Book Review: Eco Living Japan

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green by Deanna MacDonald
Tuttle, 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages

When I think of Tuttle, I think of Japan – and vice versa to a lesser degree. Be it gardens, tea or, in this case, houses, the publisher has a knack for capturing the intrinsic qualities of Japanese culture and disseminating it to a wider audience. Eco Living Japan, by Temple University professor Deanna MacDonald (she teaches at their Tokyo campus), has compiled 20 houses that, while contemporary, exhibit many of the traits that people associate with traditional Japanese architecture; the cover house, for instance, looks like it is wrapped entirely by shoji screens, glowing like a lantern in the snow. (The project, designed by Kengo Kuma, is actually wrapped in polycarbonate with polyester insulation.)

MacDonald's collection of green living in Japan and beyond is broken down into five chapters: Borrowed Landscapes; Reinventing Tradition; 'Smart' Green; Reuse, Renew, Recycle, Renovate; and Sustainable Japan Abroad. These thematic chapters move from the traditional to the contemporary, from the way Japanese designers have traditionally brought nature into the smallest of houses and gardens, to the way their ethos has been absorbed in other places recently. Accompanying the projects in each chapter are sidebars on some recurring elements (engawa spaces, prefab, charred wood siding, etc.) that further link the new houses with old traditions.

Over the years I've reviewed numerous books on (small) Japanese houses and gardens, but even with exposure from those books and the many websites that champion the same, many of the houses in this book are new to me. Credit goes to MacDonald for sticking to the theme of "eco living," rather than compiling the latest and greatest, and therefore finding houses with positive green attributes. Key words at the end of each project highlight what these attributes are, giving readers an easy way of cross-referencing the designs and finding what qualities they most admire. The success of her book would be greatest if, like the last chapter, people reading the book absorbed its ides of eco living and incorporated them into their own living spaces, wherever they may be.