Tag Archives: kazuo shinohara

Madame Butterfly

Japanese people don’t all live in houses like the one above but how are we ever going to know? I left the recent Barbican exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 wondering what anyone can ever know about anything but decided to defer judgment until I’d gone through the catalogue.

Pippo Ciorra told of Bruno Taut’s first trip to Japan in 1933. I imagined Taut taking off his shoes, being amazed at the shoji slid open for him, sitting uncomfortably on a zabuton around a low square table in the centre of the reception room. Later, he would have been offered a yukata, instructed in how to use the furo, been appalled by the benjo and, unused to futon, sleeping fitfully. In the morning, he would have looked in the kitchen and seen mackerel being grilled and misoshiru and rice prepared for breakfast back at the same low table now set with plates of nori and (as it was Kansai) bowls of nattō.

The novelty of things new and foreign would have compensated for much, but Taut was having to adapt to every single one of the basic activities of living being satisfied in ways totally different to what he was used to. That next day, his friend took him to see Katsura Imperial Palace and Taut had some sort of epiphany, seeing proto-modern architecture and clarity and beauty everywhere. It was the beginning of our love affair with Japanese architecture. Even now it has little to do with the houses in which people actually live.

Two years prior, Japan had invaded and annexed Manchuria but that’s not another story because, if there hadn’t been a 1931 there wouldn’t have been a 1945 for this exhibition to pick up from and show us what happened after modernity arrived in Japan in the form of Western influence. This exhibition is about our history of the Japanese house and its relationship to architecture and life. It is about us. We never get to find out what Japanese houses were like before 1945.

Just as Taut saw Modernism at Katsura, Japanese people saw Japan in Kenzo Tange’s 1953 own house. Everyone else saw something a Japanese acolyte of Le Corbusier might design. The same could be said for Kazuo Shinohara’s first house, the 1954 House in Kugayama but, using steel as it did, more with respect to Mies. We’re predisposed towards liking things that suggest how we should understand them.

These most widely circulated photographs of these houses conceal their pitched roofs from us. As for the Shinohara house, we have only this illicit photograph of a model.

Both houses were completed within a year of each other and this closeness in time suggests we understand them as the Farnsworth House and Glass House of the Far East. The two are always presented together as having equivalent historical importance despite Tange never designing another in his long career and Shinohara doing little else for the first thirty years of his. In 1962 Shinohara made the claim that “Houses are Art” and we’ve being seeing Japanese houses as art ever since. This exhibition did nothing to discourage us.

There was much architecture on display but little life apart from some vintage photographs of non-Japanese inside houses,

and a photo of Tange in his garden, encapsulating the exhibition title in a single staged shot. [It doesn’t look like Tange was very good at throwing balls – at least not in the proximity of early Tarō Okamoto sculptures.] 

The absence of people and traces of living is nothing new in architectural photography but Shinohara was also to make that into an art. This book claims it was to recreate the same degree of abstraction as Japanese life and the syntax of Japanese architecture he had extracted.

houses are art.jpeg

Maybe. I just remember him saying he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. This statement doesn’t travel as well, but it’s not a contradiction. Either way, it’s a shame because interesting things happen when real living collides with some of Shinohara’s houses. Architecture and life shouldn’t be incompatible, but nor should they be forced to become an interior representing both while being neither.

Such an attitude doesn’t fit our image of what Japanese architecture should be and Shinohara (left) and later architects (right) have obliged us ever since with photographs such as these.

Our history of Japanese architecture was presented back at us, such as the story about Toyo Ito’s U-House for his sister after the death of her husband. Can Architecture Heal Loss? Apparently it can, because the family moved out when it was time, the house was demolished and an apartment block built in its place.

Poor us though! We’ve been grieving for this house ever since, keeping it alive in our memories and, last year, even reincarnating it for this same exhibition when it appeared at MAXXI.

It’s enough to make one think architecture has little to do with actual buildings, that people’s lives and architecture exist independently of the buildings that once nurtured them, and that the purpose of buildings is to enable lives to be lived as a footnote to the goal of generating architecture. Other suspicions we have of Japanese houses were also confirmed.

Japanese houses are small

Japanese houses are different

Attempting to extract the wisdom of vernacular and anonymous architecture is now a hot topic East and West. For example, the 2017 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize intends to “study the traditions and methods that enable formal architecture to operate within the paradigm of projectless environments, sensitive to the potential cultural frictions associated with restructuring problematic settlements.”  I hope this turns out to be part of a genuine movement to apply the embodied intelligence of vernacular architectures and not some quest akin to combing the rainforests for patentable products instead of cures.

Japanese live in unorthodox ways

The exhibition had animations and movie clips with houses and people moving around (or not) but the takeaway was fuzzy. Soon after, I watached Ozu’s Tokyo Story that has much sitting and moving around. I saw the [“うらら“] beauty salon Koichi’s wife runs from the ground floor of their house, with occupants and clients sharing the same entrance. Having a home business on the ground floor was the norm with machiya [c.f. The Japanese Machiya] but also extremely common in houses in the post-war years.

Once, I went to the house of a friend and, in the space where I expected the reception room to be, his wife was pouring buckets of plastic pellets into a huge injection molding machine that made orange plastic stays to keep the tone arms of record players in place during transit.  

A single anecdote of mine isn’t conclusive but saying Atelier Bow Wow’s combining of office and living functions recalls traditional urban building types doesn’t say much either. Even the tradition being alluded to is that of machiya and not the heroic live/work units that existed well into the 1980s.

Japanese appreciate Purity of Form

No they don’t – we do! The model of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House on display was the same one last seen at the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

It was still perpetrating our belief that Japanese appreciate purity of form rather than letting us accept the as-built reality of the house. [c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form] Our understanding of the Japanese house is what we want our understanding of the Japanese house to be. Japanese architects understand that but we still don’t.

Japanese people live with their stuff artfully arranged

Japanese would see the bathroom below as a Western-style bathroom but to us it’s just a bathroom, albeit a spartan one. Even if this mock-up does approximate the bathroom at Moriyama House (towards the centre of the plan below), it tells us nothing of Japanese bathing habits, or of any shift in bathing habits that may have occurred since 1945.

Similarly, the kitchen tableau (of the room at the top left in the plan above) confirms our belief Japanese live with not much stuff and in a super-organized way. I have my own doubts as to its fidelity but won’t nitpick. I feel for the curators – it must have been like trying to improvise a Henry VIII costume using only things in your living room and wardrobe.

SANAA’s Moriyama House is neither representative of Japanese houses or even how they’re lived in and, because of that, was an excellent choice to reinforce what we like to believe about both. People moved in and around the downstairs mock-ups as if they were in IKEA bemused at how “A family of six lives in this 30m² house!”

Japanese have an aesthetic non-Japanese are incapable of understanding

Balancing the selective mock-ups of SANAA’s Moriyama House was a setting, the primary purpose of which was to make real some kind of mythical Japan-land that exists in the Western psyche. A rock garden is suggested by an abundance of coarse gravel islands bounded by rope. Curious mossy mounds suggest Chinese landscapes. For such a major element of Japanese living, tatami were oddly absent, even in Terunobu Fujimori’s charred-timber clad tea-house-esque construction.

And so it was I wondered if it was really possible to know anything about anything unless it’s presented to us as what we know already. It’s cliché to say travel writing tells more about the traveller than the place but so do travelling exhibitions.

• • •

I’ve written all this as if the exhibition were still on at The Barbican – it’s not. Here’s a preview from before the exhibition opened on March 23,

high tea

and here’s another from The Guardian, after the opening. This review on Archinect, is best of the three.


• • •

The catalogue turned out to be very interesting, covering topics and providing information the exhibit could only hint at.

Apart from the four introductory essays at the beginning and some architect biographies at the end, the same content will appear as this ja+u special issue.


Seventy-five houses are organized into themes that are somewhat arbitrary but, (if they’re not going to use sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, sitting and shitting) then they’re as good as any others. Japaneseness is an important one, and illustrated by the Tange and Shinohara houses already mentioned. Mass Production was perfunctorily dealt with. Lightness might have told us more if it’d stuck to physical lightness rather than overstretch it to include Kikutake’s concrete-y Sky House. Truth is though, there’s so much diversity in these modern architect-designed Japanese house that no set of categories is ever going to suffice.

The invention and diversity in Japanese houses post-1945 can be thought of as the Japanese idea that houses are Art coupling with the Western notion that houses are for the display of Individuality. For non-Japanese, the idea that a house is art is an extremely seductive one and, for Japanese, the idea that a house can be used to express individuality is equally powerful. This marriage of convenience gave us the Japanese house as a conceptual post-war baby and we’re endlessly fascinated seeing ourselves in the fruit of this union.

• • •


Repeating Crevice Revisted

Repeating Crevice is the English title Kazuo Shinohara gave to a 1970 house that, in Japanese, is known as 同相の谷, dōsō no tani (“In-phase Valleys”). The drafting style of the plans below shows they came from one of the two early books that led me astray.

For many years I thought of Repeating Crevice the way it was presented – as an architectural exploration into domestic space as Art. If Shinohara was aware of having designed into it certain possibilities beyond that, he never let on. The approx. 12 m x 12 m footprint made me recall The Expansible Home and want to revisit Repeating Crevice and see if it has any lessons for us today. Before I do, you might need to work out what’s going on with these plans.

repeating crevice plans.jpg

This might help.

JAP 130509 Modelle web.ai

So might these.

repeating sections

This definitely will.

repeating crevice colour.jpg

  • The (green) entrance hallway is shared space.
  • The (lilac) larger apartment on the ground floor has living areas on the left and, on the right, a bedroom, bathroom and some unidentifiable space accessed via the (blue) downstairs space that is semi-private because it’s overlooked from the (red) upstairs semi-private space.
  • The smaller (pink) apartment is also split in two with its living and sleeping areas separated by the upstairs (red) semi-private space.
  • A window in the small lobby when entering the (pink) living areas is open to the double-height space of the (lilac) living room.
  • The six-mat Japanese-style room is a shared space accessed by the downstairs (blue) semi-private space or directly from the upstairs apartment.

• • •

Here’s what I mean about The Expansible Home.

The arrangement on the left is an apartment suited to, say, a small family. It’s no inconvenience to pass through the living room in order to access the kitchen. In both apartments, the occupants of each bedroom have equal access to dining, living and cooking areas. It’s not just about the spaces though. The arrangement on the right is more suited to a houseshare or co-housing because of the different ways the occupants move about it. The plan is not generated around the usual “promenade” from entry to living room. Occupants can enter and leave the apartment without having to pass through living areas.  They can also move around the apartment in response to the presence or absence of others in those areas.

There are limits to how far the hotel model can be applied to co-housing.
Architects, developers, and probably even the co-housed have come to believe a successful development involves a groovily-decorated shared space to which people will gravitate and do whatever it is they’re supposed to do there.


It’s likely that such spaces have come to represent co-living while not doing very much to enhance it beyond representing the minimum expected level of amentity. The current architectural manifestation of co-living has quickly settled on articulating the binary states of together/alone and connecting them by a corridor that represents dead time as it’s time spent in neither of the only two states imaginable. This is the hotel model.

True, one could meet someone and have a conversation in those corridors and, convivial though it may be, it’d be something to pass that time. Certain 1920s Soviet communal houses had heated corridors and seating to encourage the use of shared circulation space as shared amenity space. Such an arrangement means that obligations to society (or at least to be social) exist the moment you leave your apartment. That future never happened, but co-living using the hotel model is now with us in a big way and people are expected to be either together or alone. The absence of a buffer zone separating the two states means neither can be anticipated. Co-housing along the lines of the hotel model could quickly become tedious, onerous.


The hotel model is appropriate for short-term occupation by strangers with things to do elsewhere or for people joined in common purpose or mentality. The hotel model has never been tested for long-term co-housing as a substitute for housing types no longer accessible.

The socially useful and necessary idea of co-housing has already begun to be negatively regarded but the flaws being pointed out are not with the idea but with the model chosen to implement it. The only lesson of lasting value that streets-in-the-sky,  Pruitt Igoe, tower block council housing and Brutalism in general taught us is that any socially useful idea will be deemed a failure once the flawed models chosen to implement them have been exploited to the max. Co-housing is currently being set up to fail.

Sometimes just knowing someone else is at home is sufficient.

Repeating Crevice was designed to be occupied by two generations of the same family and, as such, is a form of co-housing. My hunch is that it contains ideas for how any group of people might live together with the advantages/comfort of doing so. It seems to allow for flexible degrees of awareness of being together or being alone.

Both apartments are split by semi-private spaces that are necessary circulation spaces.
The upper apartment is most likely the apartment for the parent/s but I only say that because a window from the bedroom overlooks the entrance hall. Because the upper apartment’s semi-private space (that is also well travelled) overlooks that of the lower, the person in the upper apartment is more likely to see (and thus derive comfort from) occasional activity in the space below. A person sitting in that chair in the header photograph would be aware of all people arriving and leaving the house. When all are at home, they would also know where in the house they were for there are no alternate routes, but that’s all they get to know. Some privacy lost means other privacy kept. Going from one part of a house to another is generally not a fully private activity but doesn’t have to be a fully social one either.

This runs counter to today’s thinking that holds any and all opportunity for interaction to be A Good Thing and the more of it the better. It’s bad enough that corporations find potential to monetize forced interaction in corporate environments but forcing people to be social in domestic ones could just be a new kind of hell no less inhumane than alienating them. Together/alone is another false binary. We’re encouraged to think of solitude as anti-social.

Repeating Crevice, the house, is a largely internal environment.
It has windows to the front and a some garden to one side but all the architectural action is internal. It doesn’t require an external view to give its internal spaces meaning. This is a useful trait for living spaces to have as buildings tend to not have 360° unobstructed views of something nice. If you refer back to the plans above, you’ll see the upstairs bedroom window is (exactly) 1m away from an upstairs window of its neighbour.


Entry is shared and bathrooms and kitchens are stacked. Good. This all means that

What we have is a potential model for vertical co-housing that is not based on the hotel/hostel typology.  


  1. The semi-private spaces are also semi-public spaces in that somebody else’s visitors may appear.
  2. The house is lived in as a houseshare. The people know each other well and their interests are shared, they look out for each other, and trust each other. The front door is the only lockable one. If this weren’t the case, we would have a house in multiple occupation, or something pretending not to be a hotel/hostel.
  3. The two-storey maisonette has a fire-escape stair and a fire-fighting lobby so it can be within a multi-storey building.

    Firefighting_shaft• • •

Repeated Crevice, Revisited

Repeating Crevice plans jpg.jpg

  • The fire-escape stair and the firefighting lobby means the dwelling can be vertically repeated as far as the structure and two elevators permit.
  • The maisonette can house up to eight people.
  • The elevator and fire stair are not accessible from the upper level. Instead, the spaces is used as a spare room for possible use as a guest room or office.
  • Upstairs and downstairs have different doors leading to/from the (fire-protected) elevator lobby.
  • Downstairs rooms can directly access the kitchen/dining room but upper rooms can directly access the living room.
  • Instead of Together/Alone there is now Together (green), Alone (lilac), Semi-alone (pink) areas and Semi-together (red).

Repeating Crevice Plans zones.jpg

  • The kitchen/dining, laundry and guest toilet are shared by all occupants, as of course is the elevator lobby.
  • People are not forced to be social. Everyone can enter and leave without having to pass through the kitchen/dining or the living room as the elevator lobby leads to the hallway linking all these spaces, but also links separately to the upstairs hallway. A person whose room is on the ground floor could go directly to their room via the hallway, or bypass it by going to the living room via the upstairs hall. A person whose room is on the upper floor can access the kitchen/dining room without having to pass through the living room.
  • Staircases are used selectively, but not exclusively so. The upper-level people are more likely to use the stairs by the elevator to get to their room but are more likely to use the stairs from the living room to access the kitchen. The lower-level people do not need to use any stairs to access their rooms but are more likely to use the stairs by the kitchen to access the living room.
  • Internal windows enable persons in one part of the dwelling to have an awareness of what else is happening. It is important those openings be glazed. Windows in the semi-private (pink) corridors alert persons moving in either direction to potential social situations. Without leaving a semi-private zone, it is possible to know (at night) if the living room is occupied. No such awareness is possible for the alone zones.
  • From either side, the windows onto the two-storey hallway enable everyone to have an awareness of living with other people.

How they choose to act on that is up to them.



The New Japanese House

Summer last year in one of Hyannis’ many secondhand bookstores, I found a copy of this 1980 book I had to have. Memories.


It describes the then new Japanese houses in terms of our preconceptions of Japanese culture in 1980 when everything was rich in meaning. It’s heavy on terms such as “ritual”, “ritual-affirming”, “ritual disaffirming” and, at the end, annoyingly asks “Is there a ritual affirming architecture?” “Is there a ritual disaffirming architecture?” I don’t miss the 1980s. But there was an energy about the 1970s I haven’t forgotten. If ever we look at current Japanese houses and think they’re weird and overly experimental for no great reason we can see, this book is a reminder it’s been going on for fifty years now. They’re not doing it to keep us amused.

• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nishida House, 1966

Think of this one as Japan’s Vanna Venturi house with Tange’s respectful concrete timberings giving way to self-referential anarchy. In 1972, Watanabe was to design the beautifully unlovely New Sky Building #3 last seen in The Microflat.

• • •

Takemitsu Azuma, Own House, 1967

• • •

Monta Mozuna, Anti-Dwelling, 1971-2

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Annhilation House, 1972

Takefumi Aida, Nirvana House, 1972

• • •

Mayumi Miyawaki, Blue Box House, 1971

• • •

Tatsuhiko Kuramoto, House in Hokkaido, 1974


• • •

Toyo Ito, House in Nakano, 1976
[c.f. Can Architecture Heal Loss?]

• • •

Here, I must include
Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi House, 1976
[c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form]

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Stepped Platform House, 1976

• • •

Kazuo Shinohara, House in Uehara, 1976
[see here for more]

• • •

Hiroshi Hara, Own House, 1979


• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nakano House, 1979

• • •

There’s also this one that always gets a mention in books like on, say, The Language of Post Modern Architecture, p116.

Kazumasa Yamashita, Face House, 1974


• • •

Finally, there’s this one I have no name or date for. If you do know its name, architect and year of completion, then please let me know – it’s been bugging me for years. A plan please too if you can. It’s pointless googling glass box house japan. [Andrea Crudeli kindly emailed me to say it’s by Shinichi Ozawa and is from 1989. Please check the comments for links.] 

• • •

Some of these houses have become internet staples. Others have been forgotten. Some may even still exist! The ones above you just saw are mostly examples from the seventies. Open any magazine today – MARK, let’s say and you’ll probably find at least one Japanese contemporary reimagining of the house. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR FIFTY YEARS!

Some months ago when I first began this post, I imagined I would conclude that what we see as a ferocious inventiveness is actually a reflection of land values dwarfing the value of anything built on that land, and to the extent that what eventually does get built is valueless by comparison. That is the reality for the people who own land. Many don’t. As with former feudal societies such as Britain, a disproportionately large amount of urban land on which these houses we may admire or delight in or be outraged at, is most likely leased from major landowners for a fixed term, even though the “consideration” may be so small as to be token. It does not encourage permanence.

Either way, the people who commission these houses know their houses are not going to last forever. Many of the ones you saw above no longer exist. It matters little if they were designed by a famous architect or not – that doesn’t tend to add that much value. Toyo Ito’s early U-House, aka House in Nagano for example, no longer exists – and that belonged to his own family!

In my imagined conclusion, I was in danger of repeating something I’d touched upon in the post “Can Architecture Heal Loss?” In any case, someone else published the same insight here while my post languished in the drafts folder. Rats. So, to move it forward, I propose that:

ONE: “We in the West” stop looking at Japanese houses according to our own criteria as if those houses are going to get lived in for generations, maybe even by the same family. They’re not.

TWO: We think a bit more about the dysfunction between “building” value and “architectural” value. Why should a house for one set of occupants be of little or no value to the next set of occupants, is a question for the Japanese to ponder. What we need to ponder is if we should really be finding daily delight in houses as personal as underwear and as replaceable as sofas?

THREE: “We in the West” have the opposite problem to the Japanese for we design and build for eternity or, if not for eternity, then for the next best thing – future resale value. Our obsession with permanence – this “value that lasts” – has its own shortcomings. For one, we tend to over-evaluate anything that goes against it.

Pink Lamborghini Desktop Background

Is the owner of this Lamborghini:
A. So very rich they don’t care about resale value?
B. Very rich but needs to show you they don’t care about resale value?
C. Rich but wants to show you they don’t care what you think?
D. All of the above, but enviable anyway?

We look at Japanese houses in the same “If-I-had-that-sort-of-money-I-wouldn’t-have-done-that” kind of way. On the other side of the same coin, we also tend to over-rate architectural individuality or creativity in the form of buildings of value as architectural possessions but, beyond that, little value as buildings to live in.


In short, we have our very own dysfunction between architectural value and building value.

FOUR: We also need to update our notion of permanence. Demolishing a building nobody wants for no good reason is wasteful. And let’s not start talking about Isé Shrine just because it’s another intruiging phenomenon from Japan. If Isé (Grand) Shrine had been continuously rebuilt in exactly the same place (i.e. rebuilt as rebuilt actually means) every twenty years since the year 692AD then yes, I would meditate upon tradition and write haiku on the transitory nature of existence. But it’s not. Replicas are endlessly built on alternating adjacent sites. This is cheating. I don’t mean to knock tradition or denigrate the beliefs of others but, if it were to have been rebuilt in exactly the same place then perhaps this wasteful practice would not have been undertaken so frequently or gone on for so long.


More than anything Isé Shrine may mean to those commenters who invoke its infinite unfathomableness every time they see a big roof, Isé Shrine tells me Japanese like new things because they are new, even if they’re still the same. 

FIVE: Back here in the Occident however, we might do well to also rethink our notions of impermanence. Buildings don’t have to be forever. To design them to have an extended functioning life is a good idea. The degree to which this can be done without incurring prohibitively extra initial costs is the crux of the problem since whole life-cycle costing necessarily pits one set of assumptions against another.

SIX: “Touching the ground lightly” is, on first thought, a noble idea but this assumes future generations will use the land more wisely than we did. A false assumption. People quickly get used to all sorts of bad things happening. Look at central Canada.


“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same” is precisely what successive generations of Japanese are doing rebuilding buildings for the ongoing needs of capital gain (landowners) and artistic posturing (owners, architects).

We need to tighten up the definition of sustainable development. As it stands, it includes all forms of unnecessary development and the natural right to conduct it. Forever. The problem seems to be with how “needs” is defined.

Architecture Myths #18: The Free Plan

Like me, you probably first heard about the free plan in connection with this sketch by the man his mother knew as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. Domino House V2 Or maybe it was this 1929 house with a basement. villa savoye basement Let’s take a closer look at that famous plan, free to wriggle around inside its cage. t0108nw9yr6oe7ah POINT #1: Freedom has little meaning when the cage is so accommodating.   The ground floor plan has a 5 x 5 column grid but only 18 out of 25 locations have columns. 15 of those columns are exposed. One is on the periphery, 2 are embedded on the periphery and 1 is next to the chauffeur’s bed. This last one is the only visible internal on-grid column. There’s a total of 32 (> 25) structural supports. Downstairs, the periphery has 16 on-grid columns but within it are 14 off-grid columns and only 5 on-grid. Why do universities make students produce things like this? It’s so wrong. P1040847 In the garage, the missing column and the offset column make it possible for the Savoyes to park a second and a third car. The Savoye family was the first to own a car in the area, and LC included features in the design of the house to accommodate the automobile. Did someone say bourgeoise? b9e33-groundfloorplan As an marketing/cashflow thing, it makes good sense for an architect to contrive a plan and a structure to show the nouveau riche how to spend their money. corbu POINT #2: The free plan is free to to be determined by other things.   b9e33-groundfloorplan The entire upper floor of the house has become a porte cochére and thus a very expensive way to shelter a drop-off zone. Nevertheless, curving the hallway wall does make life easier for the chauffeur. The curve of that hallway wall is famously determined by the turning circle of a 1927 Citroën – that’ll be the B14 then. Or was it? What we do know is the following. citrohan

Le Corbusier chose the name Citrohan when he was searching for a sponsor to realize this project, and he tried with Citroen. At first it seemed like Citroen was pleased about it, but in the end nothing came out of it.  At the time cars were still considered quite a novelty, which is why Le Corbusier was searching for a car manufacturer since his houses were conceived to be ‘smart’ as cars, and because he had a general thought about cities that involved cars as some kind of ‘saviours’.

The naming is driven by sponsorship as much as admiration. These days we’d call it a “marketing tie-up creating a synergy of brand values”. By 1925, LC had got it right and a certain Gabriel Viosin sponsored LC’s Plan Voisin at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art. 410x480_2049_1703

One early champion of Voisin autos was Gabriel [Voisin]’s friend, the French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (more commonly known as “Le Corbusier“). In fact, so enamored was Jeanneret-Gris with Voisin’s advanced engineering and rationalist design philosophy that not only did he own a series of Voisin automobiles, but his seminal Villa Savoie was designed around the turning radius of his Voisin sedan; the first house designed with a carport. Jeanneret-Gris also designed the door handles and other trim pieces for his friend Voisin. 

We don’t know if the Savoye’s owned a 1927 Citroën – or a Voisin for that matter. But if we assume a kernel of truth in the turning circle story, parking was not “straight forward” as we say in English.

PARKING This next photo shows a 6-cylinder C11 Voisin sedan. If you follow this link you’ll learn why this is a Voisin and not a Citroën. It may even belong to LC himself. The photo is obviously staged – looking at the front wheels – the driver’s not making much of an effort to turn. Or maybe he’s just trying to avoid that cheeky column in the driveway? Either way,


a Voisin was the auto of choice when one wanted to show off not only ones means for being able to afford such an expensive vehicle, but also to demonstrate ones intellect, sophistication and individuality. 

CONCLUSION: The hallway wall curve may or may not be determined by the turning circle of some automobile but the basic configuration of the plan is an attempt to fuse automobile and house into a total upmarket consumer package.

POINT #3: The plan doesn’t know what to do with its new freedom. The plan is quite human. Once freed, the first thing it does is tell the structure where to go. savoye4 vstable Observe, in the above two photographs, how the structural grid has been compromised to bridge over the front door that simply must be placed symmetrically? This newly contrived arrangement becomes the grid for the columns supporting the axial ramp. I’m sure much academic airtime has been spent explaining how this bridge “bridges” between exterior space and interior space but my point is that, here, it’s the plan that’s now pushing the structure around. Suddenly now the plan is free, it’s the structure that’s oppressed. Horizontally, this 5:3:2:3:5 grid works better the full length of the house, apart from upstairs in the living room that has to be seen to be precisely three structural bays. The column forcibly displaced from in front of the entrance now reappears in the living room at the far left of this photo, embedded in the wall. savsal02l This column – the closest one on the right – is supported by the beam bridging the columns moved out of the way to make way for the entrance and ramp downstairs. Now you know what to look for, you can see this contrivance in this photo. 0133 Messy. LC’s genius was clearly not planning or structure.

POINT #3:  The only thing the plan does with its new freedom is represent it.  b9e33-groundfloorplan Again, this is a human trait, but not one of our better ones. Those two columns remain in the driveway to show us how independent the plan is. [The turning circle story is disingenuous – you don’t pull back a wall to leave a column in the way. It’s like those movies that are “based on a true story”.] The position of the wall is as much a result of the position of the column as it ever was. It’s like a messy divorce where both parties pretend to be doing just fine without each other. columns Let’s go inside!  See that column next to the double bed? It would make for a better plan and probably structure if the new column grid that accommodates the entrance and ramp continued for this one last bay. Let’s go upstairs and see if this proposed improvement would have made much difference. savoye-corbusier-1928-31 Nope. The downstairs column would appear one bay closer to the master bed where Mme may appreciate almost as much as the chauffeur. inter 7 The most likely reason this column is where it is on both floors is that it’s visible from the outside. It’s effectively external. See? 04_0004112_0 As long as the driver keeps his curtains open, the grid is evident. villa_savoye Notwithstanding, the master bedroom and bathroom are where the representation of freedom is most apparent. Walls could just as easily have accommodated the columns rather than ornamentally skirting around them. True, the columns do make a nice niche for the bed – not that that helped Mme sleep any better.

The column closest to the bathroom appears downstairs at the foot of the bed of the head maid. This too is messy. I doubt LC spent much time thinking about the architectural experiences of servants. The design phase of VS was lengthy – the Savoyes were in no hurry. My best guess is LC couldn’t be bothered to properly resolve the downstairs rooms. Maybe fees were drying up. Maybe LC submitted a fee proposal to fix it and Monsieur Pierre said “Don’t bother – just leave it as it is.” These things happen.

POINT #4: Too much freedom is not a good thing. This house just keeps on giving! In this next photo, the boiler flue is next to what must have been the warmest radiator in the house. In the same way as the walls broke free from the tyranny of structure, the flue broke free from the tyranny of walls. In the middle of the photo is a soil vent pipe (SVP a.k.a. DWP) that has also broken free from the tyranny of walls. However, it can’t escape being linked to the two toilets directly above it. Let’s hope it never does.

18Savoye-IntStairs-2 POINT #5: Freedom without the freedom to move is not freedom.   Back in the chauffeur’s room, I noticed for the first time that bed tucked behind the double bed. [Who’s it for? A sixth staff member? A child? An elderly parent?] Rene Burri‘s 1959 photo shows the chauffeur’s room partitioned.


Former chauffeur’s room on the ground floor. 1959. © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

This next photo showing the same windows has some boxing/partition not apparent from the outside. Untitled

Also, there now seems to be a door connecting the chauffeur’s room and laundry room. This door isn’t original but nobody cares because it helps shift tourists through the place faster and so keep the Corbusier industry alive.


POINT #6: The plan is never that free.  Moving away and on from VS, this next plan is derived from the structural, constructional and social dictates of its time.

bear wood plan

And so is this next plan next plan, but in a different time. philip-johnson-glass-house-floor-plan-hd-wallpaper-pictures-top-home-apartments-photo-modern-glass-house-plans

Socially, this house is equivalent to the reception wing to the right of the Victorian mansion above. It’s purely for show. The bathroom is still positioned in the traditional place close to the entrance, its door pointing discreetly away from the living and dining areas, yet convenient to where the bed is. Everything in this room is locked into compositional balance, the centre of which is the living area, the centre of which is the on-axis coffee table, the centre of which is the ashtray.


POINT #7: Freedom is what you make it.  Unfortunately, one man’s freedom is another man’s tyranny. Given a choice, a Japanese person would prefer to have their reception room at the end of some multi-cornered corridor leading “deep into” the house as a sign of respect. An Arab would prefer the reception room as close as possible to the front door or, ideally, separately accessible from the outside. Given a choice, many Russians would prefer a separate kitchen to a separate bedroom,

posle but a separate bedroom is also good.

Where rooms go is a matter of cultural preference as much as anything else, and that preference is subject to change. This next image is of what, in the UK, is known as a “through-lounge”.


The room at the front of the house used to be called just that – the “front room” – and it was the reception room, the parlour. Pressure on space and the decline of receiving visitors as a way to spend one’s weekends meant these underused spaces came to be joined to the more “lived-in” parts of the house. This usually has the opposite effect of “hollowing out” the house as activity shifts to the (old) front and (new) rear where it’s most pleasant to be. The “through-lounge+kitchen extension” is a typical first job for many architects and, as such, they’re generally overcooked. This is not a bad thing for the architects.


In the 1980s, the plan became less a matter of cultural preference and more a matter of personal preference with the real-estate phenomenon of lofts. The idea was that you would buy some disused industrial warehouse space and live in it largely as you found it.


Thirty years on, even without there being any walls, the selection and arrangement of furniture can once more determine a plan at least as rigid as determined as one created by structural walls.

The loft “phenomenon” also led to the phenomenon of shell apartments that purchasers were expected to “fit out” however they wished. Some were more shell than others.

This led to completely arbitrary plans being inserted into whatever volume of self-supporting space one could afford.

Maintaining the “feel” of a loft while providing the features of modern apartment plans is an architectural genre in itself. What it comes down to is an ordinary apartment having little or no corridor space, and a large living area with an exposed column or two.

The plan can be anything. It doesn’t matter. It has become as inconsequential as the partitions in an office tower. With a few communal catering and spa facilities in the core, what we see below might well be the apartment building of the future. low-plan POINT #8: Freedom is an illusion.  In this post I wrote of an approach to freer planning that I noticed in the plan of one of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses.

uehara upperuehara free plan

See how the wall dividing the house vertically is not aligned with the window openings as implied by the plan? See how that wall makes a path with added headroom around that angled column? These are things the plan has freedom to do, and it uses that freedom to do them.  This isn’t a representation of freedom. It is adapting to circumstances. The structure is doing what structure does – creating an enclosure – albeit rather uncompromisingly so. The plan exists only to make that enclosure liveable. The plan is not the generator. It deals with any given situation as best it can. The Existentialist perspective is that the freedom to make choices and to take responsibility for them is the only freedom there is. The plan is thus condemned to be free. 

Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

The 1950s in Japan were a time of rediscovery and renewal in art,



Kawanishi Hide, The Stone Garden, 1959, Color woodblock with blind stamping. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Douglas Berman and Peter Daferner in honor of Richard A. Born, 2004.131.







woodblock prints,






textile design,


and architecture.

Kazuo Shinohara was a Japanese architect who lived 1925–2006. This is his first house, House in Kugayama, completed 1954.

Kugayama 1954 view

It was very much of its time, as was Kenzo Tange‘s first and only house of 1953.


Shinohara’s house had a steel structure but both houses play it both ways in allowing foreign commentators to pick up on an essential Ise Shrine-ness as well as the box-on-columns of you-know-what.

ise grand shrine

The plan of the House in Kugayama is rectangles inside rectangles and determined by the structural supports.

Kugayama 1954 Plan

In 1954, square tatami would have been highly unconventional by the way. As they would be now. Normally, a tatami room of this size and shape would be a four-and-a-half mat room with the extra half in the middle.


Kugayama 1954 Interior 1

There’s no refrigerator. In the 1950s Japanese people would have bought fresh and daily. Even now many (older) Japanese have little taste for dairy products. 

This method of planning isn’t unique to Japan but follows naturally from timber construction. It’s a good thing. It’s simple, has structural and construction advantages, can do most things a plan really needs to do. It is a good thing to do. Shinohara also used this method of planning for, amongst others, House in Kugayama No. 2 of 1958, the Umbrella House of 1959 and the Tanikawa House of 1961.

Umbrella House has strong and popular Japanese associations both inside and outside Japan. These days, I see it more in terms of a plan following its own logic independent of the structural enclosure. 

Umbrella House 1961

Check how that offset post affects the tatami room (top middle, below). The internal walls don’t go all the way up to the roof. The bathroom and tatami rooms have ceilings but the space above them is exposed.

House with an Earthen Floor of 1963 is small even by Japanese standards but I like how Shinohara thought that slight curve on the roof was necessary.

Untitled 16

House in White 1964. Untitled 30

The bathroom is that covered box in the corner. With this house, I also like the economy of documentation. A Japanese carpenter could build this house from these three drawings. I particularly like the sheet of details in compressed plan.

I also like how not everything has to be an event. This is the door to upstairs.

Untitled 26

Shinohara’s residential output is usually discussed in terms of his own categorization as having four distinct ‘styles’ but remember that those were the days when all Japanese architects were adept at interpreting their own work and generating elliptical theories. Seeing everything in terms of those four styles I think prevents people from making up their own minds and seeing other things that might be of value. It’s generally good to be sceptical about anything an architect says about their own buildings.

But it is true that Shinohara’s 1970s houses did become more white, more geometrical and more self-conscious with names such as Uncompleted House, Sky Rectangle, Sea Staircase, etc. Early on in his career, he did say “Houses are Art” but I think he meant he wanted his houses to be thought of as Art. Hence the artwork names. Some may be artworks but on what level is a question never asked. Given the photographs Shinohara approved for publication, it doesn’t involve the uncontrollable messiness of living. My impression is that if something could not be aestheticised then it was of little interest to him.

One day, circa 1980, we were all sitting around observing pieces of coloured paper get test-stuck onto model columns and trying to have opinions on which colour was best. The mood was subdued for, the day before in Paris some Japanese guy Sagawa had just been arrested for killing his Dutch girlfriend and keeping her in the freezer and eating bits of her occasionally. So when I say subdued… Eventually the elephant in the room became too large and Shinohara asked a French research student present at the time what she thought about incident and she said oh yes everybody in France was talking about “how wonderful it must be to be loved so much that somebody would like to eat you.” This lightened the mood immediately.

The Japanese no longer had to worry about being thought of as cannibals or – worse still – barbarians in Paris the Capital of Culture. More importantly, the incident could be reduced to an aesthetic judgment and safely tidied away. To this day I think that to aestheticize a problem is to ignore it. I don’t know where I read it but some say that certain buildings are beautiful only because they choose to solve so few problems.   

These days there’s a lot more images of Shinohara’s buildings available on the internet but this 2G book is probably the best print introduction around. For the houses.


Many have been rephotographed and it’s been mostly good seeing how these houses have aged and become more lived in. The later residential work I’m now not so keen on. It’s more appropriate for a small house to carry a simple idea than it is for a large house. The later and generally larger houses lack that charm. In passing, the later smaller houses seem to me to carry ideas too big for them but this is now standard for small Japanese houses. We continue to be fascinated by the audacity of these houses. “These people have no money and little land – how amusing to attempt to build architecturally innovative houses!”

This might say more about us than the Japanese, especially if the only blurring of boundaries we consistently admire is between the worth of a building and value of the property on which it stands. When one doesn’t have Johnsonian, Farnsworthain, or even Savoyean amounts of property on the other side of the glass, how the interior space is enclosed, divided and lit are the only variables left to vary.  But here’s what I mean about simple ideas and biggish houses.

House in Itoshima 1976

Untitled 5

House in Ashitaka 1977

Untitled 14

House on a Curved Road 1978

Untitled 19

House Under High Voltage Lines 1981

Untitled 37

The only exception for me is House in Uehara 1976.


The structure was supposedly determined by the need to secure space for two cars but I wonder if cantilevering one-third of the upper storey is the easiest way to do that? Down the left side of the site is an alleyway with possibly buried services so there may be some reason why footings along that boundary weren’t an option. It could be true.

Internally, the life of the house is organized around the structure that appears in every space. In the tatami room (middle right, below) there’s just the shadow of the tree structure on the lower wall. It was quite beautiful actually, this shadow of a serious structure. You’ll never see a photograph of them, but the washroom and bathroom are extraordinary. Just you and the structure.

Untitled 5

Untitled 7

Getting a plan within that structure presented two problems that were solved in the simplest way possible. The first was to move part of the bedroom wall to provide a passage around the inclined column blocking the way.


The other solution is at the front end of that bedroom wall. It doesn’t meet the front of the house as neatly as it’s drawn on the first floor plan. The wall is where it has to be and so is the structure (and the window/ventilation panel). “Ahh, free plan!” you may think but au contraire! Le Corbusier’s walls skirted around the columns to show how free they were. This wall dodges the column so a Japanese person of average height has a good chance ducking under it.

Untitled 14

The requirement for an extra room on the roof was a late change to the brief the story goes. I’m not so sure about that because I don’t know how the parents, two daughters, one son and a grandmother were ever going to have lived in this house without that room. Shinohara was not an ad-hoc kind of guy so I’m inclined to believe the story. (At the time I visited last, the parents slept in the storage room of the ground floor photography studio. They didn’t mind.)

The stairs into the house are a very contrived architectural event. They’re not much to look at from ground level.

_MG_8844 (1)

You arrive at the upper landing, seen in this next image from inside the house, with the front door open, and looking across the landing at the kitchen entrance.

Untitled 24

The non structural walls that are neither inside nor outside are in diagonal timber (like the non-structural floor inside). It’s only a representation of what is about to happen, but it shows the separation between the things the house needs to stand up, and the things that are needed to make it habitable.

The entryphone was at the bottom of the stairs. This next image is what you see when you are standing on that landing looking back whilst waiting outside the front door. Going up those stairs puts you in the middle of the house even though you’re still outside. This is what blurring the boundaries between inside and outside can mean when you don’t have a huge garden outside your window. You most likely have been welcomed before you’ve even entered. Opening the door is just a formality.

Untitled 7

Here’s some more images of the staircase and how it works inside.

There’s a lot of architectural invention and function compressed into those three square metres on three levels. The stair enclosure takes up no more space than it has to and at the same time makes the interior seem – and actually be – larger. Light enters the room via the skylight and then passes out of the room to light the welcoming stairwell.

Untitled 19What I like about this house is that the functions of the house are incidental to the enclosure of the house. This is a nice idea, and possibly a useful one. The structure and enclosure aren’t compromised by human preference or caprice and in theory can be better optimised. Meanwhile, the occupants can be catered for as best they can within the confines of the space, that is. There’s maybe 10 sqm. circulation space total for a total floor area of 203.63 sqm = 5%.)


Shinohara always exercised strict control of what images of his houses were published and this, more than anything else, is probably responsible for him not being better known than he is, even though there’s a lot more stuff on the internet now. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the only photographs Shinohara was interested in were the ones he approved.

He famously claimed – although, because it was pre-internet, not many people actually knew about it – that he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. Many people saw the approved photographs and thought his houses clinical and I can see why. Arty? Definitely. Beautiful? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to imagine laughter happening inside. Or even much life. It didn’t help either that kitchens were small and rarely photographed.

Here’s an image, published at the time, of his House in Hanayama 1976.

Untitled 5

And here’s an image taken more recently. Basically, it’s a nice room with somebody’s stuff in it. Shinohara was right to have no interest in his houses after people moved in. But he didn’t do himself any favours by photographing them either bare, or with isolated pieces of furniture by Shiro Kuramata.

Untitled 4

It’s not really possible to combine one’s possessions and the inside of a Shinohara house to create “an interior” and I think this is a good thing because to do so represents neither person nor building. It’s no longer a building but an expression of what some people did to the inside of a building. To not design for the concept of an interior has the potential to allow both the buildings and the people who live in to be however they need to be. 

It’s never been the Japanese way to want to “personalize” a space, to change the colour or surface of walls, choose furniture to suit the size or shape of a room and to create an “interior”, to change or rearrange it when they became bored, to buy an artwork to “fill a space” or because a wall “needs something” …


House in Uehara is small. The table in the main room looks like a table but is used more like the Japanese kotatsu at which both living and dining traditionally happened. I have fond memories of the maybe four times I visited House in Uehara with some university visitor in tow and being greeted by the ever-hospitable Mrs. Otsuji. Visitors were always shocked to see living in this house occurring despite the house. There was a month’s worth of newspapers piled into the forks of those columns and the cats’ bowls placed beneath them where they were least likely to get kicked…

Shinohara would have liked House in Uehara to be thought of as a ‘machine for living’ but he would not have liked himself to be thought of as having designed a humane machine for its occupants to creatively occupy and happily live. He just didn’t see buildings that way. But something wonderful came out of him designing a house in which people had no choice but to live in it the best they could. The house was like a family member you had to live with and live around at the same time. Give and take. Respect each other. That’s living.

• • •

I don’t want to bring too many examples from Japanese culture in case it makes the lessons of House in Uehara seem too foreign but I can summarize this another way.


Some kimonos are very beautiful, but whether beautiful or ordinary, all it takes is some fabric and two measurements in order to make a kimono for a person. After that, it’s all about how you wear it.

House in Uehara is a tight fit and unyielding fabric, but its occupants wear it well.


• • •

Here’s a link to a crowdfunding project for a book on three of Shinohara’s houses.