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Career Case Study #10: Yo Shimada

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The name’s pronounced  Shimada [嶋田 優] despite “Yu” being more usual. Mr. Shimada also bucks convention by not having had a conventional architectural education. I don’t think we can hold this against him. Frank Lloyd Wright never had one. Wright’s thirty or so “bootleg” houses completed while moonlighting in Sullivan’s office prove he thought he could do the same or better. Le Corbusier also never graduated. He learned the art of enamelling and engraving watches at the La Chaux-de-Fonds Arts Décoratifs and it was his mentor L’Eplattenier (whom LC was to later refer to as his only teacher) who made the young Charles-Edouard aware of things such as painting and architecture, ultimately leading him to conclude that designing luxury houses was a better proposition than engraving and enamelling luxury watches. It’s too early to tell if Yo Shimada will be ever considered alongside Wright and Le Corbusier but lack of an architectural education is no handicap. Shimada’s completed more than thirty houses since 2000 so something’s clearly going on.

Shimada CV.jpg

Here’s the timeline so far. The yellow indicates things that could be taken to be an architectural education although these days most anything counts.

YS CV copy

Shimada designed a house and, when it was completed, was asked to design two more. It appers as a natural and gradual discovery of enjoying creating these things called buildings and is why I first thought Yo Shimada would be Architecture Misfit #31.

2012: House in Rokko

We already know this house. [c.f. The Shed Is Not Trying To Be Beautiful, Advance of the Sheds] Designing a house as a horizontal platform on vertical supports never hurt the career of any architect, Japanese or not.

2012: House in Itami

2013: The Blend Inn

2013: House in Ishikiri

2012–2014 was a busy period with at least four projects on the go and the beginning of a recognition that would turn into fame. 2013 was the year his career took off. Already with House in Kawanishi there’s some strange things happening with separated voids but it’s countered by insights on the intelligence of vernacular architecture.

An essay in the book titled Making a Connection with Anonymouse Intelligence describes coincidental similarities between themes already evident in House in Rokko and an Australian vernacular house typology known as The Queenslander.

2016: House in Hamilton

House in Hamilton (Queensland, Australia) was the conscious fusion of the two and is where it starts getting weird. People begin to say things like “The experimental home has a ‘treehouse-like playfulness’, featuring an origami ceiling.”

It seems to be the start of Shimada’s explorations into utilizing the spaces above and below staircases. I’ll come back to this later.

House in Rokko is the house by which Shimada wants to be marketed. It features on the cover of the only book about him, along with this photograph but this could just be the publisher with an eye on sales.

Japanese “next-generation” architects are under intense pressure to design precious houses, write profound text, and endlessly promote them not only in the Japanese press but all media everywhere. There’s little evidence Yo Shimada started out to concoct a media presence. Houses appear on ArchDaily soon after completion but that’s to be expected these days. The website of TATO Architects / Yo Shimada is simple and modern in having next to no commentary. I don’t look for artful explanations or hype but sometimes the history and context of a project is best communicated by words and, if they’re not there, I just assume I’m not the targeted audience. Visitors are encouraged to evaluate these buildings on the basis of photographs and everything is beautifully photographed. Many interior photographs feature people and the paraphenalia of daily life but, after decades of photos of Japanese houses with both contrivedly absent, this may just be a different type of contrivance for the audience of public opinion.

I recommend the book as it’s unlike first monographs of other architects. If you read Shimada’s timeline-CV above, you’d have noticed its personal and conversational tone is not how you expect architects to communicate. This tone pervades the book. Shimada admits to having been at a loss to write text to accompany the photographs of some of the buildings. This is refreshing, especially after decades of everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, trying to work out what Japanese architects were meaning yet not saying. Having said that, Shimada then attempts to generate profound text about buildings that can stand without it. Where does this pressure to do this come from?

Q: If an architect designs a building but doesn’t make a noise about it, can it exist as architecture? 

Shimada’s 2008 House in Midorigaoka is a good example of architectural intelligence going into a simple and possibly useful plan that needs no explanation. Eight equally-sized rooms on two floors can be arbitrarily opened and closed to each other and without a post where all four spaces meet.

It’s a nice and simple idea, the advantages of which can even be appreciated and understood from photographs. If it is a genuinely useful idea, we would expect to it enter the mainstream, disappear from architectural sight. and text such as the following will be as irrelevant as ever. If however the goal is to place the house as art, then this is the way it has always been done, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the sentences. To the credit of the translators, the sense of apparent directness mirrors the Japanese precisely but, as with any language, sentences that are easy to understand may aren’t necessarily true even though they may appear to not be hiding anything.

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Unlike the often elliptical sentences of architects past, these simple sentences appear to convey meaning and perhaps that’s the one and only function of the architectural sentence – to “save us the trouble” of forming an opinion of our own. Shimada overcomes his initial bashfulness with chapter headings such as

  • Stopping the world from becoming a consumer product
  • Take of your shoes / Take off your kimono please
  • Form and Perception
  • The Freedom of an Autonomous Form
  • Seemingly Continuing Forever

Kaidan dansu [step chest] were pieces of furniture that functioned as staircases and were popular in merchant and samurai houses in Japan circa 1850. As standalone objects, they’re a staple in Japanese antique stores targeting foreigners but here are two in-situ examples.

Kazuo Shinohara’s 1971 Sea Stairway had a three three-step unit (with treader drawers) leading to a storage room. I thought it an exquisitely contrived thing – as many things in Japan are.

Somewhere there exists a photo like this sketch on the right.

I thought of it when I saw these next three examples.

Staircases that morph into furniture and vice-versa seem to feature in many Shimada houses. Me, I think I prefer furniture I can place wherever I want it but this might just be me. Whatever the century or country, the space under and above the stairs is unusable because it is too low or too out-of-reach and kaidan dansu were as good a solution as any, but I can’t see much practical advantage in a sofa turning into a cabinet and then into a stair, or disappearing up a wardrobe and popping out under a table. Shimada is correct to identify that the space beneath and above stairs can be put to better use spatially, both functionally and aesthetically but trying to do all three at once, repeatedly but without repeating oneself is either a USP or a gimmick.

The closest I came to an explanation was that Shimada’s stairs choreograph movement through the space in way not dissimilar to how the size and angle of stones functions in a Japanese garden.

I’m not sure why I find this so disturbing. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to like Shinohara’s staircases that, though often no less precarious, are almost without exception sandwiched between two walls. The exceptions are the external staircases such as at Uehara and Sky Rectangle and the pseudo-external one at Higashi-Tamagawa. Apart from the circular staircases and the stair leading to the tatami room at Higashi-Tamagawa, ALL Shinohara staircases are straight, full-flight stairs. None have “landings” of any kind.  

It’s this look-at-me stair cleverness that makes Yo Shimada Career Case Study #10 rather than Misfit Architect #31. Shimada is in demand on the lecture circuit. All in all, it’s an interesting career trajectory but who or what is responsible for this huge homogenizing force?

Each time the idea of an architecture of components articulated to do what they each have to do surfaces, it is soon abandoned in favour of an architecture of space and surface. In each case, the architecture of articulated components (and that can be rightfully called to be traditional and Japanese) simply has too much in common with what we in the west call “industrial” architecture. This homogenizing force always seems to push things in the direction of an architecture of surface decorated with self-justifying theories. It’s as if people look at buildings like that of the model above and think “yes we like this” and then a second later say “but we don’t want it”.

The homogenizing force doesn’t stop there. If the goal is for all important architects to ultimately conform to the same model then it doesn’t matter where one starts from or how one gets there. Shimada’s case reveals the additional pressure on the exceptions to conform. I feel like an astronomer watching the death of a misfit and the birth of a star. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plainspeaking Yo Shimada becomes Japan’s Bjarke Ingels, if he’s not already.



  • Aha, that poster right at the bottom of your post was for a lecture I attended in my second ever week of architecture school. As I recall, I found Mr. Shimada quite humble about his work, and I did appreciate what he had been doing. I suppose that only time will tell which direction he takes from here.
    Thank you for another informative post!

    • Thanks Daniel, that’s good to hear. There’s much to like about him, and I hope I made that clear. He’s definitely one to watch.

  • Dear Graham McKay, I discovered your blog quite recently and I regret not having before. I leave this comment only as a thankful reminder of the good you do for the mental satisfaction of some, also if I know that’s not the purpose of the blog.
    I follow your thoughts with pleasure, they help me escape a bit from the reality of my architecture job, that encourages the total absence of any analysis or introspection.
    One day I would love to read something from you about chinese architecture and architects, I think in this country there are some little stars hidden in a sea of uninsteresting stuff. Worth mentioning, is the current period of economic ajdustment and balancing, letting some voices slowly raise up, against the past (and present) terrible development of the cities and the abrupt disruption of any traditional style and way of living. People like Yung Ho Chang, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Ke, Zhang Lei and some other little firms are worth some attention.

    Thank you!