Why do Japanese houses look so unusual?
That's the question Naomi Pollock asked herself on arriving in Japan - 27 years later she answers it in Jutaku
Why do Japanese houses look so peculiar to Westerners? Why are they so small? And why do Japanese home owners choose to demolish and replace them after a few years? These questions have intrigued the US-born architect and writer Naomi Pollock ever since her arrival in the country as a graduate student in 1988. “My professor asked me what I wanted to study,” she recalls, “and I said, “I want to know why buildings in Japan look so strange.””
This was not a case of brash orientalism on Pollock's part. Even compared with its East Asian neighbours, Japan's houses, streets and cities are quite distinct. “I found all different kinds of materials being used in building that were constructed at strange angles, in cities that had very few organizational devices,” she recalls.
Her professor suggested that, in order to understand the new buildings she should first look at the older ones. And so she studied traditional farm houses during the day, and attended open-house parties in newly completed dwellings in the evenings.
“There is this wonderful custom in Japan where, when an architect finishes a building, before they turn it over to their client, they host an open-house and invite everyone they know,” she explains. “I made it my own private curriculum to go to as many as I could.”
The fruits of Pollock's studies will be published early next month. Jutaku: Japanese Houses is a 512-page survey of Japan's remarkably creative and varied domestic architecture. There are Mies-style modernist houses; concrete, silo-like homes; houses constructed almost entirely from windows; houses filled with plants; and examples of domestic architecture that could pass for an abstract sculpture rather than a dwelling.
While the designs might confound Europeans or North Americans, Pollock says many aspects of Japanese architecture can be explained historically. For example, the habit of demolishing and replacing homes finds precedence in an earlier practice of replacing individual parts of a building.
“When one part wore out you simply popped it out and put in a new one,” explains Pollock. “Just as in the same way that, if the Shoji screen paper breaks you simply have it re-papered. Older houses were held up with huge wooden frames that were lashed together and they can be taken apart like tinker toys and rebuilt any place.”
The strange angles present in many Japanese houses are an upshot of the country's strict Sunshine Laws, which restricts the amount of shadow a building can cast. “Steeply angled roofs are directly related to these laws,” Pollock explains. “They ensure there would be a modicum of sunshine at street level. Many architects work out what volume will fill a legally prescribed space, and design a roof that will follow that line.”
The small size of the houses is not only a reflection of the great demands made on a limited amount of land, but also a preference for familial contact. “Part of the satisfaction with a small space is associated with that cosy feeling of being at home,” Pollock says. “Parents might want to hear their children playing even if they can’t see them. They like to know it when someone comes into the house, even if they can’t see them.”
Then there are architectural aspects that, despite decades living in Japan, continue to delight Pollock with the insights they offer into Japanese society. “One of my favourite houses in the book is Yasutaka Yoshimura's Window House,” she explains. “It's a weekend home built close to the waterfront and has two gigantic windows on either side. When the family are staying there, the curtains are drawn, but when they're away, they leave them open. You can see right through from the street to the ocean. It's designed like this because they didn't want to block the view,” marvels our author. “I don’t think you’d see architecture like that much in the US.”