Book Review: The Japanese House Reinvented

The Japanese House Reinvented by Philip Jodidio, published by The Monacelli Press, 2015. Hardcover, 288 pages. (Amazon)

In the introduction to Philip Jodidio's new book highlighting fifty recent Japanese houses, the author mentions that Japan and the United States share a preference for single-family houses over apartments. While not a surprising statement, the similarities end there, since each country's geography, culture, economics and other factors have created widely divergent contemporary designs. Japan, in particular, is full of houses that scream "Japan," most of them found in the tight confines of Tokyo, like the project gracing the cover (Atelier Tekuoto's "Monoclinic"). But, as Jodidio's selection of houses shows, there is more to single-family residential architecture in Japan that idiosyncratic vertical houses in tight confines, even as some of those are found in these pages.

One of the numerous US-Japan differences in single-family houses is size, with those in the United States averaging around 2,600 square feet, exactly double Japan's average of 1,300 square feet. It's not surprising to find numerous houses in this book that are under that average, many with three digits rather than four. But there are a surprising number of large houses, from a 2,000-square-foot house in Osaka designed by Tadao Ando to a 13,475-square-foot (nope, that's not a typo) house in Tokyo designed by ARTechnic Architecture. Before you start thinking that I'm gung-ho for Japanese houses being as big as American ones (I'm not), it is interesting to see how large houses in Japans are designed.

[Shigeru Ban: Villa in Sengokuhara]

One house that can serve as an example is Shigeru Ban's 4,875-square-foot Villa in Sengokuhara, which is like a letter P in plan with squared-off, metal-clad walls on the exterior and rounded glass walls facing the interior courtyard. It's definitely not a house that could be pulled off in expensive Tokyo, much less Kyoto or Osaka; the rural setting in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, is ideal for the extra-large house. Even though the house is large on square footage (the site area is nearly 20,000 square feet, or almost half an acre), the "rooms" that ring the courtyard are well-scaled, thanks to the narrow width of the plan. Instead of Great Rooms, as many bloated US houses like to incorporate, the grandness of the design comes from the openness of the rooms through sliding glass walls to the courtyard at its center. (As a point of contrast, Jodidio includes Ban's Yakushima Takatsuka Lodge, a small lodge of only 355 square feet.)

Two other large houses in the book suit my fancy, but for what they do with their size, not simply for being large. TNA Architects' Gate Villa, like Ban's Villa in Sengokuhara, is large (4,080 square feet), but its outdoor space is about three times as large. The house is based on a 23-foot-square grid – 4 modules by 5 modules – but only 7 of the 20 modules in the grid are used for enclosed space; the other 13 are open spaces that range from one module to six contiguous modules. The other house is Mount Fuji Architects Studio's Shore House, smaller at 3,210 square feet, which has a roof terrace for outdoor space but makes a double-height space lined with open shelves the main feature. Perhaps it's just the bookworm in me salivating, but that house is just one of the many marvelous designs found in this book, all thoroughly Japanese but more varied that what we've come to expect from the plethora of books on the island's contemporary houses.