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Architecture Misfit #40: Riken Yamamoto

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I’ve missed out for not knowing more about Riken Yamamoto sooner. I’d always admired his 1977 Yamakawa Villa and never miss an opportunity to mention it, most recently in The Dispersed House.

I recently borrowed a copy of the 2012 book Riken Yamamoto – it’s in English and Japanese and has the byline “A diary of 34 years.” On the cover is the man having his photograph taken barefoot with short-sleeved shirt untucked, relaxed and smiling. Apart from this being the first time I’ve ever seen the feet of an architect, it’s also not the usual artificially-lit, three-quarter view dourness intended to solicit awe for being tasked with shouldering the weight of the world. Why can’t architects just do good work and be happy? We need more happy architects.

The book covers the period from the 1977 Yamakawa Villa until 2012 when the book was published. Instead of the book being prefaced with one or more adoring texts written by academics, Yamamoto has written a 400-word introduction himself. This is it.

There’s nothing wrong with an architect being both good and humble but it’s odd I should think it odd. For some reason, we’re educated to accept that an architect must be good and arrogant, leading us to wrongly believe arrogance is a condition for goodness. I’d like to use Riken Yamamoto and his career to illustrate that that’s not true. It’s possible to have a satisfying career in architecture without being an academic fraud, a corporate yes- man or a media poseur. Who even thought a fourth option existed? Thank you already Riken Yamamoto.

The book begins with a long essay titled The Institutionalization of Architectural Space that has these headings.

  • Our Unawareness of Architectural Space
  • The Institutionalization of Architectural Space
  • Architectural Spaces Are Spaces of Symbols
  • The Institutionalization of Housing
  • Society as Conceived by the Bureaucratic System of Government
  • The Non-Ideological Character of “Designers of Facilities”
  • Infrastructure and Facilities Connected to Infrastructure
  • The Assumption That Architectural Spaces are Facilities
  • Is the Architect a Package Designer?
  • Designing Architectural Space Together with Infrastructure
  • “Local Community Area Model”

Here’s some sentences that provide a flavor of the theme and tone of the essay which is the result of at least 35 years of observation and thought. These aren’t popular stances. They’re not even things you even hear said out loud. It’s obvious Riken Yamamoto is a misfit architect.

  • People are not aware of the fact that they are in architectural spaces and that through the mediation of those spaces they are being managed.
  • The people who appear in architectural spaces are not people with distinct personalities but symbols that adopt the behavior which society has dictated, that is, roles in society.
  • It was hoped that standardized housing would create standardized families and a standardized working force.
  • Design engineers are “tradesmen” who [are made to] complete the institutionalization of architectural spaces at the terminuses of bureaucratic organizations.
  • “Architects and architectural designers in a broad sense may say they will design virtual bodies in the future but they cannot be said to participate any longer in the building of systems on the infrastructure level, in terms of design or content. They are involved only in accidental and arbitrary symbols premised on an endless rotation of the system on an infrastructure level. Architects will become cooks. Architects will no longer be involved in the design of the foundation or core of the system.”
  • The failure of a housing policy that has supplied housing by the “one house = one family” system signifies the failure of the Japanese system of governance.
  • There is today no spatial model to replace the “one house = one family” system, even though that system has failed.
  • Architecture is artifact. It is the artifact most central to the creation of the world. Architectural space is the space of our memories. There is no way it should be standard for everyone.

These are all big thoughts. But what about the buildings? How do these big thoughts translate into buildings that either rectify or at least ameliorate the problems identified? The general thrust of the essay is that the spaces of buildings, but particularly of houses, should not comprise isolated, fragmented, identifiable and (thus) controllable facilities but should have a relationship with what is external to them. In other words, a street or a corridor or a shared space is society in miniature and not a representation of it or a symbol for it. I suspect Riken Yamamoto’s refusal to think about and engage with society on the level of representation and symbols is the main reason he is a misfit architect.

Yamamoto’s first published house was the 1977 Yamakawa Villa, designed when he was 32. He says the simple gable roof was the only roof he could think of at the time. He also says this house greatly influenced his subsequent approach. It is outward looking and the terrace from where most of that looking gets done is the main part of the house. The rooms are peripheral.

The next project was Studio Steps. 1978. It was designed as two ateliers with living quarters beneath and behind the stairs used as seating for performances. A large window links this space and the world outside. So far, these two projects both embody Yamamoto’s belief that buildings (and their occupants) should engage with the world around them.

Many of the photographs here are from the website. Recommended, although I wish it had more plans and sections. Much of the website text is from the book.

The 1982 Fuji House has the client’s dental clinic on the ground floor while the living quarters on the upper level are designed to be as lightweight and open as possible. They are also a good example of a dispersed house.

As introduction to Yamamoto’s next project, the 1986 Gazebo, a house for him and his family, the book has an essay titled Community Within a Community but the house itself embodies the introductory essay’s theme. Widening the road outside degraded the street level environment and so, when residents rebuilt their properties, they chose to live on the fourth floors and this is where interaction with neighbours now takes place.

The 1988 Hamlet project is a multi-generational house in which the ground floor and rooftop are the shared spaces. Yamamoto sees it as an archetypal house for how people who choose to live together might dwell.

The 1991 Hotakubo Housing attempted to create a social unit larger than that of an individual house. 110 apartments are arranged around a central courtyard that can only be accessed by passing through one of the apartments. The apartments themselves are split around a central courtyard. It is a proposal for how 110 households might want to live.

The 1992 House in Okayama is another dispersed house, but this time within an enclosure that Yamamoto said he later had second thoughts about.

The 1996 Yamamoto Mental Clinic has a screen of perforated cedar panels that are 35% open to the street. Yamamoto admits this compromise between a completely open building and one completely closed still makes it possible for people on either side to be aware of those on the other.

Three projects, the 1996 Iwadeyama Junior High School and the 1999 Saitama Prefectural University and the 2000 Future University of Hakodate apply this thinking to educational contexts by treating the entire school as a society in miniature. The Iwadeyama project connects different curriculums with 18 shared student lounges, gathering places and a large atrium. A large wall protects from severe winds and bounces light into open spaces in winter.

The Saitama university groups separate departments into a single building sharing a rooftop garden.

The Hakodate university is in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. This is essentially a huge shed organised much like an architect’s office since, he says, we found … researchers work very similar to the way we design, in that students and researchers of the two departments are substantially working together.

Throughout the book are sketches such as these. You don’t see many drawings like this anymore, let alone colored pencil.

Hiroshima West Fire Station, 2000. The building is covered in glass louvres so the area behind them is technically an open area, which means that firefighters can train there in full view of the people on the street, rather than have these important activities hidden around the back of the building. The idea is always the same, but the application of it differs. It is a different way of thinking about how to make architecture.

Twenty five years on, the projects have grown in size and budget but the basic approach of having buildings engage with their communities has been consistent. Yokohama Mitsukyo Housing 2000, is low-rise, high-density and low-cost. Ten houses sharing a common space form a community around which care is organized. More than half the residents live alone and views across courtyards into other apartments are not seen negatively.

Beijing Jian Wai Soho 2004 is a mixed use commercial and residential development in which does without separated communal space for residents in favour of pedestrian public space accessible to all at ground level. To achieve this across the site, all vehicular traffic is diverted to the basement.

The 2001 Ban Building we saw in The Active Band post. These small apartments have their kitchens and bathrooms against the window. I think this is more for the benefit of the people inside than the ones outside. In these more introspective spaces, it’s good to be reminded why one bothers showering and having breakfast, etc. Outside society matters less in the living space.

I’m cherrypicking now. Fussa City Hall 2008 has an accessible planted roof used for public performances and gatherings.

These two sketches have been colored in Photoshop but are no less charming for it.

Architects’ successive projects don’t always get larger and, if they give the appearance of it, it’s often because the smaller ones get refused. This 2008 project titled Dragon Lily’s House is a single family house that states the essence of what Yamamoto had been saying from the outset. One can see why client and architect found each other. It’s no ordinary house anyway, but the kitchen/dining area fronts the street without curtains. A bench outside is for children to sit on the way home from school.

Yamamoto writes, If we call the outside world with a close relationship to the house the local community, then trust in the local community is integral to the makeup of this house. I believe I was asked to design that trust.

Yamamoto’s notion that buildings should enhance their social contexts and work to facilitate this thing called community is a not something that suggests any visual aesthetic. The focus is on a dimension of buildings that’s not a visual one. The projects are often visually striking but as a consequence of them pursuing non-visual goals. “Community” is a word we hear much of these days and it’s usually promoted by the state as a good thing when it means less obligation and responsibility for it. Yamamoto is aware of the managerial efficiencies of a fragmented society and also how, with the wrong kind of buildings, architecture continues to deliver the means by which societies are managed. I expect this is be another reason for his relative sidelining when compared with architects who design houses as socially isolated islands whether that isolation be achieved by designing internal aesthetic universes (Shinohara) or physically defensive enclosures (Ando).

Yamamoto also has words to say about how architects tend to design for other architects in their pseudo-community, but I won’t go into that here.

*otaku is the Japanese for any kind of inward looking obsessive. The English “geek” is close in meaning.

The 2010 Pangyo Housing complex shows how this pursuit of community is enhanced in a housing development for 100 households. Three-storey houses share a deck at their middle levels where there are large glazed entrance hallways opening off a shared garden deck. The entrance space has no set use. Below are the living areas and above are bedrooms.

A 2012 text titled How People Live in a Local Community restates the main themes of the essay text.

Today’s system of government is premised on self-help by the one house = one family unit. However, that social unit is becoming increasingly useless. Then what other ways of dwelling are there? What sort of administrative system is possible? Let us consider a unit composed of approximately 500 people. It could just as well be 400 or 700 people. The number will differ depending on the characteristic of the locality. This will be one ”local community area”. What ways of dwelling are possible for these people? What system of mutual-aid can we develop? 

First, housing. Housing for sale is too burdensome for individuals. Such a form of housing is unable to adapt to major social changes. Housing will therefore be for rental. As much space as possible will be given over to common areas, and areas over which individuals have exclusive rights will be made small. Here, we call the housing from which the local community area is composed ”ie”. An ”ie” is made up of a ”mise”and a ”nema”. This room organization is entirely different from that of the traditional LDK-type unit (Living- Dining- Kitchen). The “mise” is glazed on the outside. The “nema” is a highly private place. People are free to rent space any way they want. They can, for example, rent a large “mise” portion and use it literally as a shop. It can also be used as an office or an atelier. Or it can be a porch-like space where an elderly person can take a nap or a child can play. People can also rent a large “nema” portion and create an “ie” that is like a highly private traditional house. Toilets, showers and mini-kitchens will be shared. Toilets and showers will be made as spacious as possible and provided in sufficient numbers.

Even so, this arrangement will be far more efficient than providing such facilities for each one house = one family unit. The relationship between areas over which individuals have exclusive rights and shared areas has been completely reconsidered. Relationships having to do with energy, transportation, care, nursing, welfare and local economy on which one house = one family was premised have been all reconsidered. Those reconsidered relationships constitute a local community area.

The 2012 Gangnam Housing in Korea proposes making housing multifunctional in character. Housing will no longer be simply a place where the family lives and raises children. A new system can be created by opening up housing to the local community through diverse activities, so that even people living by themselves do not remain isolated. Again, shared decks are used to connect dwellings that aren’t exclusively dwellings.

The book I borrowed was published in 2012 when The Circle at Zurich Airport was still just a competition win. Completed last year, it’s business centre, hotel, entertainment centre and shopping mall all in one. However, to say that openings and internal streets divide the building into distinct parts that still combine to make a whole with an identity is to talk of the building as a representation of a society, not the reality of one.

Given the current state of the airline industry, how successful The Circle will be remains to be seen but I suspect having its amenities available to everyone and not just airport users was not just some lucky call. From what I’ve learned, Yamamoto would have wanted it that way. I’m happy Riken Yamamoto has managed to attract the clients he has, and has responded to their requirements (and those of others) in the ways he has. He has a winning formula, one that he had from the beginning, and one that more people need to know about.

Riken Yamamoto
15 April 1945 ~ 

for showing us other ways of generating architecture

misfits salutes you!

• • •


    • I like to think of myself as receptive but wish I had paid more attention over the years instead of being distracted by the superficially different. I’d always known the name Riken Yamamoto and have looked in more detail at a couple of the projects and, to be fair, liking them for what turned out to be the right reasons, but I’d never seen the bigger picture or the underlying consistency. Better late than never I guess.

  • I mistakenly used arrogance as a crutch. This has freed me from losing sight of the true substance of architecture. Thank you to you both!