The Handshake House
Handshake accommodation isn’t something that happens only in China. Many Japanese suburban houses have a boundary setback of only 50cm. Here’s one we know. There’s windows on the side elevations but they’re small and low down so nobody’s going to be actually shaking hands through them.
And, still in Japan, here’s one we’ve probably forgotten about. Yoshi Yamamoto’s 2013 Danchi Hutch House is too far from its neighbor to be a handshake house proper, but the large windows of the upper level living area face those of the neighbors’ while the windows of the bathroom, utility and wc face the street. This seems perverse to us, but the architect explained that the occupants were used to living in a crowded apartment block and specifically requested a small house and that comforting awareness of living in close proximity to others.
We find this difficult to comprehend and I only mention it to make the point that not everybody regards being able to see and/or see into other people’s windows (and vice-versa) as a bad thing. Personal preference aside, houses in Japanese rural areas are likely to have been built close together in order to maximize the land available for farming.
This proximity remains when urban growth has displaced the farms. The houses in these two photographs above aren’t of the machiya (town) house type with party walls. Some have windows along the long sides and some of those windows will face directly into others across a gap of exactly one meter. Regardless of their outlook, many Japanese windows are likely to have sliding shutters that are closed at night, but it’s not uncommon for kitchen and bathroom windows of older houses to have translucent acrylic screens fixed 20cm away from the glass.
This is Kazuo Shinohara’s 1970 Uncompleted House. You can see the upper floor bedroom on the right directly opposes a neighbour’s window for no reason other than to avoid an excess of symmetry. It is nonetheless a handshake house.
Finally, Nakagin Capsule Tower is symmetrical front and back. Front-facing apartments overlook the KK Route of Tokyo Expressway while the windows of rear-facing apartments have been fitted with a kind of blinker-hood to prevent views in certain directions. The obvious solution is to not place windows close to site boundaries.
Moving on now to Canada, perhaps the intended occupants of BIG’s King Street West building won’t mind paying for multiple opportunities to shake hands with their neighbors. The faux-innovative rotated grid enables the sky-pixel terraces to have inner re-entrant corners for people to withdraw into when they’re not feeling social.
Handshake buildings are slightly different in Australia even if the reasons for them aren’t that different from those operating in Shenzen. The May 2020 post Property Supplement described how residential blocks in Australian capital cities have been subdivided to fit two, three or four houses onto land previously occupied by one.
To describe something is the “new normal” is to encourage denial of a situation that’s actually pretty shit and not about to get any better. The new and challenging Australian suburban reality is long and narrow layouts with very little space between house and boundary. Marketing advertisements make little effort to avoid photographing boundary fences. This could be because it’s impossible not to, but it could also be because they’re accepted as a fact of life – a part of the environment. Some people may not even see them as unpretty, and some may even find some comfort in seeing them.
Here’s the reality of a house recently on the market in the city of Perth. It’s not the best of its type but not the worst either.
There’s a lot that can be said about the lousiness of the layout, the cheesy styling, the fake grass with its strewn leaves and the bizarre barbecue area but what strikes me most of all are the fences visible in every photograph. These houses are clearly the wrong houses for their sites. As I speculated in the Property Supplement post, I don’t think these minimal gaps between detached houses persist because of some Australian bloody-mindedness re. independence or having a homestead of their own though some may like to see it as that). My suspicion is that these gaps exist as construction gaps to facilitate piece construction by non-unionized labour gangs. Joined-up housing is making inroads into Australian suburbs but the barely detached house is unlikely to disappear anytime soon and nor is this method of procurement. The question then is what would be better suited to sites with these proportions?
The courtyard house never really took off in Australia. Being able to look outwards seems important even if there’s nothing to see. It could be part of some national psyche, something to do with surveying the extent of one’s property or merely a miniature manifestation of the Australian obsession with borders. Just as some Japanese can live with and may actually prefer to live with neighbours’ windows in close proximity, a view of a fence denoting a property boundary must still count as a view in Australia.
The layouts of these houses have little variation. Three or four bedrooms and two bathrooms down one side, the covered car parking area, the living areas and the legally required minimum amount of open space down the other. The only major variation comes from the position of the kitchen. It’s always a squeeze getting the two-car covered parking, entrance hall and one habitable room across the width of the block. The room at the front is unlikely to be the master bedroom. You can see from the layout above how much internal circulation is through the living areas – a one-meter strip from one end of the house to the other and there’s nothing particularly wrong with this.
My objection is the poverty of outlook from all rooms except that front one. What to do? Because of my recent interest in growing vegetables, I had reason to remember Ralph Rapson’s Case Study House #4. It has bedrooms down one side of a circulation route, and living areas down the other. Never built and depicting a lifestyle nobody aspired to in 1945, it’s a courtyard house yet not.
As is the way these days, somebody’s gone to the trouble of imagining it for us. Despite the generic render plants standing in for the vegetables, it’s a decent enough starting point for rethinking the Australian Handshake House.
Rapson’s Case Study House #4 was an “introverted” design intended for more confined urban sites – not that you could deduce that from the aerial render that only implies a fence. This is also the first time I’ve ever seen someone hanging up laundry in an architectural rendering. The Australian suburban narrow plot isn’t what Mr. Rapson had in mind but his organization of space only needs some slight adjustments and it’s good to go. The case study houses were designed to celebrate images of California living and we remember Pierre Koenig’s later Case Study House #22 the best for linking that to aspirational locations with desirable views. Rapson’s Case Study House #4 showed us that an “introverted” house doesn’t have to forego sun and air. In Australia at least, its time has come.
As a demonstration site, I’ll use 15.0 m x 33.3 m which is roughly half the quarter-acre block of yore. Yorehouses would have stretched across the block, dividing it into a front garden for show and a backyard for play. No more. Still, half of 1,000 sq.m is still a lot of land. Something can be done with it and it doesn’t have to be horrible. The pressure to do something is there but it’s not that great yet. It’s a bit like the frog in the pot of water.
I’ll start by reducing that construction gap to 50 cm. The side walls can still have Ando-esque windows very low or very high. It should be possible to grow some kind of ground cover to stop weeds proliferating and creating a fire risk. Here’s my first thought.
This next is another thinking-through of the same thing. While the rear of the house can have variations for the degree of separation of that central space, the front of the house will always have the garage, entry and master-bedroom across the front. Everything behind however, is fairly flexible, especially where to place the kitchen.
Quick proof-of-concept tests with dimensions and furniture showed a 15-metre wide site was too wide and a 10-metre one too narrow.
It’d be ideal if a layout similar to the one sketched above could be achieved for a site 12–13 metres wide.
The driveway provides visitor parking for two cars. There will always be a two-car lock-up garage for secure parking. The house may be open to the sky on the inside but with respect to the street it’s a fortress. The front garden wall is maybe 1.6 m high.
The layout is a variation of the Australian three-bedroom house, with the only modern affectation being the three en-suites. Formerly, there would have been only a single bathroom and one separate w/c typically accessed via the laundry on the way to the “back” door, as it is here.
Rather than having a wall of glass sliding doors opening onto the outdoor space, the kitchen is placed centrally along that wall. The kitchen as the core and nerve-centre of the house remains a dominant trope in the Australian suburban house. If the laundry door is the back door and service entrance, then the main recreational access to the outside is typically from sliding glass doors adjacent to the dining area or the living area, as is the case here. If this end of the room is the living area then the other end of this large room where there is illumination via other spaces would be the (indoor) dining area, whereas, if the outside is accessed via the dining area, the other end of the room becomes the living area. Its received illumination would still be an improvement on those often windowless rooms half-heartedly validated in contemporary layouts by labelling them Home Theatre.
The rear of the house can be arranged as one or more self-contained units for semi-independent family members or even for non-family members. The living room wall is pulled away from the fence 1 meter to enable separate external access to these rooms as well as to the central space. Additional high-or low windows can be placed wherever they enhance ventilation and/or illumination.
Perhaps most importantly, the fences remain at both ends of the central space, either to be concealed with planting or left exposed and admired for whatever it is they represent.