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Architecture Misfit #32: Kazuhiko Namba

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I remember this building from when it was published in Japan Architect in 1975. It was called something like House with 54 Windows.

87_ishii02a-c.jpg


I didn’t remember the name of its architect, Kazuhiko Namba, or that it was a combined clinic and house but I did like its controlled craziness. Like many other buildings of the time, it had its moment and was forgotten. Maybe it’s survived and been taken good care of because it’s a clinic and not just a house.

I learned only recently that Kazuhiko Namba was the architect of MUJI’s Wood House which was a natural extension of his work for Box House of which there are 140 iterations, not including six more for MUJI.

I was impressed by Kenji Hirose’s 65 iterations of the same set of principles but 140 iterations is astounding. [1]  Kenji Hirose’s SH house series stopped with SH-65 in 1963 but Namba’s only began in 1995.

If, as I suspect, Hirose saw in 1965 an emergent Post-Modernism as the writing on the wall for his sincere Case Study approach to Japanese housing, I like to think that in 1995 Namba saw the disenchantment with Post-Modernism as a sign it was time somebody took another crack at it. His Box House endeavour is explained by this document with 108 iterations on its cover page.

box concepts_Page_1

“So far we have built various types of Box House on various sites and intend to continue making the Box House even more compact and better performing. These small houses allow diverse households to enjoy living on small sites and connected to the city. We are taking on new challenges and building on our work to date by incorporating new techniques such as frame assembly into the compact and high-performance Ecohouse we now propose. “We are looking for clients interested in the upcoming version of Box House. All Box Houses are designed to allow for combinations and it is through these variations that the city emerges.”

I like the way Namba acknowledges that designing to optimise a particular object involves designing for variations at the same time. The variations Namba acknowledges are not whimsical personalizations but customizations to suit particular site circumstances such as access or light.

Design Summary:

box concepts_Page_2
  1. A compact Box House:
    • Is a compact and low-cost “box house”.
    • Can be built on irregular sites and small sites of 70-100m².
    • Is one of four types catering to two-, three-, and four person households.
    • Is a house built in the city that is open to the sity.
    • Has been designed to contribute to the streetscape and city.
  2. Appropriate cost and performance
    • Our experience with the Box House has led us to an appropriate cost-performance. 
    • The (estimated) construction cost includes water and sewage connections, underfloor heating and electrics.
  3. Design management
    • Contractors are chosen on the basis of their construction expertise.
    • Contractors have responsibility for the design implemented, cost estimates and site supervision.
  4. Taking the Box House forward
    • On top of the Box House is a dovecote-like ventilator to ensure through-ventilation. 
    • The structure is a conventional frame made from solid timbers of Japanese cedar. 
    • Excellent quality management gives timber from the Kishu region [Shikoku and Wakayama Prefecture] the excellent functional and aesthetic qualities that the design displays. 

This is interesting – it’s practically a misfits’ manifesto. Only what can be reinvented has been reinvented, there’s no change for change’s sake, all innovations aren’t design ones, what’s not broken isn’t fixed, and there’s no mention of ornament. Let’s look at those four types.

The “Machiya” – narrow and long with a double-height room

box concepts_Page_3
  • A long and narrow house of 5.46 m x 9.10 m
  • The lower level has living spaces and wet rooms and the upper level has spaces for a family of three.
  • Upper and lower levels are connected by the long double-height space.
  • It is a small house but not a cramped one.
  • Deep eaves control sunlight and the rooftop ventilator facilitates ventilation.
  • The foundation is thermally insulated and the airtight window frames are designed to prevent thermal bridging.
  • Gross internal floor area is approx. 67 m² and the construction cost (iucluding tax) is approx. JP¥25 mil. [US$230,000].

The site plan shows Japan’s 50cm side and 75cm rear setbacks. The double-height space allows direct sunlight deeper into the room. The ground floor terrace and upper floor “veranda” seem wasteful but I suspect it’s a way of shifting the large windows farther away from any neighbours’ windows 75cm the other side of that boundary. When Namba talks about these houses connecting people to the city, I think he means things like those unobstructed spaces between two windows on opposite sides of the house. On both levels, these make the outside more connected to people moving around inside. It’s a good and generous thing. Spatiality is not just about the inside.

The “Outdoor Room” – L-shaped

box concepts_Page_4
  • A square house of 7.28m x 7.28m.
  • The double-height outdoor room is defined by the family room and the wet rooms on the lower level and the master bedroom and childrens’ rooms on the upper. The two levels are connected by this large space.
  • The south side of the outdoor room has a louvred barrier to screen it from the street.
  • Deep eaves control sunlight and the rooftop ventilator facilitates ventilation.
  • The foundation is thermally insulated and the airtight window frames are designed to prevent thermal bridging.
  • Gross internal floor area is approx. 76 m² and the construction cost (iucluding tax) is approx. JP¥29 mil. [US$264,000].

This is lovely planning although you’ll have noticed there’s no living room with its symbolic sofas, fireplace, or television. People in this house are either cooking, eating, sleeping, studying or in the outdoor  room. There’s almost no circulation space apart from the stair landings and that small amount of space always required to pass one bedroom to get to the other. Any other circulation space doubles as the space required to use the items of furniture accessed. Both this and the previous plan have the toilet beneath the stairs to use the lesser headroom to advantage.

Single storey proposal – barrier-free house

box concepts_Page_5
  • A square house of 7.28m x 9.10m.
  • The sleeping and daytime areas are on the south side and the wet rooms on the north.
  • A comfortable and small barrier-free house for an elderly couple.
  • The wet rooms take up little space and have simple access.
  • Deep eaves control sunlight and the rooftop ventilator facilitates ventilation.
  • The foundation is thermally insulated and the airtight window frames are designed to prevent thermal bridging.
  • Gross internal floor area is approx. 50 m² and the construction cost (iucluding tax) is approx. JP¥22 mil. [US$200,700].

This too is a lovely plan. It reminds me of Kenji Hirose’s 1953 SH–1 with its elegant simplicity pre-dating those of Tange or Shinohara. I like how the bathroom door is at the end of the circulation space that becomes the bed activity space. The entry to the kitchen is in a similarly sensible position between the dining table and that storage on the other side of those wardrobes. Circulation space in this house is perhaps 7m² max. Again, there’s a window at one end of it. That 7m² has been absorbed into the space of the rooms and without compromising the space needed to access the things that make the space. This is the frontline.

Three-Storey House – for small urban plots

box concepts_Page_6
  • A square house of 4.55m x 6.73m.
  • A bedroom and bathrooms at ground level, family room above, and a loft space above that, all easily partitioned by straight stairs.
  • This house can be built on small urban plots of less than 60 sq.m.
  • The inclined roof profile satisfies the incident sunlight regulations for Type 2 Height Zones [as per the dashed line shown in the section GM]
  • Deep eaves control sunlight and the rooftop ventilator facilitates ventilation.
  • The foundation is thermally insulated and the airtight window frames are designed to prevent thermal bridging.
  • Gross internal floor area is approx. 69.3m² and the construction cost (iucluding tax) is approx. JP¥22 mil. [US$244,400].

There’s no mystery as to how the money is spent.

  • As with the MUJI houses, plan variations are needed for sites where sunlight and access are not on the same side. If the Box House project is seen as research into parameters relevant for housing, by now, I expect Namba can be shown a site and its permissible building envelope and compute the final house almost immediately. Occasionally, some new site might suggest a new variation to add to the mix but there is basically a finite number of ways the pieces can be arranged and stretched or shrunk to fit.
  • The double-height space is not an aesthetic pretension but a unifying element that prevents the house from being a cramped cluster of disconnected rooms. Visual openness vs. visual and acoustic privacy conundrum is always a problem with double-height spaces – it’s just more crucial in small houses and one of Namba’s solutions is the external double-height space of the Type 02 Box House.
  • There’s at least one house known on the internet as Plywood House that probably also has a Box House number and the same preoccupations. For some reason, everyone will want to tell you even the nail heads are exposed. I don’t know where this house fits into the run of plywood-lined houses we’ve had over the past few years, but the clear distinction between the elements making the space and the things inside it that enable it to be used makes this for me a very Japanese space. That all its surfaces are plywood is not so important.
  • The frontality of this image is typical of how Japanese spaces, traditional and otherwise, are usually photographed, moved within and generally experienced but in this case several simple and raw materials have been juxtaposed to create a feeling of richness and abundance. This is a technique of immense value. Plywood House with its clear distinction between container and contained is one way of housing people and their things, but the primary architectural elements of this house are an assemblage of diverse elements and materials and, as such, have that in common with the chairs, kitchen fittings, lamp, mirror, washbasin and reverse-cycle air conditioner that enable it to be used as a house. This house could be lived in as we see it but in all probability the actual stuff of habitation will add another layer of diversity. This house will very easily accommodate its occupants and their things and the result won’t be a styled “interior” or even a hard juxtaposition but a melange of building, inhabitants and possessions that can be rightly called a house.
  • For Namba, architecture is very simple and all his efforts are concerned with making it simpler still. I’m quite sure he knows how to make the best comprehensive use of space within the volume of the box and also how to construct it cheaply, efficiently and intelligently. The only problem he hasn’t been able to address is poor land-use efficiency on small sites.

    Let’s say a Box House or MUJI House can be built on a piece of land 10m x 6m = 60sq.m. After allowing for 50cm side setbacks and a 75cm rear setback, the buildable area becomes 9.25 x 5m = 46.25sq.m. If almost 25% of a plot is going to remain unbuilt on, then it makes sense to combine plots and perfect either 1) the two- and three-storey machiya [2] as row houses with either an internal or external void or 2) some other typology for multiple occupation. That this doesn’t happen as often as it should is because of the Japanese version of The Homestead Myth.

Kazuhiko Namba has designed buildings other than Box Houses.

  • There’s the 1975 House with 54 Windows that began this post.
  • There’s a 1985 building in Ginza called Office Machine [6-13-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]. This must be it, but I can’t draw any conclusions from it.
  • There’s the 2006 Nitenmon Branch Fire Station of Tokyo Fire Department. It’s a box.
  • There’s the 2011 Kamaishi Box multipurpose community building for the tsunami-hit town of Kamaishi. It’s designed to be quickly assembled and disassembled.

• • •

Kazuhiko Namba!
[1947 ~ ]

For identifying a problem,
doing what needs to be done to solve it,
and constantly learning how to do it better,
For being like a doctor with a steady stream of patients
whose individual circumstances may be different
but the goal of making them better stays the same,
For spending a life in architecture well,

misfits salutes you!

• • •

• • •

  1. More on Kenji Hirose at Architecture Misfit #31: Kenji Hirose
  2. More on machiya at The Japanese Machiya
  3. More on Kamaishi Box at https://www.designboom.com/architecture/kazuhiko-namba-kai-workshop-boxhouse-140/

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Comments

  • We need an C.Alexander divulgator here! Everytime I dare to venture into his books my mind defaults… Maybe there is an oedipal thing happening betwen Namba and him, and that could explain Namba’s straightforwardness.

    • says:

      You’re welcome Diego! Namba’s definitely one of the good guys. I’ve a lot of respect. Graham.

      • You knew he was local architect for Christopher Alexander’s Higashino Eishin Campus in Saitama? One out of many, the only one who endured Alexander…

      • No I didn’t – thanks! In fact, I didn’t even know about the Higashino Eishin Campus but photographs and plans were easy to find. When I see things like this I can’t help wondering what are all these patterny bits I’m supposed to like. I imagine the gatey gate is one. I would’ve preferred more Namba and less Alexander. “Notes on the Synthesis of form” was one of my undergraduate textbooks. I can’t say I understand it any better. Maybe I’m a pattern language agnostic? Or perhaps one man’s patterns are another man’s tropes?