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Architecture Misfit #41: Kiyoshi Seike

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This is an admission of an omission. For the three years I was at Kazuo Shinohara’s atelier at the then-called Tokyo Institute of Technology, I thought Kiyoshi Seike (清家 清) was running his own studio at the end of the corridor of the same floor of the same building. I used the Ōokayama gate to enter campus and, on the way to Midorigaoka Bldg. 1, from the bridge crossing the railway, you could see Mt. Fuji in the distance on a clear autumn day. It’s always surprisingly large because you’re looking for something smaller.

The old building has since had a retrofit.

Occasionally, Shinohara would refer to Seike-sensei so I always imagined someone at least twenty years older. I was also under the impression that Seike-sensei was interested in traditional Japanese architecture and, since I was interested in modern Japanese architecture and particularly that of Shinohara and the 1970s, I never walked to the end of the corridor to find out more. I regret this. But then, Seike-sensei was probably not there anyway because university policy was for professors to retire at 60, and Seike would’ve turned 60 in 1978, the year before I arrived in Japan.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn all too shamefully recently, that Seike (1918–2005) was only seven years older than Shinohara (1925-2006) and that he died only one year before. Seike graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts and Tokyo Institute of Technology and was an apprentice of modernist architect Yoshiro Taniguchi. I still don’t know when.

Kiyoshi Seike’s own teacher at Tokyo Tech was Yoshirō Taniguchi (1904–79), a distinguished modernist and also the father of Yoshio Taniguchi (b. 1937 and architect and consultant to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its recent rehab).”[3]

The lives and careers of Seike and Shinohara were intertwined. There is little biographical information on Shinohara and even less on Seike and all of what I have below comes from Thomas Daniell’s excellent essay on Shinohara in his excellent book An Anatomy of Influence. I’m reading it to get a glimpse of Seike, even though there is also much I didn’t know about Shinohara.

  • Shinohara began a degree in mathematics while Japan was still at war.
  • He was deployed to Korea just before the war ended (1945) and discharged three months later.
  • Upon return, he completed his degree and taught mathematics at Tokyo Medical and Dental College. (1948–1950?)
  • He became dissatisfied with mathematics (or at least the teaching of it) and his interest in architecture began with philospher Tetsuro Watsuji’s book “Pilgrimage to the Ancient Temples of Nara”.
  • While attending a mathematics conference in Kyoto, Shinohara made his own pilgrimage to Nara and the roof of the Toshodai-ji Temple convinced him to study architecture.
  • Shinohara enrolled at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and, while still interested in Buddhist temples, also learned about western architecture through the magazine Kokusai Kenchiku [International Architecture]. He said he admired the facade composition of Villa Stein and the corner decorations of Palais Stoclet.
  • In third year, students had to choose a research topic and a professor to study under. By chance, Shinohara saw in a copy of Shinkenchiku [New Architecture] magazine on a friend’s desk, photographs of the House for Prof. Mori (1951), designed by Kiyoshi Seike. (1951). Shinohara joined Seike’s studio.
  • After graduation, Seike asked Shinohara to stay on as teaching assistant from 1953 until 1962 when Shinohara was made assistant professor and given his own studio/atelier (篠原研究室) This was the year of the famous essay “Houses are Art!”. He became full professor in 1970. The university atelier continued until Shinohara’s retirement in 1986. He was to run a private atelier until 1997.

But, getting back to Seike’s 1951 House for Dr. Mori, the one that started it all for Shinohara, there’s a lack of concern for the house’s appearance to the street yet it’s not a fortress. The only window facing the street is a full-width one for what looks like the study that also has another full-length window facing the garden. Traditionally, a Japanese house has a long and circuitous route to the guest areas. [It’s a sign of respect to invite guests deep into the house.] Along the way, round timber columns disappear into the ceiling along the corridor that is a sunlit engawa-like space connecting the entrance and living area. It and the Japanese-style rooms opening onto it are the true heart of the house. It’s lovely.

In this house Shinohara saw a merging of the traditional and the modern but, as this is said of many Japanese architects (and even non-Japanese ones such as Antonin Raymond) perhaps it’s more correct to say Shinohara saw some essential Japanese-ness despite the modern idiom. Shinohara therefore entered Seike’s studio just when Seike was completing his most well-known house, House for Prof. Saito. Terunobu Fujimori has emphasized its importance by calling it a “timber Farnsworth House”. Again, the living room is the main event of the house, and features an offset round timber column disappearing into the ceiling. The concrete foundation from the previous house on the site was reused.

Shinohara was there when Seike completed his 1953 House for Professor Miyagi for which little information exists. A square plan is divided into nine by metal trusses, with the central section a roof light.

Shinohara was there in 1954 when Seike designed his My House, a 10m x 5m house for himself and his family in his parent’s back garden. Seike was now 36. Shinohara 29.

  • Walls are concrete and a steel truss spans the living room.
  • The two sleeping areas are separated by a curtain.
  • The kitchen is just a place to prepare food. It has no symbolic importance.
  • The toilet is where the house is entered, and has no door. [The only other example I know of this is SANAA with their 2006-8 Okurayama Apartments.]
  • There is no bath or shower. The family used the one in his parents’ house.
  • Much is made of the continuity between inside and outside, and the use of large sliding glass doors and the same stone to achieve that.
  • The floor is stone, not wood or tatami. This is a “shoes-on” house (or at least was until 1957).
  • There is a moveable Japanese-style tatami “room” that can be rolled outside. It has four square (half) tatami.

In any case, House for Prof. Mori (1951), My House (1954) and House for Prof. Saito (1954) sufficiently impressed Walter Groupius that he asked to be shown them when he visited Japan in 1954. There’s no doubt that, in these houses, Gropius saw a merging of the Japanese and the modern but it’s probably more correct to say that Gropius saw some essential modernness despite the Japanese idiom. At least that’s what Gropius excitedly wrote Mr. Le Corbusier.

We don’t know if Seike took Gropius up on his offer of $100 a week but Seike did spend a few weeks in the US sometime around 1955. Each of the three houses Seike showed Gropius in 1954 were for a university professor and all in the area of Kugahara not too far from the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In short, Seike gained an international reputation for designing three small houses in Kugahara. This is no mean feat. For Seike in the early 1950s, houses might not have been art, but they were very important.

The years 1950-55 were busy ones for Seike so it wouldn’t have been unusual for him to let his students make proposals for a commission he either didn’t want or was too busy to handle. Shinohara won the studio competition and the result is his first house, the 1953-54 House in Kugayama which is often thought to be an interpretation of Kenzo Tange’s first (and only) house which was nearby. The Japanese style room has nine square (half) tatami.

Kiyoshi Seike then, would have wound up his university atelier sometime in 1978 or soon after but this means that, in addition to the four houses we know, there must be much more from the university period alone, let alone from 1978 until 2005. This book seems to have the answer and I will mostly rely upon it for the following chronology. I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions.

Ginichi Store 1950, Tokyo
Dr. Mori’s House 1951, Tokyo
House of Assistant Professor Saito 1952, Tokyo
Professor Miyagi’s House 1953, Tokyo
House for a Mathematician 1954, Tokyo

My House 1954, Tokyo
House for Professor Tsuboi 1955, Tokyo [left]

Cliff House 1956, Hyogo [extension/addition]

Kyushu Institute of Technology Memorial Auditorium and Office Building 1960, Kitakyusyu

Mr. Shimazawa’s House 1962, Tokyo [extension]
Saitama Prefecture Agriculture and Forestry Center 1962, Saitama

Ohara School of Ikebana, 1962, Hyogo
House in Kugahara 1964, Tokyo [needs confirming]

Tokyo Olympic Athletes Village Main Gate 1964, Tokyo
Hisagahara House + Tsukukushigahara House 1964 / 1971, Tokyo [extension]
Nomura Kogeisha Osaka Company Housing 1965, Osaka
Nomura Kogeisha Tokyo Company Housing 1966 / 1974, Tokyo

House in Kokonoesaka, 1967, Hyogo
House in Chigataki 1968, Nagano
House for Professor Tsuboi 1968, Tokyo [extension]

Ohara School of Ikebana Museum, 1970, Hyogo
House in Higashigaoka + House in Higashigaoka in Zoku 1970 / 1973, Tokyo
My House 1970, Tokyo
[extension, right]

Osaka Expo United Nations Pavilion 1970, Osaka

House in Kugahara II, 1974 Tokyo ( [needs confirming]

Tokyo Institute of Technology Research Institute of Science and Engineering Research Institute Planning 1974, Kanagawa
Izu Mitsu Sea Paradise 1977, Shizuoka

Seisei General Wholesale Center Association Hall 1975, Shizuoka
Izu Mitsu Sea Paradise 1977, Shizuoka
Karuizawa Prince Hotel New Building 1982, Nagano
Lake Nojiri Prince Hotel 1984, Nagano
Asakura Fumio Memorial Museum 1990, Oita

Sapporo National College of Technology 1990 / 1994, Hokkaido

There’s probably more. MIT Libraries lists this next as Seike House, designed by Kiyoshi Seike in 1954 but gives no location. Perhaps it was done in the US during Seike’s short spell at TAC?

There’s definitely the East 1 Building at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It’s a tradition for about-to-retire professors of architecture to add to the campus so this administration building probably dates from about 1975.

There was a 2004 (?) exhibition to commemorate 50 years since My House.

Between 1981 and 1982 Kiyishi Seike was President of the Architectural Institute of Japan. This comes between his time at Tokyo Institute of Technology and the beginning of his private practice. So why isn’t Kiyoshi Seike better remembered despite being well respected by his peers and the profession? My first thought is that he placed too much importance on the house itself, rather than how it was represented or communicated in magazines. Most of the photographs we see of House for Professor Saito today are those of the 1:1 model, not the original photographs. Many of the later houses are under-photographed. They may have appeared in magazines at the time, but they weren’t photographed to be sensational. This is gentlemanly and professional, but very old school. It’s a shame. I hope to find that book and learn more.

清家 清
Kiyoshi Seike

  • For not seeking out fame, but nevertheless gaining an international reputation for three small houses you cared about,
  • For being one of an older generation of architects such as Tōgō Murano who saw the building and living in it as the truth, rather than images of it,
  • For not writing polemical texts stating your position, and finally
  • For inspiring many other architects including, indirectly, me.

misfits salutes you!

Further Reading:

    Very interesting account of Gropius’ trip to Japan. [In Chinese. Some of the Japanese names won’t translate accurately into English. Or Japanese]