two daughters, one son and a grandmother were ever going to have lived in this house without that room. Shinohara was not an ad-hoc kind of guy so I’m inclined to believe the story. (At the time I visited last, the parents slept in the storage room of the ground floor photography studio. They didn’t mind.)

The stairs into the house are a very contrived architectural event. They’re not much to look at from ground level.

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You arrive at the upper landing, seen in this next image from inside the house, with the front door open, and looking across the landing at the kitchen entrance.

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The non structural walls that are neither inside nor outside are in diagonal timber (like the non-structural floor inside). It’s only a representation of what is about to happen, but it shows the separation between the things the house needs to stand up, and the things that are needed to make it habitable.

The entryphone was at the bottom of the stairs. This next image is what you see when you are standing on that landing looking back whilst waiting outside the front door. Going up those stairs puts you in the middle of the house even though you’re still outside. This is what blurring the boundaries between inside and outside can mean when you don’t have a huge garden outside your window. You most likely have been welcomed before you’ve even entered. Opening the door is just a formality.

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Here’s some more images of the staircase and how it works inside.

There’s a lot of architectural invention and function compressed into those three square metres on three levels. The stair enclosure takes up no more space than it has to and at the same time makes the interior seem – and actually be – larger. Light enters the room via the skylight and then passes out of the room to light the welcoming stairwell.

Untitled 19What I like about this house is that the functions of the house are incidental to the enclosure of the house. This is a nice idea, and possibly a useful one. The structure and enclosure aren’t compromised by human preference or caprice and in theory can be better optimised. Meanwhile, the occupants can be catered for as best they can within the confines of the space, that is. There’s maybe 10 sqm. circulation space total for a total floor area of 203.63 sqm = 5%.)

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Shinohara always exercised strict control of what images of his houses were published and this, more than anything else, is probably responsible for him not being better known than he is, even though there’s a lot more stuff on the internet now. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the only photographs Shinohara was interested in were the ones he approved.

He famously claimed – although, because it was pre-internet, not many people actually knew about it – that he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. Many people saw the approved photographs and thought his houses clinical and I can see why. Arty? Definitely. Beautiful? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to imagine laughter happening inside. Or even much life. It didn’t help either that kitchens were small and rarely photographed.

Here’s an image, published at the time, of his House in Hanayama 1976.

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And here’s an image taken more recently. Basically, it’s a nice room with somebody’s stuff in it. Shinohara was right to have no interest in his houses after people moved in. But he didn’t do himself any favours by photographing them either bare, or with isolated pieces of furniture by Shiro Kuramata.

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It’s not really possible to combine one’s possessions and the inside of a Shinohara house to create “an interior” and I think this is a good thing because to do so represents neither person nor building. It’s no longer a building but an expression of what some people did to the inside of a building. To not design for the concept of an interior has the potential to allow both the buildings and the people who live in to be however they need to be. 

It’s never been the Japanese way to want to “personalize” a space, to change the colour or surface of walls, choose furniture to suit the size or shape of a room and to create an “interior”, to change or rearrange it when they became bored, to buy an artwork to “fill a space” or because a wall “needs something” …

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House in Uehara is small. The table in the main room looks like a table but is used more like the Japanese kotatsu at which both living and dining traditionally happened. I have fond memories of the maybe four times I visited House in Uehara with some university visitor in tow and being greeted by the ever-hospitable Mrs. Otsuji. Visitors were always shocked to see living in this house occurring despite the house. There was a month’s worth of newspapers piled into the forks of those columns and the cats’ bowls placed beneath them where they were least likely to get kicked…

Shinohara would have liked House in Uehara to be thought of as a ‘machine for living’ but he would not have liked himself to be thought of as having designed a humane machine for its occupants to creatively occupy and happily live. He just didn’t see buildings that way. But something wonderful came out of him designing a house in which people had no choice but to live in it the best they could. The house was like a family member you had to live with and live around at the same time. Give and take. Respect each other. That’s living.

• • •

I don’t want to bring too many examples from Japanese culture in case it makes the lessons of House in Uehara seem too foreign but I can summarize this another way.

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Some kimonos are very beautiful, but whether beautiful or ordinary, all it takes is some fabric and two measurements in order to make a kimono for a person. After that, it’s all about how you wear it.

House in Uehara is a tight fit and unyielding fabric, but its occupants wear it well.

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2 thoughts on “Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

  1. Shirley

    “There’s no refrigerator. In the 1950s Japanese people would have bought fresh and daily. Even now many Japanese have little taste for dairy products. ” If this comment is made about the current year, 2016, it is absolutely not true. Many Japanese drink milk daily and also eat yogurt, whipped cream, and ice cream. Dairy products are quite popular in Japan.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I see now that my original sentence “Even now many Japanese have little taste for dairy products” was not saying very much. Many don’t. Many do. The Japanese diet has changed incredibly over the past fifty years and it’s probably only the very elderly for whom what I wrote remains true. “Butter-kusai” (smells of butter) used to be a derogatory term for foreigners and for things affecting foreign-ness. Everybody seems to like ice-cream though.

      Reply

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