The New Japanese House

Summer last year in one of Hyannis’ many secondhand bookstores, I found a copy of this 1980 book I had to have. Memories.


It describes the then new Japanese houses in terms of our preconceptions of Japanese culture in 1980 when everything was rich in meaning. It’s heavy on terms such as “ritual”, “ritual-affirming”, “ritual disaffirming” and, at the end, annoyingly asks “Is there a ritual affirming architecture?” “Is there a ritual disaffirming architecture?” I don’t miss the 1980s. But there was an energy about the 1970s I haven’t forgotten. If ever we look at current Japanese houses and think they’re weird and overly experimental for no great reason we can see, this book is a reminder it’s been going on for fifty years now. They’re not doing it to keep us amused.

• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nishida House, 1966

Think of this one as Japan’s Vanna Venturi house with Tange’s respectful concrete timberings giving way to self-referential anarchy. In 1972, Watanabe was to design the beautifully unlovely New Sky Building #3 last seen in The Microflat.

• • •

Takemitsu Azuma, Own House, 1967

• • •

Monta Mozuna, Anti-Dwelling, 1971-2

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Annhilation House, 1972

Takefumi Aida, Nirvana House, 1972

• • •

Mayumi Miyawaki, Blue Box House, 1971

• • •

Tatsuhiko Kuramoto, House in Hokkaido, 1974


• • •

Toyo Ito, House in Nakano, 1976
[c.f. Can Architecture Heal Loss?]

• • •

Here, I must include
Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi House, 1976
[c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form]

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Stepped Platform House, 1976

• • •

Kazuo Shinohara, House in Uehara, 1976
[see here for more]

• • •

Hiroshi Hara, Own House, 1979


• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nakano House, 1979

• • •

There’s also this one that always gets a mention in books like on, say, The Language of Post Modern Architecture, p116.

Kazumasa Yamashita, Face House, 1974


• • •

Finally, there’s this one I have no name or date for. If you do know its name, architect and year of completion, then please let me know – it’s been bugging me for years. A plan please too if you can. It’s pointless googling glass box house japan. [Andrea Crudeli kindly emailed me to say it’s by Shinichi Ozawa and is from 1989. Please check the comments for links.] 

• • •

Some of these houses have become internet staples. Others have been forgotten. Some may even still exist! The ones above you just saw are mostly examples from the seventies. Open any magazine today – MARK, let’s say and you’ll probably find at least one Japanese contemporary reimagining of the house. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR FIFTY YEARS!

Some months ago when I first began this post, I imagined I would conclude that what we see as a ferocious inventiveness is actually a reflection of land values dwarfing the value of anything built on that land, and to the extent that what eventually does get built is valueless by comparison. That is the reality for the people who own land. Many don’t. As with former feudal societies such as Britain, a disproportionately large amount of urban land on which these houses we may admire or delight in or be outraged at, is most likely leased from major landowners for a fixed term, even though the “consideration” may be so small as to be token. It does not encourage permanence.

Either way, the people who commission these houses know their houses are not going to last forever. Many of the ones you saw above no longer exist. It matters little if they were designed by a famous architect or not – that doesn’t tend to add that much value. Toyo Ito’s early U-House, aka House in Nagano for example, no longer exists – and that belonged to his own family!

In my imagined conclusion, I was in danger of repeating something I’d touched upon in the post “Can Architecture Heal Loss?” In any case, someone else published the same insight here while my post languished in the drafts folder. Rats. So, to move it forward, I propose that:

ONE: “We in the West” stop looking at Japanese houses according to our own criteria as if those houses are going to get lived in for generations, maybe even by the same family. They’re not.

TWO: We think a bit more about the dysfunction between “building” value and “architectural” value. Why should a house for one set of occupants be of little or no value to the next set of occupants, is a question for the Japanese to ponder. What we need to ponder is if we should really be finding daily delight in houses as personal as underwear and as replaceable as sofas?

THREE: “We in the West” have the opposite problem to the Japanese for we design and build for eternity or, if not for eternity, then for the next best thing – future resale value. Our obsession with permanence – this “value that lasts” – has its own shortcomings. For one, we tend to over-evaluate anything that goes against it.

Pink Lamborghini Desktop Background

Is the owner of this Lamborghini:
A. So very rich they don’t care about resale value?
B. Very rich but needs to show you they don’t care about resale value?
C. Rich but wants to show you they don’t care what you think?
D. All of the above, but enviable anyway?

We look at Japanese houses in the same “If-I-had-that-sort-of-money-I-wouldn’t-have-done-that” kind of way. On the other side of the same coin, we also tend to over-rate architectural individuality or creativity in the form of buildings of value as architectural possessions but, beyond that, little value as buildings to live in.


In short, we have our very own dysfunction between architectural value and building value.

FOUR: We also need to update our notion of permanence. Demolishing a building nobody wants for no good reason is wasteful. And let’s not start talking about Isé Shrine just because it’s another intruiging phenomenon from Japan. If Isé (Grand) Shrine had been continuously rebuilt in exactly the same place (i.e. rebuilt as rebuilt actually means) every twenty years since the year 692AD then yes, I would meditate upon tradition and write haiku on the transitory nature of existence. But it’s not. Replicas are endlessly built on alternating adjacent sites. This is cheating. I don’t mean to knock tradition or denigrate the beliefs of others but, if it were to have been rebuilt in exactly the same place then perhaps this wasteful practice would not have been undertaken so frequently or gone on for so long.


More than anything Isé Shrine may mean to those commenters who invoke its infinite unfathomableness every time they see a big roof, Isé Shrine tells me Japanese like new things because they are new, even if they’re still the same. 

FIVE: Back here in the Occident however, we might do well to also rethink our notions of impermanence. Buildings don’t have to be forever. To design them to have an extended functioning life is a good idea. The degree to which this can be done without incurring prohibitively extra initial costs is the crux of the problem since whole life-cycle costing necessarily pits one set of assumptions against another.

SIX: “Touching the ground lightly” is, on first thought, a noble idea but this assumes future generations will use the land more wisely than we did. A false assumption. People quickly get used to all sorts of bad things happening. Look at central Canada.


“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same” is precisely what successive generations of Japanese are doing rebuilding buildings for the ongoing needs of capital gain (landowners) and artistic posturing (owners, architects).

We need to tighten up the definition of sustainable development. As it stands, it includes all forms of unnecessary development and the natural right to conduct it. Forever. The problem seems to be with how “needs” is defined.

8 thoughts on “The New Japanese House

  1. Luis Filipe Oliveira

    regarding #4 ,in:

    “The Naiku and Geku sanctuaries each have two large free-standing roof-support pillars. After the Sengu ceremony, these 11-meter tall pillars are used for another 20 years as part of two torii gates that are also reconstructed on Uji Bridge, which guards Jingu Shrine. After this 20-year period, they are again re-used to rebuild other nearby torii gates, at Shichiri-no-Watashi and Seki-no-Oiwake.

    All the other parts of the old sanctuaries except these large pillars are distributed to other shrines around the country that need the lumber for their own renovation tasks. In a spirit of husbanding every single piece of wood, this distribution of materials following Sengu ceremonies helps maintain close relationships between Jingu Shrine and other shrines around Japan.”

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks Luis, I never knew that. It’s really interesting, as many things about Japan are. I remember implying in the post that this endless rebuilding, however virtuous it may be in a spiritual sense, was a wasteful process and am glad to know that all that timber simply isn’t just thrown away but is a kind of accidental recycling or re-use. Even if the intention of this re-use is to continue to gain the benefit of the spirituality associated with the timber, rather than re-use the timber itself, I don’t suppose it matters if the Shinto believers and us look at the same thing and see different aspects. Many things in Japan are like that. The only loser in this system are the trees themselves but, given how Shinto feel about trees, this goes some way towards apologizing (to them) for cutting them down.

  2. nam lek lag

    1- If you arent aware of this, im about to blow your shorts off. By going to google images and dragging an image into the search field, you can find other instances of said image across the webosphere.
    2- If you are aware of this – then you know that trying this method on the glass box japanese house – wields no results besides your own blog ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


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