Kenji Hirose (1922–2012) graduated in 1942 from Musashi Engineering School and, after the war ended, shifted to architecture in a few simple moves.
1945: Naval Facilities Engineering Division
1946-51: Tokyo Mokko (Timber Structures)
1949-51: Masachika Architects
1952: Founded Kenji Hirose Architect & Associates
1966: Professor at Musashi Technical College Department of Architecture
He designed this house in 1949 during his time at Masachika Architects.
It’s known as A Small House for Mr. T and is said to owe something to the mid-thirties siedlung houses of Chikatada Kurata (蔵田周忠) [1895-1966].
This is going way back to before Japanese architecture was a thing, to before the post-war reconstruction years, and to before the war itself. After he began his own practice, Hirose’s houses no longer aspired to the modernist trends and expectations of the times and instead became engineered objects designed to extract maximum performance from a minimum of materials. Throughout the post-war reconstruction decade he worked continuously to perfect that.
Kenji Hirose is not a name in the history of modern architecture. His posts beams and modules can’t be seen as interpretations or abstractions of Japanese architecture. Instead, they perform the task they exist to perform because it is useful for them to do so.
In Japan as most everywhere else, residential projects were usually named after the location or the client. [The now common practice of giving houses titles as if they were works of art was still a way off.] Hirose was clearly influenced by the goals of the Case Study House program and gave his S-Series houses sequential numbers – from one to sixty-five! There’s nothing wrong with thinking of him as a one-man Case Study House program.
The August 1963 edition of Kenchiku [Architecture] magazine was a Kenji Hirosespecial issue and is where this list of the SH houses comes from.
1952/1954: SH-2, 3, 4, 6,
1955: SH-5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
1956/1957: SH-12, 14, 15, 16, 20
1956/1957: SH-18, 19, 21, 22, 23
1958/1959: SH-25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32, 33, 34
1960: SH-29, 35, 38, 39, 40, 51
1961: SH-41, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 53
1962: SH-52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 62
1963: SH-49, 58, 60, 63, 64, 65
The first house, the 1953 SH-1, had a lightweight steel frame with brick infill. If you look closely at the end elevation photograph below you can see tensile cross-bracing. It’s often said that masonry architecture never developed in Japan because of the earthquakes, and that a timber architecture allowing a degree of bending and shaking was a more natural consequence. Perhaps, but putting heavy roofs on spindly timbers lacking cross bracing does not embody a vernacular intelligence. The end walls of SH-1 have brick infill and tensile cross bracing. The central glass panel of the long elevation has the same cross bracing. There is the lightest of horizontal tensile members framing the roof.
The plan is a series of spaces divided by furniture and delineated by floor finishes. There is only one internal door. There’s a structural module at work but it’s just a structural module and not some essential Japaneseness that non-Japanese houses such as The Eames House are often claimed to allude to.
SH–25~34? (上小沢邸) 1959
This page details a renovation carried out in 1974.
A quiet addition has been constructed to the rear and the building now functions as the Kamikozawa-tei shabu-shabu restaurant*.
SH–30 (牧田邸) 1959
It’s impossible to look at SH-30 [left] and not see Pierre Koenig’s 1959 Case Study House #21, the Bailey House [right].
To certain Japanese, Hirose’s houses must have suggested a new kind of lifestyle, just as the Case Study Houses were intended to but somewhere between 1959 and 1963, Hirose must have realized the lifestyle allusions wasn’t working in Japan the same way as they had in the US.
SH-30 may have been a daring and innovative experiment in prefabrication and standardization but, like some of the later Case Study Houses, was too land-hungry to ever be a viable model for housing in Japan. The Case Study House program had lost the plot as early as 1949 with Case Study House #8: The Eames House, built cleverly and cheaply on a sizeable slice of Pacific Palisades property gifted to Ray. In 1960, Pierre Koenig’s 1960 Case Study House #22: The Stahl House gave architectural representation to the new lifestyle no longer being about property size or location but about having a great view, a point hammered home the same year by John Lautner’s Chemosphere (Malin House). This re-defining of desirable property exquisitely negated the benefits of low cost materials, prefabrication and modular construction and redefined architecture as architectural churn.
Anyway, that’s my take on why SH-60 is the way it is. It’s easy to think its configuration was dictated by site constraints and, at some level, it was. It’s also easy to remember that Hirose was an engineering school graduate and that engineers do like a bridge. I don’t doubt this solution’s structural ingenuity or the integrity or clarity of its construction but I can’t see what problem it was the solution to. Could it have been the simplest and quickest way to create a large flat outdoor space outside one’s window?
However, I don’t believe the view, such as it is, is totally obscured in order to maintain the integrity of those infill panels. I feel a statement is being made and that this anti-Stahl house is a rejection of the new values articulated by the Case Study House program.
The S-Series was soon to end. It had begun with the noble goal of offering prototype solutions for the post-war reconstruction decade and its ending marked the beginning of the decade of the economic miracle. In the meantime, Japanese architecture had been discovered by the west and quickly become a very crowded field. The Case Study House program had long abandoned its principles and was finally killed off by post-modernism swapping one lie for another. I imagine Hirose saw the age of economic austerity had ended and realized the futility of producing a product no-one wanted.
If the SH-60 dates from 1963 and the series goes up to 65, then perhaps there were no more Kenji Hirose houses as, from 1966 he was Professor at Musashi Technical College Department of Architecture. Other Kenji Hirose houses have been documented in the Japanese press over the years but I’ve yet to find a complete list.
There’s some internet speculation as to whether this house is one.
Perhaps these two books will help.
Hirose’s S-Series is often likened to the Case Study House Program since both aimed, at least at their beginnings, to apply standardization and prefabrication to post-war housing problems. Hirose’s S-Series (1953–1963) lasted only half as long as the Case Study Program (1945–1966) but he achieved those aims with far better continuity and consistency because he was one person and not twenty or so.
This links to a research paper by 末包 伸吾 [umm … Shingo Suekane?] of Osaka University, discussing the construction and spatial configuration of the SH-Series houses. It shows how Hirose chose structural systems and plan configurations according to site and topography, as well as how the use of structural connections developed over time. Other graphs chart the evolution of components, materials and finishes. It shows that the choice and development of structure, plan, materials and techniques was not strictly linear but was roughly linear. This implies some vision of perfection was being worked towards.
SH–67 has a timber frame and marks the end of the S-Series.
肆木の家 [Shimoku no ie] 2001
The name is never translated into English and this makes me think the house belongs to Mr. Shimoku [though I did see it once transliterated as Kaki]. Designed with Seijiro Yamamoto, the house restates the beauty of timber and Japan’s traditional timber construction. It may have philosophic or even tectonic similarities with the S-Series houses but Shimoku no ie is a house lovingly and expensively handcrafted by artisans. It can’t be more removed from the ideals of the S-Series but I understand why Hirose felt he had to do it.
Apart from Hirose’s use of tensile cross bracing, I don’t feel he ever departed from the sensibility of traditional architecture in the first place. In Shimoku House, every surface, element, and connection has a clarity of purpose no different from those in his steel-framed houses. It’s basically what he’d been doing all along. The way I see it, Shimoku House is not Hirose rejecting his S-series, but his way of telling us the two were never that different.
• • •
[1922 – 2012]
For solving the same problem sixty times
and not forgetting why.
misfits’ salutes you!
• • •
It’s a pity Kenji Hirose is not remembered better than he is but that’s the way of the misfit architect. Notions of austerity associated with the efficient use of minimal materials in small houses went out of favour in the 1960s as Japanese began to think more about how they were perceived internationally, particularly after the rabbit-hutch incident around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese wished the world to see them as progressive yet traditional and Hirose’s architecture was never going to fit the bill. Shinohara and Tange both stepped up to the plate.
“Though tradition may be a person’s starting point, it is not always the point to which he returns.” Kazuo Shinohara, 1967
“Tradition is like a millstone around our necks. It is our job to smash it to pieces and reassemble it in new ways.” Kenzo Tange, circa. 1968
Modern interpretations of traditional architecture have been in vogue ever since, simultaneously reminding the Japanese of their proud tradition and us of how we perverted it. [c.f. Madame Butterfly]
Both statements imply tradition is something to be left “behind” if one is to “progress” and both statements also take a very superficial view of tradition. There’s a chance they were statements of genuine belief, but it’s not inconceiveable they were designed to play well overseas, or to play well in Japan as a consequence of playing well overseas. I can see Tange and Shinohara silently nodding approval of Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House as a modern interpretation of tradition in line with their statements and whether or not they liked the actual architecture, but to make a building out of a monolithic material with no connections or joins is not part of any Japanese architecture tradition.
In terms of its approach to materials and how they are put together, I find Waro Kishi’s 1987 Kim House more essentially Japanese than Sumiyoshi House and I suspect Hirose would have too.