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Going Outside

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Going outside used to be easy. You’d open a door and step forward and there you were! Sometimes you’d find yourself on a porch – which is sort of like outside but without the rain. It gave you a chance to put your umbrella up or, if you were coming back, to put it down while you looked for your keys. Verandahs are sometimes called porches and, while you can use one to enter and leave the house, a verandah is usually large enough for you and others to sit and enjoy being outside the house yet out of the sun or rain. Veranda(h) is a Hindi word and, in tropical climates, much daily life takes place on them. These habitable buffer zones between inside and outside let you do more things than porches generally do.

Until the beginning of last century, people were happy with their verandahs but, in the colder and more rainy climates, people were content to look at their garden through a window.

The English architect Edwin Lutyens was probably responsible for changing this attitude. His landscape architect Gertrude Jeckyll made sure those gardens weren’t just picturesque when seen through windows but also pleasant places to stroll around. Lutyens’ houses began to have doors opening onto terraces where one could be outside and admire the garden without having to commit to venturing into it. In the plan on the left below, the Hall has large windows on one side and a Garden Court on the other, as a kind of “outside room” leading to the garden proper. In the plan on the right, the south side of the Hall has the room-shaped Fore Court to the south balanced by a rectangular recess to the north. Outside spaces were taking on the shapes and proportions of inside spaces. This was about 1920.

One invention generally attributed to modern architecture is the “blurring” or “flowing” of inside space and outside space. In histories of architecture you usually see these next two images in close proximity, even though Theo van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance was completed in June 1918, seven or eight years before Mies van der Rohe’s 1923 Brick Country House exercise. If you look closely at the painting, you can see how van Doesburg even shows architects where the inside space is. Mies must have let his subscription to de Stijl lapse.

But this thing we now know as “blurring of inside and outside space” was and continues to be a thing of value because it indicates you own the property outside your full-height glass doors. In apartment buildings, a terrace overlooking some spectacular skyline is an okay substitute even though the terrace or balcony is real outside space while the view outside is a type of virtual property that you can only possess visually – even though your right to do that was folded into the price. The use of glass walls and doors to blur the difference between the inside space and the outside property whether virtual or not, isn’t an architectural device that’s applicable to small houses in crowded urban situations. It’s no surprise that many workarounds to this happen in Japan where there’s little or no outside space for those public private buffer zones we call gardens.

Normally, if you go outside your house, you expect to be outside but if you go outside a virtual house then you find yourself in a virtual outside. The intensity of the sensation depends upon how strong the perception of the virtual house was in the first place and there’s a whole spectrum from full-contrast to full-blur. The building in the header image is an example of full contrast. This next house has a verandah but one whose virtual garden is the adjacent driveway and parking lot. It’s still open space and better than a neighbor’s window. It can’t be fully enclosed because it’d then become a habitable room but it’s a versatile space that, weather permitting, the house’s occupants and activities can spillover into it and use it as an extension of the inside.

Inside and outside were always going to be a little bit more fluid in Japan because, just inside the front door, is the genkan and its lowered floor that, conceptually and practically, is a little bit of outside on the inside. It’s where you leave your outdoor shoes before stepping up into the house proper. Whether traditional or modern, house or apartment, there will always be a genkan. Think of it as as internal porch.

Riken Yamamoto’s first published house, the 1977 Yamakawa Villa (designed when he was 32) is not in Tokyo but it’s essentially four virtual houses beneath a verandah This outside space is conventional in having the same roof and floor as the inside spaces , but unconventional in that one has to pass through it to go from room to room. This sensation would be more pronounced in winter but my guess is that this is a summer house for somewhere where it rains a lot. Nevertheless, the house is in ideal surroundings and the space outside the virtual houses is intended as sheltered place from which to view those surroundings and not as a substitute for them. It’s not tricksy.

In the living room on the left, below, see how the floor of the kitchen is lowered for outside shoes to be worn? The same happens in the bedroom where the raised space (40) is the sleeping space.

Katsura Imperial Villa isn’t your standard Japanese house but the lightweight sliding doors encourage the overuse of words such as dematerialize the boundary between inside and outside, probably because this is what sliding doors do. Literally.

When walls can’t or don’t disappear, we’ve been conditioned to see the intent of glass walls as an absence even if this isn’t their reality. People like to say big windows “bring the outside in”. This next house is Shinichi Ogawa’s 1989 house. I don’t know its proper name of so I’ll call it Glass Cube House as it seems like I’m the only person keeping this house alive on the internet. It doesn’t even appear on Ogawa’s website. All house functions are somehow contained in the (4 x 4 m?) white box while the roof is intended as living space. The space between the inner and outer enclosures is used only for entering the inside house and for accessing the virtual outside. The entire space is a verandah but without the porch function. Not only do you feel as though you’re outside, but as if you’re on the roof as well. Here, the sense of being on the outside comes from being visible, on show, exposed.

This brings us to Sou Fujimoto’s House NA. I prefer the Ogawa house above because it gives you the choice of either being inside or “outside” rather than never fully being in one or the other unless you draw the curtains. Sometimes you want to be inside. Sometimes you want to be outside. And sometimes you might want to be inside (because it’s warmer) yet feel as if you’re outside (because it’s brighter). Inside, outside and neither one nor the other are all good. Too much of any one is not.

Sou Fujimoto’s 2008 House N is an example of full blur. It’s like a dream within a dream where you go outside and – horror!– you’re still inside! The sensation of shelter is the same. Only the level of climate control is different.

This is why, to my mind, the Riken Yamamoto house and the Shinichi Ogawa house are superior. They look very different and have very different user experiences but the two different levels of shelter each have their own identity. You know where you are with these houses.

If you wanted to blur the distinction between inside an outside in a Theo van Doesburg kind of way, it’s traditional to have some element spanning the divide. Mies did it with floors and walls. Albert Frey did it with rocks. John Pawson with kitchen counters.

Charmingly, this next house does it with an inclined roof as well as a floor that, in turn, morphs/blurs into the garden. I’m surprised no-one’s thought of this before, but I’m not surprised it was done in Japan.

Here’s another example of the same device used for different ends. In this case, the inside of the roof reflects south light into the living areas that face north. It’s an inclined screen roof.

We can think of the environment in-between a virtual house and the bounding surfaces as a substitute for the privately owned outside space that’s now almost absent apart from 50cm side and rear boundary setbacks. The house inside a house is a virtual house inside a virtual garden. Normally, if you go outside your house, you’d expect to be outside but if you go outside a virtual house then you’re in a virtual outside. The intensity of the sensation will depend upon how strong the perception of the virtual house was in the first place and there’s a whole spectrum from full-contrast to full-blur. The building in the header image is an example of full contrast.

Hiromi Fujii’s 1971 Todoroki Residence riffs on the idea of houses within houses, particularly in that machine room adjacent to the entrances to the offices on the ground floor and to the house above. The virtual outside space between the virtual house and the real outside here exists only on the ground level entrance and the upper level balconies for which the actual structural shell appears as a crustacean-like exoskeleton.  

Mozuna Monta made a good attempt of a house within a house. The plans and section of his 1972 Anti-Dwelling are fairly impenetrable but you get the idea from the interior photo and the cutaway section. You enter and go up to the living area which is kind of suspended cube above the sleeping area below. Once again, the space between two cubes is the circulation space. Conceptually, the living room is the virtual house and the bedroom is in a conceptual outside beneath it, illuminated by light spilling down the gap. 

Although Hiroshi Hara’s 1971 House for himself was site in heavily wooded surroundings but there was no guarantee they’d stay that way for forever. The entry axis is flanked by mysterious pavilions that give nothing away. You’ve entered the house but still not arrived at anywhere that has meaning. Physically you’re inside but conceptually, you’re still outside. I’m trying to imagine a way in which this device can be put to better use in a small house where living happens in or in close proximity to familiar symbols of living. It should be possible to design a small house that doesn’t read as a house. It doesn’t have to appear larger than it is. All it needs to do is to not feel like a small house.



    This house by H arquitects uses this virtual house concept for better climatic control. In Kerala, virtually every buildings are becoming like this. People are adding temporary structures in aluminum roof around and on the top of the ‘real house’ over years. We get 5-6 months of hot summers and 6-7 months of monsoon and this is the main reason. Normally people use such areas for drying clothes, parking, storage, cooking and as workshops. The problem with this practice is the lack of ventilation and lighting to the spaces inside the real house. I am looking forward to the small house design you promised and hope it may answer my concerns also. Thanks.

    • Thanks HCS! I’ll get back to that small house design. You’ve just made me think of a way for how to improve it. Cheers, Graham.