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For two years in the early 1990s, I lived in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district in a three-storey house somebody told me had been designed by a Japanese architect who used to work for Charles Gwathmey. I could see how this might have been true for it was a very un-Japanese house and might explain why it was on the rental market, and why the landlady rented it to us three foreigners. Upon its completion circa 1985, the house might even have been published, though probably not in 新建築 (Shinkenchiku / Japan Architect) as it was very glassy, very white, and had a Miami Vice vibe unfashionable in Japan at the time. Beneath the inclined glass wall was bedroom open to the living room below, huge avocado green General Electric appliances in the kitchen (including a very impressive gas-heated clothes dryer), pocket sliding doors, a three-story high void immediately above the entrance door, and a generally non-Japanese arrangement of spaces. The staircase split the house into a study and a master bedroom suite on level 1, a kitchen and living dining room on level 2 and, on level 3, another bedroom as well as the one overlooking the living room. I forget details of the bathroom layouts, but a curious angled fireplace feature defined living and dining areas, and there was skylit recess feature midway along its rear wall. I’m probably remembering it in such detail now because we don’t see houses like this anymore. This is my memory of it.

In August 2019 I returned to Tokyo and was amazed to see the house still there thirty years after its construction. The space above the living room had been closed and squared off with an opening window extension and a new street wall clad in dark tiles may have been added to support an upper deck accessed directly from the living room and kitchen. The new deck is probably a nice place to be on summer mornings. The downside, underneath, is that there is no daylight to the entrance and study apart from than that which enters through the garage grille and the boundary windows borrowing light from the neighbors. These alternations may have been made to make the house more rentable during Japan’s “lost decade”, or the house may have been bought at some knockdown price by someone who decided renovation was preferable to replacement.

The photograph on the right shows a less noticeable but more significant change with the large windows in front of the staircase landing bridges now being fitted with opaque blinds. This may have been done for sun control but it’s more likely a need for maximum privacy. The visual permeability this part of the house used to have was perhaps its most unique feature, especially since it’d not been too long since those bunker-like houses of the 1970s of which Tadao Ando’s Azuma House (a.k.a. House in Sumiyoshi) is probably the best known example of a house with a sharp demarcation between public and private being congruent with a physical division between outside and inside. At the other extreme we have glassy houses flaunting their openness to the street and Sou Fujimoto’s obsessively transparent Nai House with most of its inner life of the house lived out in public view.

This Nishi-Azabu house is in-between and might represent a happy medium in which people can look inside but can’t see anywhere or anything of more consequence than persons occasionally moving from one room to another across the stair landing bridges. When the Venetian blinds of the kitchen, study, upper bedroom and the (inclined) ones of the living room were closed, the occupants (me and my housemates) for their part, were still aware of who or what was outside but only when they were crossing those bridges. The space of these bridges belonged to the house but also to the street outside, at lest visually. These parts of the house rejected the contemporary notion of total privacy for the complete house, and replaced it a privacy only for only certain parts of the house. We might draw the blinds and curtains at night in order to conserve energy, but we also do it to make the interior feel more cosy and comfortable because part of our discomfort comes from it being easier to see in than it is to see out at night when the lights are on.

These visually open bridges probably don’t count as thresholds because people don’t physically move between two kinds of space that we call “public” and “private”. If we equate “privacy” with “private”, then perhaps we should stretch our definition of “public” to include what can be observed? Riken Yamamoto reminds us of these physical thresholds between public and private space that also serve a public function but visual thresholds between public and private space might serve a similar public function for a greater Owning a space doesn’t necessarily confer the rights to remove that space from public view. Whether they do or not, persons in one type of space still have something to give to persons in the other. Nobody is shaking hands or offering or receiving cups of tea but there is still a degree of mutual awareness and of both parties being parts of something greater. This something might be what we call a community and, in terms of the social cohesion we expect communities to have, it might be just as good if not better than visitors being hosted in a threshold space behind closed doors.

From that 2015 Riken Yamamoto book I’ve been reading the past few months, I’ve learned about how threshold spaces have been important in history for modulating the relationship between the occupants of a house with the public and shared space in which it exists. In the vernacular societies Yamamoto studies, these threshold spaces are part of the house but exist as public space and, as such, foster an awareness that the people within the house, exist as a part of something larger whether it’s called a community or the greater society. Those threshold spaces were all alike in being spaces where visitors move from the public space outside the house to the public space inside the house. Before being invited inside, visitors weren’t able to see inside the house. In its original state without the blinds, the Nishi-Azabu house had the bridge/landings visible even to people not invited inside. Minor parts of the workings of the house such as going between the kitchen and the living/dining area, going to and from the upper bedroom and the bathroom, and going between the 2nd and 3rd levels were all visible to passers by should they care to look. This led to the question posed by this post. Is it necessary for a threshold space between public space and private space to involve the physical movement of persons from one to the other. Could not the same mutual awareness of private space existing within public space be achieved by each intermittently glimpsing the other?

All the same, the Nishi-Azabu house was a fortress entered and exited via one door and one gate with an intercom. The courtyard was more moat than threshold in that it was defensible and allowed the openness on the other side. This mutual observation took place at a distance. This might be a clue for how to make houses that give and take from their surroundings in good ways while we work out how to create communities that are more than isolated worker housing updated for our time.

What to do?

There’s a few things.

1. Not care.

Closing the curtains, or even having them is not so important in high-rise buildings because, even if people can see in, there’s a large and uncrossable protective void between you and anybody who might be looking in your direction. This is particularly so if potential observers are also in high-rise buildings. Privacy matters less.

2. The active band

This device isn’t new, but is still underused. Ever since French architect Yves Lyon proposed the idea of the active band in 1987, Riken Yamamoto has been the only architect who has properly explored it. His 2008 Dragon Lily’s House with the fully glazed wall of the kitchen facing the street is a partial active band. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #40: Riken Yamamoto] This idea of two-way visual permeability for a limited part of residences is the reason for this post. Dragon Lily’s House doesn’t have a void separating the kitchen window from the street but instead is a patch of grass not meant to be crossed.

2.1 Visible access – detached elevator lobbies

It might be a good idea to reconsider deck access, which remained for a very long time in Japan, even in upmarket residential blocks. People are seen to be moving around and animating the building. Generally, there isn’t much visual permeability as a secondary bedroom window usually opens directly onto the access corridor but although this is efficient, it’s not the only solution. Ways of putting some space between the access and the windows facing it could be explored, as they are in residential towers in China and India. Failing that, there’s always external detached cores such as at London’s Trellick Tower. This is another way of letting people in public space see movement (in shared space) that doesn’t really need to be hidden.

2.2. Visible access – windows to internal access

This used to be the norm – and then it wasn’t and we all know why. Completely internal access corridors might be less expensive to build but they require artificial lighting and ventilation and, even if only apartment doors open onto them, they can are nicer to wait for an elevator in and, if motion sensor controlled lobby lighting is used, allow people a limited view of people coming and going.

3. Visible circulation

This is exposed access but for detached houses instead of high-rise residential. The principle is the same, although the amount of buffer space is less. This new-build house by Perth housebuilders wbhomes [not a sponsored link]. It has the same visible circulation as the Nishi-Azabu house had and in much the same way with the living areas visible but separated from the street by being on the upper level. Bedrooms are on the lower level but it’s still preferable to give BED 3 a window facing the boundary fence maybe 50cm away rather than the street. Interestingly, the front door is a sliding door, indicating that the occupants usually enter and leave the house via the garage and take the lift. Still, this layout goes against the gradual shift towards opaque and fortress-like houses into which access is granted via intercom. These more visually permeable layouts might catch on, even if only because the street is the largest area of open space that probably still has some trees along it. Rear gardens used to be but, as you can imagine, this house can be built on plots of land only 50cm deeper and wider than the house itself.

4. Making circulation visible

Following on from the above and even if they’re single-story, many detached and row houses have a front door leading into a hallway used only intermittently to go from one room to another. Such houses can be opened up and given partial two-way visibility by simply swapping an opaque door for a glass one or for one with transparent glass panels. As an example, Kazuo Shinohara’s 1974 House in Higashi-Tamagawa has an internal “street” but it also has an opaque front door closing off that street from the street outside. This can be easily corrected.

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