The MUJI House

Is it possible for an architecture to be popular and affordable? Is it even possible anymore to conceive of an architecture that exists outside the perceived status- and value-adding mechanisms of art? MUJI are giving it their best shot.

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For a start, their houses are not unique in the way that superior art and architecture is supposed to be and nor are they designed to be representations of mass-produced things (viz. Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc.) Instead, they’re designed to be mass-produced. Whether apartments or prefabricated houses, mass-produced housing has always suffered from the stigma of not being tailor-made, of not being unique, of not being art. It will take time to get over our belief that all good art is one-off.

Let’s not forget that many of Japan’s unique and arty houses exist on land leased from the landowner and that their lifespan is perhaps two or three generations max. They’re only slightly less ephemeral than sofas or automobiles so it’s only to be expected that a brand with a reputation for quality at low-cost will expand into the market for houses, the largest of consumer purchases. With such a system of land tenure, most Japanese houses are overdesigned and overconstructed. The modern world doesn’t seem to want buildings or other products made solidly to last for generations. It’s just not the way it’s going. Many of our favourite Japanese art houses have lived longer in our memories than they ever did in reality.

Completed in 2007, Sou Fujimoto’s O House was destroyed by the tsunami accompanying the March 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake.

Even without natural disasters, the Japanese are already receptive to the idea of replacing their houses when they no longer fit, or when they wear out, or when they simply don’t like them anymore. Perhaps the strong Japanese brand MUJI (a.k.a. 無印, lit. no brand) is in a good position to make the Japanese (and by proxy, us) see the beauty in buildings that work well, are low in cost, have a simplicity that can be interpreted as an aesthetic, and that are not designed to be handed down over generations.

The MUJI Hut is the kind of tinyhouse oddity we see on the internet and, rightly or wrongly, associate with Japan anyway. Aesthetically, it re-presents pretentious minimalist aesthetic qualities (a.k.a. brand values) we’re already attuned to.

MUJI entered the housing market after IKEA and are currently marketing three different types of house. They take a new approach to finding an aesthetic for affordable, mass produced housing. They are attempting to engineer a product that prompts us to see beauty in the simple and mundane (yet not in an overtly fashionable or stylish way), that works well, that performs well, and at a reasonable cost. They’re rethinking the shed as a high-performance shed and, if we forget about the distraction of houses as art, this is something Japanese architects have been doing for more than half a century.

Storehouse: Yayoi Period (approx. 300BC – 300AD
Locally-sourced timber frame and infill, all raised on timber columns to protect valuable commodities from floodwaters and rats. Overhanging thatch roof reduces rain penetration. A design classic.

Own House, Kenji Hirose, 1953: Hirose’s own house was Japan’s first building using lightweight steel. It used little material, had many of the advantages of a wooden frame and could be factory produced. Infill walls were either brick or glass. It was not raised on columns for the sake of it, and its roof was no bigger than necessary.

Itsuko Hasegawa House at Yaizu 1 1974

Yamakawa Mountain Villa Riken Yamamoto 1977

An old favourite. It’s not a shed in the sense of construction and materials, but in the sense of having nothing to do with the quality of interior spaces created, connections between them, or how they relate to the outside.

もしさまざまな部屋の性質が外部との関わりによって決められるものであるとすれば、ここには外部と関わるための場所のない、つまりあらゆる部屋は内部の者だけの同質の場所だということができる。だからそれぞれの部屋の結合因(結合の原因、関係)を説明することは不可能なのだ。用在的機能だけがあればいい。それが結びついていようとバラバラに離れていようと、どこにあろうとどうだっていいことなのだ。
[If the nature of the various rooms is to be determined by the relationship with the outside, here it can be said that there is no place to engage with the outside, that is, every room is a homogeneous place of only the inside. So it is impossible to explain the linkage factor (the cause of the connection, relation) in each room. It only has to have the use function. Whether it is tied up or apart, it does not matter how it is.]

The translation is faithful but it’s not helping me understand anything. I remember this house from the time and still believe it has something we can learn from. I don’t yet know what it is, and include it here to keep it’s memory alive until I do.

Kazunari Sakamoto House in Sakatayamtsuke 1978

House in Komae Go Hasegawa 2009

House in a Forest Go Hasegawa 2006

Pilotis in a Forest Go Hasegawa 2011

Osamu Ishiyama Dracula’s Den 1995

Osamu Isiyama is a serial maverick and each of his buildings pushes some boundary. With this house, the clients wanted a comfortable box-like house, open inside but closed to society. The wall deformation is the sole architectural event and everything else happens as it would in any nondescript rural building. The architectural press shunned this one.

Danchi Hutch House YYAA 2013

Yo Shimada House in Rokko 2011

Despite this one having a pitched roof and being up in the air, no-one’s ever said it references Ise Shrine or Katsura Palace. It was more important for it to be built from lightweight components and do all the right things re. passive design.

That quick history above shows two opposing forces at work on the Japanese shed. One is that Sheds are Art. The other is that A shed is a shed. Kengo Kuma has a history of trying to reconcile the two so it’s not surprising his name is associated with a house for MUJI.

The Window House 2016

Kengo Kuma is reported as architect on content-accumulator sites such as ArchDaily, Dezeen, etc. but MUJI makes no mention of this or the level of his involvement. This might be because Kuma was merely design advisor or it could be because mentioning it would be contrary to their no-brand ethos. Either way, the design idea is that the size and positioning of windows is for the purchaser to decide according to practical or whimsical criteria they wish. Again, there are plan variations of size and proportion, and an interactive website will price them for you [!]

There’s also a choice of two basic layouts, priced.

Interiors are nothing to be ashamed of.

There’s an infinite number of variations for just the number, size and position of windows. The arrangement of functions inside the house is also flexible. MUJI’s fabricators have obviously devised a system of manufacture and assembly that can cope with imposed site conditions but is also not compromised by things purchasers might like to customise, such as the positioning of windows and the allocation of functions.  

The Wood House [木の家] 2009

The main features of this house are the double-height space and the deep eaves. The architect was Kazuhiko Namba and this house is the result of his research since 1995 into the “box house” concept I want to write about soon. On the non-Japanese internet, the name of this house is often googletranslated as “Tree House.” This is of no great consequence but the house is often mis-attributed to Kengo Kuma which, as these things go, probably doesn’t matter that much either. The website of Kazuhiko Namba and his studio is not translated into English and he deserves our respect for that.

In addition, Wood House has two basic layouts with the more open being for a family of four.

This is why you’ll see many images of MUJI’s Wood House (sometimes called Tree House) and few will be the same. Like IKEA, MUJI have found a way to make the catalogue house work, but MUJI appear to be doing it without repetition. Either the concept of “economies of scale” is a fiction or MUJI have found a different way to achieve them. Their interactive website plans suggest that variation without redundancy is something can be designed for upfront.

The Vertical House 2010~ MUJI + Tohoku University of Art and Design

Of MUJI’s three types of house, Vertical House has least kerb appeal but is the most accessible. If Rural Studio in the US aims to provide the US$20K house, then the Japanese equivalent is the JP¥10 mil. house and this is what it looks like.

Here’s what the MUJI website has to say. As a statement of intent, it’s good.

Vertical House proposes a new type of urban house that makes good use of small sites. The high “MUJI House” standards for airtightness and thermal insulation control the indoor temperature and air quality and the three-storey void provides an even level of comfort throughout the house. Split-level planning allows for six distinct spaces that have no doors or partitions yet which are connected by the central void. … This research collaboration between industry and academia explores how the comfortable internal environment of timber construction intersects with greater environmental imperatives and the Japanese culture of living with Nature, and asks how the Japanese house should be. Vertical House arose from attempts to solve questions of how people are to live in the city, using passive design to create a comfortable environment neither hot nor cold on small sites that don’t receive much solar insolation, and connecting family members while providing their individual space.

This time there’s no scope for infinite variations. Fixed variations accommodate different site proportions, directions of access as well as buildable volume truncations determined by Japan’s sunlight code. With its end entrance and large genkan for bicycles and shoe storage, this first variation is for sites deeper than they are wide. Ground level is utility level, first is living and second is sleeping. It’s two rooms per landing and a three storey lightwell. But see how finely the levels are set. The traditional genkan [Ent.] level is one step lower, but doesn’t need a high ceiling so the living room above absorbs that height. It also absorbs height from the above bedroom under the higher end of the roof. The addition of risers at the room entrance thresholds mean the staircase can be made shorter and the house as narrow as possible. There’s much intelligence in this layout. Plumbing, structure and construction are not complicated. In each of these three plans, the staircases have been ingeniously contrived so rooms are entered at positions requiring the least amount of additional circulation space. 

This next variation allows for the parking of a small car so it must still be the case in Japan that you must first be able to prove you have a space to park a car before you can buy one. The cost of this is a complicated plan that now has a bedroom on the lowest level instead of that neat utility arrangement. That bedroom could easily be with the other one on the top floor and the plumbing simplified so it must have been done for some other reason. The house is definitely a three-person house but whether it is for parents and child or for parents and grandparent we don’t know. Having views in both directions on the living space level seems to be a feature.

This next one is tight. Bathrooms at ground, living on first and bedrooms at the top is the pattern. The roof trunctation suggests this house is designed for slivers of land along the south side of a narrow road. Although the bedrooms are bed-spaces, the smaller genkan allows a second space for work and study at ground level.

I can’t see how this can be rationalized any further. It’s close to a perfect object as you’ll find. The three-storey void won’t enhance ventilation of daylighting much more than the stairwell is already doing so I suspect that, like the stairs, it’s the best way to separate sleeping areas and other horizontally while still connecting them vertically. This volume could be bridged over and used as storage but, if you imagine a huge chimney-breast like volume in these next images you’ll agree it’s best left a void.

• • •

  1. http://www.interactiongreen.com/muji-house/
  2. http://www.kai-workshop.com/boxhouse/boxhouse01.html
  3. https://resources.realestate.co.jp/buy/the-present-and-future-of-net-zero-energy-houses-in-japan/
  4. https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/10/why-buying-entire-pre-designed-houses-could-catch-on-in-japan/
  5. https://www.muji.net/ie/

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9 thoughts on “The MUJI House

  1. Joshua James Duncan

    The MUJI Hut seems a bit ridiculous at ~50K AUD for a 9m2 room with no bathroom or kitchen… I’m also looking forward to reading your post on Kazuhiko Namba – I incidentally picked up a book on his box houses while in Tokyo in 2016.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I share your concern Colin. There may be several different places in the house for family members to be, but they’re all still very much open to each other. This is the conundrum. The houses feel big because it’s open end to end and also vertically. The one large void is the only luxury these houses have. Kazuhiko Namba has one of his Box House variations where the void is external to the house and this would go some of the way towards solving the noise problem. I’m going to write more about him in a couple of weeks. Graham

  2. dougwittnebel

    I have been watching the progress of the Muji house since the first glimpse from Kuma studies. I look forward to the opportunity to build one in California.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I think it’d suit California very well. Good luck with it and keep me updated. Graham.

  3. Bowen Ng

    What if you want to modify a bit of a house? Say you have children, and you ended up getting twins or something. then that may require the house to be modified? Instead of upsizing or downsizing by way of buy or building a new house, you could just modify a room or raise an extension in say a week and remove another part just as quickly.

    Perhaps for some there isnt an-all-you-can-eat house and unforseen additions need to be made somewhere along the line.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Yes, that would be a problem, especially since the large cities of Japan have regulations that define how high you can build so it doesn’t block sunlight to the street or your neighbours. There’s also the problem of adding extra load to a structure that wasn’t designed to take it. The only way you could gain extra floorspace in these MUJI houses is to build over the double-height space. It’s a shame that making this extra floorspace will destroy the one feature of the house that makes it feel larger but that’s the choice.

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