The Eye

How to Build a Sleek, Bold House in Crowded, Earthquake-Prone Japan

Japanese House 24
Tokyo House, by A.L.X., completed in 2010. The 840-square-foot reinforced concrete structure has a perforated steel skin. The architect stretched the structure right up to the curbside to the absolute maximum allowed by city regulations. Despite its bandaged appearance, interior skylights bring light and a view of the sky into the heart of the house.

Courtesy of Koichi Torimura

The Japanese House Reinvented, a new book by Philip Jodidio, is a study in architecture born of constraints.

Even though Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, some 60 percent of Japanese dwellings are single-family homes. Tightly packed urban areas, limited building plots that restrict outdoor space, and the ever-present menace of earthquakes force the best contemporary Japanese architects to take risks and innovate. Jodidio notes in the book that many Pritzker Prize winners still build houses, including Tadao Ando, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, and Shigeru Ban.

The 50-odd recent residences in this intriguing book are bold and unconventional. They push the expected boundaries of form, material, and composition in order to create thoughtful, exciting, exacting buildings that maximize space and offer privacy while stealthily incorporating access to light and air.

Japanese House 174
House of Density, in Sapporo, Hokkaido, completed in 2013 by Jun Igarashi Architects. The interior of this three-story, 950-square-feet timber-frame house clad in galvanized corrugated metal on a long, narrow lot contains some 32 “rooms” or subspaces organized around a central spiral stairway.

Courtesy of Sergio Pirrone

Japanese House 145
House in Komazawa, by Go Hasegawa & Associates, completed in 2011.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

Japanese House 146
The interior of the 690-square-foot House in Komazawa features an open living room with a view of a plum grove. The second floor has a plywood-lined bedroom and bath, and a study with an unusual louvered floor. A high window on the second floor allows those on the ground to see the sky through the louvered floor surface.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

“While Western eyes see little presence of nature in Japanese cities, the Japanese themselves perceive views of the sky or sunlight inside a house as manifestations of nature, an important element in day-to-day existence,” Jodidio writes. “Even the limited presence of plants, daylight, and a hint of breeze are taken as expressions of nature that are a relief from the congestion of the city,” he writes.

These innovative houses, a few of which are pictured here, experiment with technology, often embrace asymmetry, and include sophisticated open but flexible space planning to serve the people who inhabit them in unexpected ways.

Japanese House 150
House in Kyodo in Tokyo, by Go Hasegawa & Associates, completed in 2011. The The 730-square-foot house has a somewhat traditional outline but an unconventional layout. Built for book editors, it contains a low-ceilinged book vault, study, and bedroom on the ground floor with an open upper level.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

Japanese House 30
The House in Utsubo Park in Osaka, by Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, completed in 2010. The architect has used the same stone inside and in the courtyards of the 2,000-square-foot house, emphasizing continuity between interior and exterior, and incorporated a green wall that helps draw nature inside.

Courtesy of Shigeo Ogawa

Jodidio points out that the interiors of Japanese houses often feature multiple levels and open interior spaces that echo the traditional use of sliding shoji screens to create flexible spaces for multiple inhabitants.

Japanese House 247
The Tsuchihashi House in Tokyo, by Kazuyo Sejima & Associates, completed in 2012. The site of this 775-square-foot house is closely surrounded by other residences, but a full-height atrium allows light to penetrate into the entire residence.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

Japanese House 284
Bent House in Tokyo, by Koji Tsutsui & Associates, completed in 2012. The concrete exterior is characterized by what the architect calls “a collection of three bent boxes,” while interiors mix hard surfaces and generous, shielded openings that let in light and views of outdoor foliage.

Courtesy of Iwan Baan

Japanese House 22
The Light Cube Factory in Tokyo, by A.L.X., completed in 2011. In this 1,720-square-foot house, a dining table positioned near the street side window seems to offer up the owners’ privacy to passersby, allowing them to glimpse the minimal design alternating severe opacity with surprising transparency.

Courtesy of Koichi Torimura

He writes that the “surprisingly open” floor plans that characterize many contemporary Japanese houses define privacy “in more succinct terms” than in many Western homes.

“This openness obviously is one way of addressing the small spaces that even relatively wealthy Japanese must make do with, especially in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka,” he writes. “What makes Japanese houses original and interesting is surely a matter of culture and lifestyle, but is also driven by a large number of persons who are ready to take risks, either in designing these houses, or in living in them.”