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The Asakura House

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In Summer 2019 an article of mine titled A Shinohara House is a Work of Art appeared in Log #45. This spin-off post picks up the story halfway.

It was the final year of my masters course at Shinohara’s “atelier” at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. One day I was looking through the plan cabinet at the A1 drawings on tracing-paper and came across plans and elevations of a house I didn’t recognize. A low-pitched pyramidal roof capped a reinforced concrete frame that divided each facade into two-story bays. It was awkward, clumsy, and heavy – a real dog, I thought. I felt that simultaneous shame and excitement at seeing something I felt I wasn’t meant to see, but I asked one of the seniors about this house and what happened to it. He told me it had been built but the client didn’t want it published. Whether that was true or not depended on who had told him.

Forty-odd years later, I related this story to a friend who said it would be very exciting if there were some unknown Shinohara houses out there. I sent him this sketch of my memory of what I’d seen, adding that the house had never been published.

I was wrong about that. Upon completion, the house hadn’t been published in Japan Architect as all other Shinohara houses had been, but it had been included in a 1996 monograph by publisher TOTO.

I bought a copy out of some weird sense of duty but never warmed to its grainy black and white photographs so I was happy to loan it to people and one day it didn’t come back. If I’d ever flipped through it to the end I wouldn’t have had to wait 44 years to learn that my mystery house was Asakura House completed 1966.

Setsu Asakura is best remembered for her work as a scenographer that encompassed avant-garde theatre, lyric opera, prose theatre, musicals, feature films and both traditional Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre. That last part of that sentence is paraphrased from an excellent introduction to her and her work on

In short, she was an artist sensitive to three-dimensional space.

In the TOTO monograph, Asakura House gets one photograph and a single spread. That text is everything Shinohara had to say about this house 30 years after its completion.

You can see how my memory mashes up two elevations and misremembers the number of columns but was right about the ungainly proportions and the underwhelming roof.

This is my rough translation. I’ve added inline comments. The original doesn’t have much flow to interrupt.

Asakura House

In Spring 1964, Japanese artist Setsu Asakura and I had a joint exhibition at a large department store. The exhibition included a fine timber model of a house for her family.

This was the first I’d heard of this first proposal. It was referenced on p. 134–135 in an essay titled “meaning of The Archetypal House Project” by Shinichi Okuyama in the 2008 book “Kazuo Shinohara – Houses and Drawings” (Shokokusha Publishing). The essay describes internal arrangements, but not the exterior or materials.

When the house was completed in 1966, I was aware of a discrepancy between the house and my expectations of it. I was unable to resolve that discrepancy to my satisfaction so I decided not to have the house published.


Now, some 30 years on, it is being published for the first time. Trees in the garden make the exterior difficult to photograph.

This depends what you want those photographs to show. That particular angle makes the roof look more substantial, and the angle of the sun make the corner columns appear meatier. These are some unauthorized photographs.

In the period just after the exhibition, Setsu Asakura’s mode of artistic expression shifted to the three-dimensional spaces of stage design. Her family life filled the house for the next 30 years and it is no longer possible for a camera to extract and describe the architect’s concept for configuring [the space]. The one photograph of a spatial fragment shows the reality that has existed for 30 years.

Shinohara’s houses were always photographed prior to their owners moving in so the decision to not publish was made well before the house was completed in 1966, trees or no trees. The house has one bedroom.

I believe the discrepancy I mentioned arises from using a concrete structure as the physical mode to express something Japanese.

Shinohara either forgets or doesn’t expect us to remember that his first house used metal columns as if they were timber and to say something architecturally Japanese. It’s not necessarily the choice of material that was wrong.

Shinohara 1954

With my later House in White, I was able to think more deeply and from the point of view of a more Japanese configuration. The plan [of House in White] is a simple division of space. Moreover, the meaning expressed by the space has a strong symbolism. I define spatial division and symbolic space as the core of Japanese [architectural] expression. However, this concrete house is not configured by spatial division. It is closer to what I call my Second Style that has a stronger awareness of symbolic expression.

House in White was not later but concurrent. The conversation is diverted to methods of spatial composition. Shinohara is saying that House in White is Japanese both inside and outside while Asakura House is Japanese only on the outside.

A concrete house usually means avoiding timber [frame] construction and adopting a Western wall construction suitably calculated to withstand earthquakes. The beams shown in the section are deep to resist earthquakes and are not the same as traditional timber beams. Here for the first time I split the columns in cross section in an attempt to use a concrete structure to express something akin to timber construction.

Whenever Shinohara uses functional reasons to justify something, I smell a red herring. Deep roof beams alone don’t resist earthquakes.

The plan is a square with ten-meter sides and [the upper floor] is a single two-storey high room. Based on excellent structural analysis, it is a successful expression of a Japanese space. This expression is reinforced by the timber screens and typical Japanese details on the east elevation. At this time, I was uneasy about this direction for [configuring] Japanese space. The non-Japanese configuration I unconsciously used on the inside is in direct opposition to the Japanese configuration I used on the outside.

The plan is a successful expression of a Japanese space yet, three sentences later it is a non-Japanese configuration. It’s difficult to care. Shinohara is talking about everything else but those beams that have eluded cameras for 55 years now so let’s have a look! I’ve guessed white for the soffit because light would have been important to Asakura. The differently truncated beams occur when this beam geometry is juxtaposed with this roof geometry and I think the problem has something to do with that, possibly because a hipped roof is not being supported by hip rafters. Bottom line is it’s not pretty and needs a ceiling. Hmm, there’s an idea.

With House in White, I moved back towards a more Japanese space. After this, with Suzuki House, this difference between the exterior with its Japanese expression of a simple large rectangular roof and greatly overhanging eaves and the interior with its non-Japanese expression of a fragment of a southern European street led directly to what came to be called my Second Style. Inorganic space is said to be non-Japanese but should be more accurately called non/Western traditional space and I believe the initial motive for my shift towards it is bound up in this house. House in Uehara was a precursor to my Third Style ten years later and was built several hundred metres south of the Odakyu Line.

January, 1996

I only know of one Suzuki House [a.k.a. House on a Curved Road] from 1978 but there may be another as certain clients [Otsuji, Tanikawa and, as we shall see, Asakura] commissioned Shinohara more than once. Whether the inside-outside discrepancy of Asakura House was turned into a positive in a Suzuki House from 1978 or earlier, it still took 30-odd years for Shinohara to process it and tell us. The last line of the text is a reference back to the Odakyu Department Store in Shinjuku where the 1964 exhibition was held. It adds nothing but lets Shinohara mention his Third Style and imply an ongoing artistic quest.

But how did it all come to this? How could Shinohara have got it so wrong, even by his own standards whatever they were? Here’s what I think happened.

The period between 1964 and 1966 was a busy one for Shinohara. Asakura House was designed and constructed concurrently with House in Hanayama, House in White, and House of Earth. All have square plans and rooms within rooms, and all have some kind of pyramidal roof. It would have been strange had there not been similarities in their ideas and forms but tracking these similarities is where things start to get murky.

Lesson: If you attempt to create a linear narrative of one’s artistic progression from multiple projects whose design and construction periods overlap, then sooner or later circumstances are going to produce something that simply doesn’t fit and has to be excluded from the story which is, after all, a kind of fiction for popular consumption. Shinohara wasn’t the first to do it and certainly wasn’t the last.

It’s evident even from the translation above that Shinohara liked to describe his work in terms of First Style, Second Style and Third Style, much as Picasso had his Pink Period and his Blue Period. We know the order in which these houses were published but what we don’t know is the order in which their designs developed, overlapped or finalized.

House of Earth, 1966, section

I see House of Earth as an outlier and its detached basement as a working through of the irrational and emotional Earth House / Black Space project shown at the Odakyu exhibition. An architecture of underground spaces is more surreal than sublime, and Shinohara took it no further although traces of the idea remain in the houses from 1970–71 and their fascinating interior spaces within unprepossessing shells.

Of the other three houses, the design and construction of House in Hanayama took the least time, with its design beginning seven months after House in White and completing nine months before the completion of both House in White and Asakura House. Its three-quarter pyramidal roof is supported by diagonal struts springing from a corner, which is also the center of an implied square plan. It also has a lone, off-center column in the living space. Unless the design of House in White had progressed no further than a pyramidal roof on a square plan in the seven months before the design of House in Hanayama began, House in Hanayama is more likely a consequence of House in White than the precursor it’s supposed to be.

The high roof of Asakura House wasn’t working but the raised stonework of House in Hanayama makes its roof look almost too low. It sets up House in White as the Goldilocks solution.

It’s possible that a single design process led to both House in Hanayama and House in White, but it’s also possible that, after eight months of work, Shinohara was so confident of his design for House in White that he wrote off Asakura House and quickly derived House in Hanayama from House in White in order to end a 15-month publishing hiatus and to create what would appear to be a prelude to it, still nine months away from completion.

This is my hypothesis and it’s consistent with Shinohara’s desire to be seen as an an architect wanting not only to produce original buildings but to do so in a sequence that demonstrates confident progress toward some unspoken artistic vision. The roof struts of House in Hanayama prime us to appreciate their absence in House in White. A lone column stands by the entrance lobby, waiting to be seen as a precursor.

So then, what ideas did Asakura House bring to House in White?

Its design began six months after House in White had started and seven months before House in Hanayama. Asakura House and House in White both have double-height main rooms but that of Asakura House occupies the second and would-be third levels. The low-pitched concrete roof of Asakura House sits uneasily on 16 perimeter columns that are thus three storeys high, unlike House in White, where they are one and a half storeys, or House in Hanayama, where they are one storey but the raised stone base makes them appear even lower. This problem of proportion could not be fixed by lowering the roof if, as I’m inclined to think, Setsu Asakura had specifically asked for a double-height studio a reasonable assumption.

Moreover, the things that seem ungainly about Asakura House are the same things House in White is praised for getting so right.

  • House in White’s satisfying proportions come from its higher-pitched roof springing from a lower height and its ground-floor windows being half the height of the walls.
  • Its corners are emphasized by tripled timber columns that form an inward-facing L-shape, whereas those of Asakura House are emphasized by concrete columns that form an outward-facing L-shape that even Shinohara had second thoughts about.
  • Asakura House has a visible roof with no central support while House in White has a concealed roof and central column that continues through the ceiling.

The problem for Shinohara was that the two houses implied different and opposing approaches and, horror, both were to be completed and publication expected the same month, making it difficult to sustain the image of an artist pursuing a single, evolving vision. If both had been published at the same time, comparisons would have been unavoidable and any pretense of consistent development lost. In terms of the narrative of artistic progression, Asakura House was useless but House in White a masterpiece. If the former had been published first, critics would have said Shinohara was losing his way, and if it had been published second” they would’ve said exactly the same. This is simply how the game is played.

One day, Arata Isozaki visited Shinohara’s studio and, as an esquisse, set us masters students the task of designing a café. Mine had a square plan, 10 meters per side, with a 30-degree pyramidal roof supported by two intersecting triangular concrete trusses sprung from the midpoints of the walls rather than the corners. The implied ceiling was low, perhaps three meters. Skylights at the truncated apex allowed light into the quarter-roofs. Shinohara must have been mortified to see me inadvertently correct Asakura House’s roof and unwittingly design an anti-House in White in which a very substantial roof structure had no ceiling to hide it nor column to imply it. Isozaki had some kind words to say about my project, but I forget what they were.

What I do remember are his tweed three-piece suit and pair of expensive looking brown brogues. Thinking about it now, Isozaki’s contrived Western-ness may have been a criticism of Shinohara’s contrived Japanese-ness. It was to all come to a head with the Yokohama Port Ferry Terminal competition for which Isozaki was a judge. They never spoke again.

All this mattered not a single jot to Setsu Asakura. Her house was not an artwork but her home and her studio. It was where she lived and was industrious. It suited her purposes and she asked no more of it. She seems to have had a very productive and happy life in her house despite Shinohara’s misgivings about its place in his oeuvre.

Shinohara was surely irritated by her being photographed so frequently in what was after all her house and studio, but Setsu Asakura bore him no animosity for not wanting to publish it. In fact, she asked him to design her another and the result was the 1974 Prism House, a house that has something of a cult following. The received wisdom is that architects improve the lives of the people they design for even though there’s no evidence for such architectural determinism. Setsu Asakura shows us how people can lead happy, industrious and fulfilling lives despite architecture. Bravo!

This post turned out to not be about what happens when architecture detaches itself from people but rather about what happens when architects’ narratives take on a life of their own and detach themselves from architecture.

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