The Japanese House Inside and Out

May 6, 2024

To accompany the book launch by Naomi Pollock at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, we are excerpting this text from The Japanese House Since 1945, a book by Naomi Pollock with a foreword by Tadao Ando. It has been reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.


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nendo, Stairway House, Tokyo, 2019. Photo © Daici Ano. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Over the years, many of the houses featured in The Japanese House Since 1945 have been praised and profiled in a variety of architectural and academic publications. Their experimental forms, inventive use of materials, and unusual site conditions have been analyzed and explained, photographed and sketched. The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, the 2017 touring exhibition curated by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Kenjiro Hosaka, is an excellent example of this scholarship. But what was it like to live in these homes? Since many of them are no longer extant, we may never know for sure. And, like private homes anywhere, those still standing are largely closed to the public. Taking a close look at Japan’s architect-designed houses since World War II, The Japanese House Since 1945 probes that fundamental question.

In many respects, 1945 marked a point when Japan had to reset. Following the war, there was a new political order to establish, an economic crisis to overcome, and physical devastation from which to rebuild. “2.1 million residences had been destroyed; with the addition of 640,000 households made up of demobilized soldiers and returnees from abroad, it’s estimated that the housing shortage reached 4.2 million units,” writes Professor Yoshio Uchida. In the following years, the Japanese government provided loans for building family homes, as well as for the construction of rental-apartment complexes, but “the promotion of home ownership” was its end game, according to historian Laura Neitzel. The unique circumstances of the post-war era resulted in a fresh start for the private home. Here was an opportunity not only to modernize housing, but also to rethink what a house could be. Due to the magnitude of upheaval to Japanese society, full-scale reconsideration was essential, and many of the ensuing changes departed radically from the past. Some came about in response to government initiatives, including a shift away from the standard social unit. Instead of the extended, multi-generational family, the nuclear family composed of parents and two children was promoted. Another major shift was the separation of eating and sleeping. These activities had previously taken place in the same space, but now this was considered unhygienic. In addition, the country’s new constitution moved the status of women towards the center of society and, therefore, towards the center of the household. These changes all had profound implications for house design. Though traditional conventions were not cast aside entirely, referencing the past was considered “taboo” in the face of Japan’s defeat, according to Professor Shunsuke Kurakata. Against this backdrop, Western models of convenient contemporary living became desirable.

“For Japanese architecture, the history of its modernization has also been a history of westernization,” explains architect Fumihiko Maki. Prior to the war, Western design ideas were already circulating in Japan. Famously, Bruno Taut and Charlotte Perriand imported emerging European concepts in the 1930s and 1940s respectively. The exchange of ideas was also generated by Japanese architects going abroad, for instance Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura, who both worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, and Junzo Yoshimura, who followed his employers, Antonin and Noémi Raymond, to the United States. Upon returning to Tokyo, these designers shared their freshly acquired knowledge in both the studio and the university seminar room. Unsurprisingly, these new ideas surfaced in the design of their own houses, but also in the work of their architectural progeny. The passing of thoughts and theories from mentor to mentee is an ongoing process natural to the profession, with each generation adding modifications of its own. Le Corbusier’s embrace of concrete appears in the work of Maekawa, who passed this know-how on to his students, such as Kenzo Tange, who then shared ideas with his own staff and students, including Fumihiko Maki and Kisho Kurokawa. Later, the airiness of Toyo Ito’s steel-frame structures was rendered with an even lighter touch by his former employee Kazuyo Sejima, and lighter still by her disciple, Junya Ishigami.

The ease with which new architectural ideas took hold in Japan was partly due to the unprecedented design freedom that resulted from widespread devastation. Streets and property lines may have survived the conflagration, but the land itself was often left devoid of buildings, especially in major cities. As Japan began rebuilding in the early 1950s, efficiency was the aim of many architects’ residential work. At that time money was tight, construction materials scarce and building size restricted for recipients of government loans. “There was very little opportunity for architects to do elaborate designing,” notes critic Noboru Kawazoe. But Japan has proven again and again that size limits can be catalysts for invention. Some architects, like Kiyoshi Ikebe, were inspired by the concept of the “minimum house” discussed at the 1929 Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne in Frankfurt. And, as the economy steadily improved, larger plots became affordable, manufactured materials, like concrete and steel, enabled new forms, and design possibilities expanded rapidly. Architects were keen to test out new concepts, and houses were the perfect medium for experimentation, be it for their own use or that of a willing client. Thanks to the country’s astonishing economic recovery, by the 1960s houses were no longer just shelter. Many of those designed by architects had become highly personalized statements—a trend that continues to proliferate today.

While building codes still regulate matters of health and safety, aesthetic preferences are unrestricted. Where visual appearance is concerned, in Japan anything goes. Aside from select historic districts, unified street walls, continuous cornice lines and style consistency are all conspicuously absent. Even the address system—houses are numbered in the order that they are built—negates adjacency relationships. Along the same lines, contemporary party walls are very rare as they enable the quick spread of fire, a problem that plagued wooden houses of the past. These conditions have resulted in object-like detached homes that have little relationship to each other, let alone their surroundings. Making a bolder gesture still, some even front the street with windowless facades. A means of shielding the home from unpredictable urban development nearby, this strategy took off in the 1970s. More recently, some architects have begun to intentionally interact with the surroundings. Instead of shutting out the city, the sights, sounds, and scenery outside become part of daily life inside.

The advent of computer-aided design (CAD) in the 1990s pushed the individualization of houses significantly further. “For those...who spent a lot of time playing computer games as children and already had access to CAD in the beginning of their architectural studies, the computer is more than an aid for drawing: it serves to perfect their technique, it is even a source of ideas,” observes critic Shozo Baba. Suddenly, organic shapes and complicated curves, which in the past took days to construct by hand, could be created with a series of mouse clicks. This technical freedom also eased the difficulty of designing for the small, awkward, or downright strange sites being created just as the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, and property became affordable again. Keen to cram as much house as possible onto these odd plots, many architects collaborated with engineers, whose structural prowess made it possible to build livable homes on even the most challenged sites.

Materials are another area that evolved dramatically over the decades. In the war’s immediate aftermath, timber was the only option for housebuilding. While wood remained a popular choice out in the country, non-burnable, mass-produced steel and concrete soon proliferated in cities. But in subsequent decades, architects’ uses of materials became increasingly sophisticated and varied. Tadao Ando was the first to transform concrete from a rough industrial material into one of remarkable smoothness. Itsuko Hasegawa popularized the porosity of punched metal. Shigeru Ban proved the viability of paper tubes. And Kengo Kuma infused his work with the spirit of traditional craft—whether rendered in wood, stone, or even corrugated metal. While the economic excess of the 1980s often gave birth to architectural extravagance, this triggered a reaction in the 1990s when lightness, transparency, and minimalism emerged as guiding concepts for many architects. This paring-down reflected the belt-tightening caused by economic decline but also raised the aesthetic bar: is there such a thing as too thin?

One of the reasons why Japan is a hospitable environment for material experimentation is the independence of houses. The lack of relationships between buildings makes them extremely replaceable. If they aren’t touching, they can be torn down rather easily. And this happens all the time. Though the number of renovations may be rising slowly, the lifespan of the average Japanese house is still a mere twenty-six years, observes architect Riichi Miyake. The reasons for demolition include changes to the family’s composition, the sale of the property, or simply wear and tear. This short shelf-life gives architects the freedom to cater to the client’s proclivities and the site’s peculiarities, no matter how unusual. Since property values are generally tied to the land and not the building, few give a moment’s thought to the impact on a home’s resale value of having bathroom walls made entirely of glass or a top-floor kitchen. Everyone knows that the house will likely be demolished when the property changes hands. For most homes, even those designed by well-known architects, the future is bleak. While this rapid pace of redevelopment sounds shocking, it is an accepted reality in Japan. “Change is regarded as normal rather than exceptional,” comments author Chris Fawcett. Yet constant renewal has its benefits. It infuses Japanese cities with vitality and, for better or for worse, provides work for architects.

Despite their widely varying exteriors, Japanese homes accommodate a series of deeply engrained habits and rituals, beginning with the spoken greeting tadaima (I’m home) upon entry and the removal of outdoor shoes. These habits underscore the explicit divide between inside and out, and between family members and everyone else. Within the house, boundaries are fluid, personal space is limited, and privacy a rarity. In fact, many parents continue to share sleeping quarters with their young children. Naturally, these conditions breed an informal, relaxed atmosphere centered on the combined kitchen-dining room—a necessity in the small urban house. While homes out in the countryside may have plenty of interior space, those in the city average only 100 square meters (1,080 square feet). And lots of people live comfortably with far less. Instead of a hardship, a compact dwelling is considered an acceptable trade-off for convenience and proximity. Bigger is not categorically better. In fact, many homeowners feel more at ease in a house where they can sense the presence of others and have their possessions at their proverbial fingertips. The functionality of these homes is often augmented by the city’s resources. Public parks act like backyards, coffee shops and restaurants provide nearby venues for socializing, and the ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience store is everyone’s pantry. The space of a small home can also be expanded by the city itself, as many residential areas are knitted together by networks of narrow streets, some just wide enough for a car, and others for pedestrians only. Like extensions of the home, they are swept daily by residents living nearby and beautified by their potted plants. These passageways are both components of the urban fabric and communal outdoor places where neighbors congregate, children ride bikes, and stray cats scrounge for snacks.

Unsurprisingly, the urban architect-designed house is well represented in this book. This selection reflects the concentration of Japan’s population, and therefore of architect-designed houses, in its cities. Aside from vacation homes, relatively few houses beyond the suburbs are designed by architects. In addition, the site conditions in metropolitan areas can be particularly extreme, which inspires the most innovative architectural responses—criteria for inclusion in this book. Exemplifying their respective time periods, the featured houses pushed limits and raised bars. Each one is documented with a text that incorporates interviews with the architects or their staff, with their family members or clients, or with architectural critics—people with first-hand knowledge and memories of the work—alongside a selection of photos and drawings. Together, words and pictures capture the spirit of the architecture and help bring these homes to life. Bookended by guest essays describing what came before and what might be coming next, these house profiles are accompanied by introductions to each decade outlining major events in Japan and Spotlights deconstructing specific house elements. In addition, At Home essays—contributed by the architects, their children or their clients—tell stories about the houses from the inside out. Where the home is concerned “there is no one right answer,” writes architect Kazuhiro Kojima. Instead, this book shows there are many.

Kiyoshi Ikebe

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The monolithic roof yielded deep eaves above the terrace and provided passive sun screening. Courtesy Ikebe family.

“The roof is the real symbol of the house,” wrote Kiyoshi Ikebe in 1954. Indeed, the roof of No. 58—a name designating its position in an ongoing series of experimental houses—was its defining feature. Its corrugated surface rose straight up to form a double-height end wall, and then angled down dramatically to enclose the interior, before cantilevering out over the carport. Though Ikebe was no stranger to curved forms, which he had previously used for staircases and other discrete elements, his earlier houses had favored rectilinear volumes, topped by a flat or pitched roof. Marking a point of aesthetic as well as technological departure, No. 58 was his first curvilinear roof.

Located in a residential Tokyo neighborhood, the single-story house was designed for a pair of painters who wanted to live and work in one place. “The focus of their life was their studio, which forms the spatial center of the house,” noted Ikebe. Coming in from the carport, the entrance led to the kitchen, which segued into the dining area. Partially sequestered behind a three-quarter-height storage wall, the bedroom stood on one side and the studio on the other. Here the ceiling soared up, skylights admitted plenty of daylight, and pegboard walls held art and various accoutrements of daily life. The bathroom, maid’s room, and storage were concentrated at the back, while south-facing sliding glass doors opened the living and work spaces to a narrow terrace. Jutting out beyond the exterior wall, the roof hovered overhead, providing a degree of protection from sun and rain.

In many ways, the roof’s distinctive shape was an expression of the time. With the difficult recovery from World War II receding and the economy growing steadily, the 1960s were ripe for experimentation and the emergence of new technologies, among them the bending of laminated wood to make curved forms. One famous example, Sori Yanagi’s now iconic Butterfly Stool made of molded plywood, debuted in 1954. Similarly, but on a much larger scale, the roof of No. 58 was made by bending synthetic slate panels, normally used for industrial buildings.

The furniture and textiles in No. 58 were designed by the architect’s wife, Masako. Echoing the roof, a curved wooden coffee table and rattan chairs exemplified her design talent and aesthetic sensibility. “They really cupped the body,” recalls the architect’s daughter, Konomi.

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The combined kitchen and dining area, with furnishings designed by the architect’s wife Masako, formed the center of the house. Courtesy Ikebe family.

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Pegboard partitions held works of art in the studio (beyond), as well as all manner of household goods in the kitchen. Courtesy Ikebe family.

4×4 House
Tadao Ando
Hyogo Prefecture

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Tadao Ando, 4 x 4 House, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, 2003. Photo © Mitsuo Matsuoka. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

In 2001, Brutus, a trendy men’s magazine in Japan, offered readers a chance to build a starchitect-designed house. All they had to do was send in a tear-out postcard describing their dream house and, if chosen, provide land and budget for the project. The winning entry came from a construction-company executive who had his sights set on Tadao Ando, and owned a coastal property near Kobe. Confined by a multi-lane highway on one side and a seawall on the other, his parcel was tiny. But it commanded an expansive view of the Seto Inland Sea and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, connecting to Awaji Island in the distance. Such unusual conditions might cause some to think outside the box. Ando did just the opposite.

The architect’s response was a concrete mini tower with a 4-meter (13-foot) square cube on top. Also measuring a mere 4 by 4 meters (13 by 13 feet) in plan, the lower three floors are just big enough for stairs and a single room. Entered from either the street or the beach, the ground floor contains the entrance and bathroom, with the bedroom on the first and the study on the second respectively. Above that, the cube holds the combined kitchen-living-dining room. Placing the communal space on the third floor was unquestionably unconventional, perhaps even inconvenient. But it also separates the room from the roadway and maximizes its access to the picturesque scenery. Constituting the entire sea-facing wall, floor-to-ceiling glass frames the bridge and the shimmery blue water extending out as far as the eye can see. “In Ando’s scheme, one did not so much enjoy a view of the sea as live at one with the sea,” explains the client.

In many respects, it is Ando’s concrete that makes this possible. Coupled with well-placed windows, the masonry forms a thick barrier that edits the unsightly surroundings. It is also able to withstand the spray of salt water and seaweed when the surf gets rough. Inside, the rugged material is silky smooth to the touch. “When I was young, exposed concrete tended to be used in places no one looked at, such as the insides of warehouses and parking garages,” says the client. Created with exacting precision and exquisite craft, Ando’s version takes on a completely different cast.

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The full-height window-wall frames a spectacular view of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge and the shimmery Seto Inland Sea. © Mitsuo Matsuoka.


This text has been excerpted from The Japanese House Since 1945 by Naomi Pollock with foreword by Tadao Ando. © 2023 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, Text © 2023 Naomi Pollock. It has been reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc: