Residential Zone

Y ou don’t need to know a thing about architecture to take an interest in Japan, Archipelago of the House, on view at the Yale School of Architecture through May 4. Living spaces are of interest to us all, and this exhibition raises questions about what we can learn from the kinds of structures Japan calls home.

Andrew Benner, director of exhibitions, suspects they have something to tell us about efficiency. In the “near future,” he says, “Americans are probably going to be living in denser environments. We’re probably going to have less space, so… in terms of how to live in smaller spaces, how to live in closer proximity, I think there are certain lessons that these houses [can teach].”

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The North American premiere of this traveling exhibition begins with “Yesterday’s Houses,” featuring models of 15 “seminal projects” from Japan’s past accompanied by photographs, floor plans and text. Here, Benner notes, you can often see the architects trying to work out a balance between traditional Japanese architectural elements—a central post rising to a point in the roof, rice paper shoji screens, tatami rooms where “observances of tradition play themselves out”—and newer Western influences. “These are some of the iconic houses that all of these houses of today are kind of referring back to or… building on,” Benner says.

Many of these structures appear rather spacious. But in the exhibition’s second segment, “Today’s Houses,” viewers are met with tight, experimental spaces. “I think one of the things that’s very distinctive is how creative they are with… maximizing the space that’s available,” Benner says. He points to a variety of ingenious storage units, for example, and the use of height when there isn’t width on a small lot.

Photographic collages of these homes and their interiors bring color and movement to the exhibition. The images themselves evoke family snapshots more than slick architectural shoots. People are in nearly every picture—playing, eating, conversing, working, serving tea, reading and living in their spaces. Repeated elements in these atypical yet distinctively Japanese homes include stacked bookshelves, generous windows, outdoor spaces integrated with interior rooms, natural palettes, bare walls and even knotty, bare plywood. But each home has its own character and its own unique design.

One, titled “House O” and designed by Hideyuki Nakayama Architecture, features a tall, narrow window two stories high with a single dramatic curtain pulled back to reveal its interior. The second floor of “Komazawa House” by Go Hasegawa and Associates is made of wooden slats arrayed like a louvered blind that allows the light from a skylight to reach the first floor. (You can’t help but wonder what else passes through that floor.) A third house, “A Big Gap in Everyday Life” by ON design partners, looks like a pair of tall metal chimneys, with a gap between them bridged on the second and third floors. Each panel also includes floor plans and brief interviews between architects and their clients elaborating on the features of each home and the impact on owners. “We take pleasure in getting up in the morning at home,” one resident reports.

A soundless video loop in “Today’s Houses” also gives visitors a chance to feel almost as if they’ve entered these contemporary homes. You can sit on a tatami-covered bench and watch the breeze flutter the edge of a patio umbrella, a curtain, even a tail of toilet paper in a bathroom. You can watch people open their windows and doors and slide their fusuma (movable partitions) and watch them watch the lapping sea near their house’s foot or the shade dappling a reading nook. You might just go home to notice the breeze and light and surfaces of your own home a little bit differently.

A third segment of the exhibition presents a block of 36 photographed exteriors, evoking en masse the crowded streets of Tokyo, where all of them are located. Again filled with people as well as with vehicles, these images convey the sense of a vibrant, thrumming city. “House Without a Kitchen” by Atelier Takuo Iizuka is shaped like a giant metal helmet with a knob sticking out of one side like a stovepipe or a plug. (We don’t get to see inside to learn about the missing kitchen.) “House in a Plum Grove” by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates takes the word “grove” (or its Japanese counterpart) loosely; the vegetation presses up against the house as if to avoid being run over in the street, while a toupee of grass peeks over the roof. In the photograph of Takeshi HOSAKA architects’ “Reflection in Mineral,” a parked yellow car sheltered by the slant of the house becomes part of its design. And Sakane Keikaku Sekkei’s tilting “Kudan House” leans back, resisting the hill on which it’s built. They’re not all houses you might want to live in, but each offers its own fascination.

In Tokyo, Benner says, the land where homes are constructed is “far more valuable than any house that you put on it.” Sometimes that means people will choose to rebuild a new house on the same lot in order to update it for the times or for a new generation. “Houses can be a little bit more like fashion,” he says, and Japanese homeowners may be more open to experimenting with their homes as a result of the land/building cost dynamic. One effect, Benner notes, is that “it’s easier for young, ambitious Japanese architects to get a commission to do a really interesting house because it’s just a constant opportunity.”

Even while sharing size constraints and a minimalist aesthetic, the houses in Archipelago of the House feel unique. Ingenuity, efficiency and bold aesthetics take precedence over—or despite—square footage. If Benner is right that this is our American future, we might start dreaming smaller—and higher.

Japan, Archipelago of the House
Yale School of Architecture – 180 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm through May 4
(203) 436-3944
www.architecture.yale.edu/exhibitions/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-2 and 4-6 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 3 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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