The forthcoming edition of the tri-annual World Congress of Architecture is just about to start in Tokyo on September 25th. While the 24th edition will be looking at the possible perspectives for architectural design in 2050, I have been planning for a while to write about architecture of contemporary homes in Japan. I think of Japan very positively because there is almost no other country whose architecture portfolio is close to 100% uncompromised in terms of quality and adequacy of architecture. Some criticize Japan for maintaining a society of estranged work-centered people but regardless of whether this is true or not, the homes that these people return to are sometimes magical in a way that has seldom been replicated elsewhere around the world. Contemporary home design in the country includes a stellar line-up of wonderfully individualistic houses that were developed, with great subtlety and understanding, for and with their inhabitants.
The setting for these fascinating small jewel-boxes of homes (some are no bigger than 60 sq.m. distributed between two or three stories) is the extraordinary mixture of factors that shapes Japan's urban scene. Clearly, urban areas on the island are very densely populated; but while this has usually led to high-rise solutions through the rest of the world, Japan's susceptibility to natural disasters like earthquakes has ensured close scrutiny of high-rise building codes. Due to the high population density, real estate in Japanese cities is among the most expensive in the world. Inheritance tax in Japan also comes in to play - it is so high that on inheriting a piece of real estate people are often forced to split their property and sell half of it in order to be able to pay for the other half. All these conditions have shaped a tightly bound, heavily restricted architecture that is in my eyes wondrous and somehow still shows 'empathy for the human condition', as pronounced on another occasion by New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff.
Last month I was amazed by the ardent reactions to my selection of architects' homes. Turns out, to a large number of readers the great majority of those houses were ugly shoe boxes - far too theoretical, boring and not vernacular enough. To me this outlines one of the major differences in Eastern and Western takes on the architecture of homes. In Japan, we are faced with a new generation of houses whose rationality has stripped them of all unnecessary décor and still they actually look beautiful due to their exceptional sensitivity to concepts of dwelling, to light, to air and to juxtaposition of living and nature. Each of the boxes in this case has its own unique identity and gives a piece of very personal space to the ones who inhabit this densely populated cities.
An interesting archi-cultural difference between East and West came to my attention the other day while reading the recently published 'Tarzans in the Media Forest' by Toyo Ito. One of the chapters contains the author's bitter observations on Japanese architecture of public buildings which, he goes on to explain, is all about precision and meticulous pragmatism but 'lacks the joy of making'. I think quite the contrary is true in the West, it is precisely in the realm of public and even commercial buildings that architecture has been taking huge conceptual steps of late. What I like about this theory (and please comment if you disagree) is the possibility for one to learn from the other and the ways that they might cross-pollinate and evolve.
However, I am aware that this is a broad and sweeping way to discuss architecture, so I am interested to open this up to more critical and detailed debate: Do you think that there are signs already of this cross pollination happening? Can you think of examples that prove or disprove this idea? Or do you disagree with this assertion altogether?