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The Floating World: Part I

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The rate of building stock churn in Japan is well documented and the architectural churn it generates more so. This very real manifestation of the Futurist concern for neverending newness meshes perfectly with the post-WWII belief in continuous growth that architects are, on the whole, inclined to accept. Toyo Ito isn’t alone in decrying the situation while feeling the need to go along with it.

“I often use the word ‘floating’ not only to describe a lightness I want to achieve in architecture, but also to express a belief that our lives are losing touch with reality. All of life is becoming a pseudo-experience. This trend is being encouraged by the consumer society, and architecture itself is rapidly becoming more image—or consumption—oriented. This is a matter of grave concern to the architect yet, at the same time, architecture today must be made to relate to this situation. This is the contradiction we are confronted with.” But he continues: “I do not want merely to reject this state of affairs; instead, I want to enter into this situation a bit further and to confirm what sort of architecture is possible [within it].”

One of Ito’s early well-known works was White U House, built in 1976 for a widow and her two children and demolished in 1997. Long story. [c.f. Can Architecture Heal Loss] The house was adjacent to where her brother lived and that I assume was the family house. In 1987, Ito (the brother?) built Silver Hut as his own house, behind White U House. White U House was demolished in 1997 and a small block of apartments built in its place. Silver Hut was demolished in 1997 and by 2013 the site of the former family house was vacant.


White U House 1976–1997, Silver Hut 1984 –1997

Two wildly differing explanations for this high rate of churn both involve periods of twenty years. Ise Grand Shrine is usually invoked as a symbol of permanence over change by being built afresh on alternating sites every twenty years, each time from scratch and with no materials recycled.

The other explanation is the rapid depreciation that Japanese banks apply to timber structures, rendering them financially worthless after twenty years and hence irrelevant when the land is sold. This disproves my long-held belief that the function of architects was to add value to property. As a design architect, I produced proposals that clients approved of and municipalities approved. In doing what I thought was best for the client and site, my proposals gained planning permission and the land value increased sufficiently for the client to put it back on the market. Architects in Japan are probably more cynical than I was at the time. Many of those famous and famously bizarre houses from the 1970s no longer exist and, if they do, it’s more because of sentimental value rather than architectural or historical value.


House in Yokohama 1985–1995

When this house was being designed, we in Shinohara’s studio understood it to be a house for his daughter and an extension to the house where her mother lived. I heard that Shinohara married the same woman twice but I suspect ’79–’82 were the years between. Later, I heard Shinohara himself lived there for a while. If true, then it would’ve been a first for him. I only mention this because one would expect the house to have sentimental value.

Shinohara famously claimed he never cared about his houses once [they’d been photographed and] the owners moved in. If we take this statement at face value then the architectural value of House in Yokohama lay in the photographs of the house and its asset value lay in its land. We will never know about its sentimental value as Shinohara died in 2006. Nevertheless, several photographs of this building that was demolished almost thirty years ago have been sufficient to sustain its architectural value. If it no longer matters if a building exists or not then perhaps those Japanese bankers are correct in detaching asset value from architectural value? The only question for us is, if architectural value lies in the image of an idea, then does it matter if that idea was ever built? If it’s not necessary for a building to exist, is it that necessary for it to have existed? The only difference is that someone with money (but not necessarily taste) paid for it to be built. This, in passing, aligns with Patrik Schumacher’s notion of the role of clients as the people who stump up the cash for whatever reason of their own.

House in White 1966–2008 (when it was almost completely rebuilt in a new location)

I never knew this until the other day when I searched for Shinohara houses that had been demolished, and followed a reference to it in this article.

Here (故-篠原一男氏原設計「白の家」移築新築工事/) is a page by Matsushita Industries, the company responsible for both the salvaging and the construction of the facsimile. It seems misleading to say House in White was relocated when all that remains of the original house is the famous central column and, going by the description of works below, the four central struts of the roof framing. I’d never seen a photograph of the downstairs bedroom before so can’t say if the angled ceiling framing is from the original design or the result of the updated seismic regulations the company refers to.

Images of the reconstruction show the cedar column much darkened with age and, where the refrigerator used to be, is a new kitchen counter extension housing a gas space heater. A second space heater three metres behind next to the bathroom door suggests this room must have been difficult to keep warm. A kitchen exhaust fan has either been added or was airbrushed out in earlier photographs. I suspect the refrigerator has been relocated to next to the washing machine on the way to the bathroom. This house might have been rebuilt because of something as mundane as road widening but it clearly had sentimental value for its owners who made a few corrections. This House in White V2.0 was built in 2008 so it still has five years of asset value remaining. Let’s see what happens. Perhaps it will become a rescue house.

Umbrella House 1963–2022– 

Umbrella House is a rescue house, now found a new home at the Vitra zoo where it can be appreciated devoid of context and without reference to anything other than Shinohara’s own narrative of his artistic progression. It’s what Shinohara would have wanted.

When talking about these relocated houses I’m finding we either don’t have the language or we’re not using it correctly.

  • A house can be said to have been rebuilt when a former one is destroyed by storm or earthquake, for example.
  • A house can be said to have been relocated when it is transported to a new location. 
  • A house can be disassembled, transported to a new location and reassembled. This is what happened to most of Umbrella House.  
  • A house can have certain components salvaged prior to demolition and reused in a replica house built at a new location. This is what happened to House in White.  

Kenji Hirose

SH-60 1962–2021

Who? [c.f. Architecture Misfits #31: Kenji Hirose] Kenji Hirose designed about sixty houses, most of which attempted to square the circle of economy of construction and living with dignity. His SH-60 house was never on anyone’s radar and never remembered to be forgotten. Its demolition goes to show it doesn’t matter how lofty your ideals are, land appreciation conquers all.


Own House, 1953–199?

Nor does it matter if the architect of a house was renowned or not. A Shinohara house goes the same way as a Hirose. And, so it seems, a Tange. The Japanese architectural press seem a bit coy about this one as I could only learn it was demolished “in the 1990s”. I was shocked to learn what I had believed was the first and only house by Japan’s pre-eminent and influential modern architect, was no longer. Tange died in 2006 so somebody must know the circumstances under which he sold his house and to whom.

Two things for the record. Until this year, I’d always thought that Tange’s own house was designed and constructed before Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum but Tange had won the competition for that in 1949 and construction was completed in 1955. His own house, now alternatively known as Villa in Seijo, was begun in 1951 and completed in 1953 so it seems the Hiroshima project is a precursor to his own house and not vice-versa. It is known that Tange admired Corbusier and this is evident in both. The house is an early example of an enigmatic signifier that means Ise Shrine to Japanese and Villa Savoye to Westerners, or both to the architecturally knowledgable. Lovely as the house is, it could be an example of Tange using those syncopated structural bays to create a false narrative of artistic progression.

An article “Research on the design process of Kenzo Tange’s own residence” by Saikaku Toyokawa doesn’t disprove this, but it does mention that the design of Tange’s own house was influenced by the design of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (as well as, at least to begin with, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House). Disturbingly, it disproved my belief (that I have falsely repeated in the past) that Tange’s own house was the only house he ever designed. Not so. There was a second house known as the Urawa House (also known as the Tsutsui House) that was featured in the November 1953 issue of the Japanese magazine Shinkenchiku (New Architecture), and a third of which little is known. Urawa House as described at seems not much different from Tange House that, according to Toyokawa, Tange didn’t design. “… the person initially in charge of Tange residence was Yamanashi Kiyomatsu (a member of Tange Laboratory)” and “Tange asked [Akira] Tarashima to help Yamanashi.” “Sketches related to Tange residence were discovered when Professor Akira Tarashima (former assistant professor at Kagoshima Univ.), who was in-charge of designing the residence while at Tange Laboratory, passed away and his family were organizing his belongings.” If Tange were alive, I’d like to ask him about his house and its sentimental value, architectural value and asset value. Historic value, as ever, is a moveable feast.

• • • 

While I was searching for examples of recently demolished modern Japanese architecture, I came across the website of Japan Property Central, a company that sources property for commercial development. They keep close track of what land is about to be put on the market. There are sections devoted to buildings up for demolition, recently demolished, recently sold, and so on. The next image is for some building plots on the market as of the day before yesterday. On the left is a 1979 Arata Isozaki building and a 1966 Yoji Watanabe building. Either can be yours for about ¥600,000,000 which is about US$4.2 mil. [link] In the right image is a 1930s villa in Kamakura and a 1991 building by Shin Takamatsu. The land for either will set you back about US$7 mil.

Here’s some recently missed opportunities, probably not all of which were pearls. I’m no doubt showing my age by underlining only the architects I know.

This is part one of a two-part post. Two things spring to mind. One is that scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, in which the fierce battle taking place on the ground is filmed, soundless, from above and through clouds. I took this to mean that the commotion on the ground – the eponymous “Ran” ( 乱 ) – counts for nothing from certain points of view. The other thing that sprang to mind is in much the same vein. It’s the final thought in Yukio Mishimia’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. In the first book, Spring Snow, the narrator’s friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae is in love with Satoko Ayakura. It’s doomed, he dies and she retreats to a monastery. At the end of the fourth book, The Decay of the Angel, the narrator goes to visit her at the monastery where she is now abbess. He recounts witnessing the successive reincarnations of Kiyoaki Matsugae over a tumultuous sixty years of Japanese history but, when asked about him, she replies “It has been a most interesting story, but unfortunately I did not know Mr. Matsugae.” He had come to a place that had no memories.

• • • 


  • says:

    Tange’s House, like Corbusier’s Villa Stein, uses a Tartan grid, which was originally deployed by Donato Bramante after 1500 in his so-called House of Raphael, later Palazzo Caprini, demolished in the 17th century. The Tartan grid solved the purely aesthetic problem of turning the corner without any bay irregularities. The price paid was that where one column was sufficient between bays, now four columns were needed. Depending on whether these columns were used in an inner bay, an outer corner, or an inner corner, one, two, or three of those columns could be edited out, becoming virtual. That trick required the square column spacing to be much less than the spacing of bays, and that corners be always defined by such four-column bays. At the Villa Stein as well as at Tange’s house the Tartan grid is reversed, with the column grouping removed from the corners. It is a Modernist protest against Classicism (or traditional wooden construction) violating those rules without abandoning them.

    • Thanks Sergio. I never knew it was called a tartan grid. This would be the grid that Colin Rowe referred to in his The Mathematics of the Idea Villa essay. I can see now how the front and rear balconies of the Tange House have the width of the square grid. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has the smaller grid on the ends but as it’s a linear building there’s no (apparent) grid in the other direction. The HPMM grid probably isn’t a tartan grid anyway, given that it’s ABABBBABA but this difference in grid widths is the only ornament on the long facade, especially when emphasized by the irregular spacing of the vertical fins. It’s known that Tange admired the work of Le Corbusier so there’s almost certainly some reference, if not influence. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

      I went back that article I mentioned and there was a point in the design process where the grid changed from a “Farnsworth House” spacing when the house still had a Farnsworth House height

      Figure 2

      but changed to a “Villa Savoye” grid (with a Farnsworth House plan).
      The “pilotis” came last.

      It’s interesting seeing these devices bounce through history. We probably haven’t seen the last of them.

      Thanks again Sergio,