Kazuo Shinohara: The Autonomy of House Design

1. Absolute freedom from urban design
Those who believe themselves unable to produce an image for a single house without first making an urban design should just go ahead with that method. But this has nothing to do with the essence of making a house. Even if an orderly metropolis were to be constructed in the future – in today’s conditions this would be impossible – we architects should make freestanding houses that confront the city rather than adapt to it or take inspiration from it. If indeed a powerful urban design were to emerge, it would in turn surely trigger the emergence of houses comprising a variety of audacious ideas and shapes.
The current situation strongly resembles the period during which it was obligatory to append the word ‘mass’ to housing design, or to architectural design in general. Just as the word ‘mass’ quickly disappeared, the word ‘urban’ will probably vanish before too long. But architects, who are also part of the public, must not succumb to even a single day of apathy, so I am not suggesting that an architect who makes houses should be apathetic toward the great theme of the city. Today, there seems to be almost as many urban designers as architects achieving wide popularity, but I do not think that this will lead to any substantial achievements. While they continue their lively debates, in reality the tenaciously spreading city is day by day being simultaneously made and destroyed.
The era in which architects making small houses could focus single-mindedly on such small structures has passed. The only way to question the social nature of the freestanding house is to assess its relationship with today’s tumultuous, disorderly society. I doubt any architect wants to squander energy on distinctive private houses for the wealthy. I don’t think there is an architect alive who does not harbour the urge, if conditions allowed, to demolish and collectively reconfigure all those houses built so close to their own work that the eaves touch. But any architect who has genuinely grappled with house design ought to understand the magnitude of the phrase ‘if conditions allowed’. I am now convinced that others may be persuaded that such problems can be battled using only the forms and logic of house design, and houses will become the seeds for urban design in the coming era.
If you think explosives might be helpful to escape this blocked situation, you can use whatever you like. Those who think that shapes drawn from the magnificent imagery of the city might be appropriate should try them. But you must not believe that this will allow you to instantly blast aside the problems of the house. Ways of thinking that bypass the straightforward pursuit of spaces shaped so as to relate the individual family and contemporary Japanese society as a whole are unhelpful in developing the small house today, let alone the city of tomorrow. Taking an idealised image of the modern Japanese person as a starting point, our anticipated city of tomorrow will truly arise only if people with differing occupations, beyond the liability-laden lifestyle of the lone architect, are gathered together in ways that are sometimes confrontational, sometimes cooperative. Rather than spaces that are limited by the talents of one individual, we should aim at city forms endowed with an infinitely tolerant neutrality, thereby allowing beautiful clashes between innumerable personalities.
Architects making houses must not stray from their starting points and initial directions. We must not give up on the city of tomorrow, as if it has nothing to do with us, and retreat into small spaces. If today we have become over-enthusiastic about composing small spaces, this enthusiasm must not be used as a pretext for ignoring the city of tomorrow. On the contrary, if we think of the house as a condensed expression of the entire system of ideas and forms of those architects who contributed to the birth of modern architecture, today we cannot avoid feeling the responsibility and importance of our task. Due to this history, and the situation in which we now find ourselves, the task of designing houses always tacitly requires ideas that transcend the dimension of simple intuition. Ideas as mere ideas will not attain the power of art. Methods able to mediate between ideas and forms continue to interest us. Unavoidably, then, the method is the means. If the method that I am discussing here seems strange, I ask only that you persevere to the end.

2. The site is not the starting point for design
Even if the site on which a house is to be built is not beautiful, the architect is obligated to make a beautiful house. If the surrounding environment is bad, at least the house must be beautiful. Given an expansive, beautiful site, the architect must make a house that is not less beautiful than its natural surroundings. A design must not start from arbitrary conditions such as whether or not the site is beautiful, or whether it is broad or narrow. In other words I mean that the design of a house should be based on an armature of ideas independent of the shape and environment of the site.
Land prices are rising, and large sites are becoming rare. I am therefore completely unconvinced by the simplistic notion that the typology of a house with an inner courtyard will soon enter the mainstream.1 Today the paradigm implied by the term ‘courtyard house’ is so vague that merely invoking its name should not trigger criticism and debate. But if it is intended as a reference to the European typology found from Mesopotamia to Greece and Rome, it embodies a posture of wretched passivity that could never engender a new lifestyle in Japan. Archetypes appropriate to local ways of life arose from long periods of refinement in those societies and climates, but I have no interest in the feeble expression of a ‘Japanese courtyard house’ that is merely the excision of a space for a garden. Similar to the way in which functionalism was once a means for justifying designs in the impoverished economic conditions after our wartime defeat, here the courtyard house offers no more than an escape route for one who has been driven into a corner by poor site conditions. I will not ignore certain experimental designs that also may be described as courtyard houses. But I insist that more serious attention be paid to specific ways of life, whatever the size of the site. A courtyard house in which a fence is built along the boundary of a narrow site with the outer walls of the building running along this fence may be regarded as a solution for today’s reality, but this prototype has been drawn from a completely foreign lifestyle. Of course, one is free to refer to this as a courtyard house simply due to its appearance, but to my thinking, even in Japan there would be little confusion if it were instead described as belonging to the same typology as the old machiya (townhouses) of Kyoto and some of the noka (farmhouses) of Nara. It’s not that I don’t understand the desire to use high fences – rather than party walls – on a tiny site with intrusive neighbouring houses. But in the Japanese climate, everyone is aware that this is no more than an extremely specific solution. If the interior climate can he controlled mechanically, there are far more effective ways of living.
For the next generation of floorplans in Japan a house typology that comprises stone or brick stacked around a courtyard is not worthy of consideration. The general floorplan typology of a culture is a manifestation of ways of living that mediate between a human family and society. Independent rooms are oriented toward a courtyard, and this courtyard is connected to the public plaza through a single opening. The courtyard garden links the highly isolated individual spaces within the enclosure to the exterior plaza – not a plaza as an abstract concept, but as a concrete manifestation of society. European residences are detached from the exterior, whereas Japan is said to have achieved a splendid degree of integration. though it is true that here the understanding of exterior is limited to the natural world. But if the exterior is considered to be ‘society’, or the great achievements of humanity, then this is a mistake, and surely the conclusions should be reversed. The European pattern, in which the visible surfaces create a high degree of separation, is based on a sense of solidarity with society, whereas the continuity between interior and exterior in Japanese lifestyles reflects an exceedingly weak degree of solidarity with society. The custom of taking one’s shoes off when going indoors should be seen in such terms. If we custom of taking one’s shoes off when going indoors should be seen in such terms. If we assume that a pattern of daily life based around a courtyard will come into general use, then it is not merely a question of climate, and we must surely tackle fundamental issues of society and family.
Aside from the courtyard plan typology, I dislike being swayed by the shape and environment of the site. Nor am I interested in solutions that exploit its appeal. Even when the site changed in the middle of a project – for example, my House in Kugayama No 1 and Tanikawa House No 1 – I made no changes to the project. That is because I always put the concept of the house ahead of its site.

3. The floor area of a house takes priority over everything else
Almost nothing of architectural importance is to be found in the array of numbers contained in the design brief provided by a client. For example. the conditions might be a site area of 3000m2, house area of 300m2, construction cost of ¥10 million, and a family consisting of two parents and one child. Or the conditions might be a site area of 200m2, house area of 60m2 and construction cost of ¥1 million for a family consisting of two parents and three children. Most architects could cite more extreme examples from their own experiences. The latter conditions are obviously bad. However, in today’s economic situation we would be fortunate to make architecture even under those conditions. Nonetheless, architecturally, there is still a strong likelihood that a good house would be built for the former client and a bad house for the latter. These numbers indicate the economic strength of each family (in that sense, they are unavoidable) but nothing worth considering as design conditions. You cannot, for instance, have a large garden and a large house just because there are many family members. However, this should be a valid design condition. To give an example, the combinations of a three-person family living in 60m2 and a five-person family living in 300m2 are more about feeling than architectural necessity. From such arbitrary conditions, how on earth should the architect start to design?
My sole starting point is the number that indicates the floor area of the house. The former is 300m2 and the latter is 60m2, and these are the only numbers that I will pick out from the list of requirements. Everything else is abstract. As I stated in the previous section, the site is not an important factor for me. The construction cost is omitted because, for the time being, it may be considered commensurate with the floor area of the house. Having assumed this, only the number of family members remains. My planning rule is to extract the floor area and the number of people, and of these two, I consider the floor area to be the only salient condition. I have come to think that a house’s design theme is latent in its given floor area. A spatial prototype must be produced according to the number provided. There should be a spatial composition appropriate for 60m2. Initially this seems to indicate a one-bedroom house prototype. Such a house is suitable for a family structure of a couple and one infant. But when the infant grows up, it will no longer be a workable solution. Moreover, it would be unfeasible from the outset to make a house for a family of five. For me, the latter of the two above-mentioned houses – a dwelling for a family of five people with an area of 60 m2 – does not even fall within the scope of design. Therefore, the only conditions under which I am able to design are the former – that is to say, a large house. This is obvious to an architect who believes that the bigger the house, the better. Of course, my interest is in the number 300m2, which would not be deemed a grand mansion in the usual sense, and it is a separate question as to whether it is possible to design for the given conditions using only this number. That is because it is generally believed that, for the comforts of everyday life, a house needs many rooms, even if they are pointlessly small.
Even if such an attitude is appropriate for the question of large houses, my method, or an ability to subdivide things, may be felt in small houses. That is because the general public believes the essential professional ability of a house designer is to plan responsibly in accordance with the given conditions, whatever they may be. Ordinarily, a sympathetic design would be a response to such expectations, so my conclusion that a five-person family cannot live in 60m2 might be called unsympathetic, not to mention unpopular. But for me, nothing will arise from following realistic principles, and I am convinced we architects are not destined to acquiesce to the impoverishments of politics and economics. So, for example, the idea that I will not design a house for a five-person family unless it is at least 100m2 is, I think, genuinely sympathetic and popular.

4. Design responsibility is not limitless
For children born in a small house, all manner of turmoil will occur as they grow up. This is natural, but many people see it is as unnatural – a failure in terms of the design. I will give an example from among my own designs. A house for a certain young poet,2 built four or five years ago with an area of 18.8 tsubo (62m2) was one of several houses recently subjected to a performance evaluation by a certain architecture magazine. Among many other evaluations, this situation became the target of particularly severe criticism. The house was initially intended for a couple only, but they then had children and became a family of four. Soon after completion it became completely uninhabitable, and so a studio for the poet had to be installed next to the main house. The house was criticised as follows: ‘The envelope no longer fits after only four years, which is far too soon. The designer of this house focused only on the concept, and it looks like a prototype by an overly ambitious young architect.’ I don’t intend to refute this criticism. A refutation of the evaluation itself was written immediately after the article was published. This comment is a prototypical express, of the conventional viewpoint on houses, for which I am extremely grateful. That is because an idea can be clarified by confronting it with an opposing idea.
I had never believed that it would be possible for a four-person family to live in less than about 60m2 without a degree of chaos. I cannot make guarantees to clients about things that I have not considered. Furthermore, this young poet did not ask me to deal with such conditions, so he has never once complained to me about the current chaos.3 As illustrated in the preceding section, such an extremely small house should have only one bedroom, but if several people are to live there, it is possible to transcend this condition by maximising the physical space. Naturally, chaos may then occur in the architectural planning. But that would be an event outside the design contract. The necessity to add a child’s room on the east side of the building initially planned for the poet is no more than an event that arose due to unforeseen circumstances. So even if two children arrive ‘just one year’ after the design was completed, that is not the fault of the designer.
A design contract should not be about construction costs alone. It should specify the timeframe for future changes in the family’s lifestyle that the design process is expected to encompass. Children are born and grow up, the eldest son will eventually marry and cohabit with his wife, grandchildren will be born. If the contract entails responsibility for every part of that three-generation lineage, I will demand a vast floor area. The architect must take responsibility for the design. But this responsibility is not limitless.

5. Freedom from how it will be used
Another critic has stated, ‘Abstracting daily life is a method attempted by many house designers, but Kazuo Shinohara intends to abstract space. A square plan, a square ceiling, and (things that resemble) furniture immaculately deployed like an expert’s opening gambit in Go’, adding, ‘you would feel too nervous even to toss in your sleep.’4 Implicit in this text is the notion that such a ‘stoic’ composition would not, in fact, contain any hints of messiness. This critic had recently been travelling abroad, and soon after arriving in the US he saw the great discrepancies between the photos and the reality of Minoru Yamasaki’s architecture, writing that these exceeded the case of my house. The discrepancies discussed here are not merely aspects of the chaos of real life and architecture, but he had not seen my houses in reality, so surely this is just a wishful prediction of mismatches between real life and my houses. To avoid misunderstanding, he does not necessarily judge discrepancies caused by a messy lifestyle to be a bad thing, so I am not trying to refute this here and now. I am just presenting it as an example of a text that skilfully explains the relationship between design and real life.
In reality, when someone comes to visit the poet’s house they will not find the interiors arranged as they have been published in magazines. The father’s study has now been turned into a playpen for an infant and is unlike the scenes shown in the photographs.5 If my design method is indeed the abstraction of space – in fact, this is a major theme – perhaps these mismatches with real life must be questioned. A naive observer might say that the design by the architect is therefore conceptual. And perhaps the architect will insist to the owners that they must not make such a mess. In fact, the owners say that they often tidy up the rooms before the architect visits. But I have no interest in this kind of naive observation or tiresome sensitivity, because I think the way a house of my own design is used depends on its owners. The scenes here are no more than incidental. There is no obligation to directly reflect the starting point of the design. Furthermore, from the moment construction is complete and the house is handed over, the architect has no right to speak.
A family is free to use their house messily or even more beautifully than intended by the architect. So it seems to me that the question might be reversed. Assume that some time ago the same architect devoted the same energy and used the same design method to make another house. Assume that an understanding family had developed a way of life notably more beautiful than the scenes previously shown in photos. This is not a fantasy – the examples may be few, but they do exist. How might the previous observers and architects interpret these scenes? Perhaps designs that give scrupulous consideration to lifestyle would be praised, and faith would be placed in the architect’s wide-ranging talents. Here too I cannot help having a completely different opinion, which is that both sides are wrong. If these scenes were not the architect’s initial intentions, then they are no more than the achievements of the family. However beautiful the lifestyle, it is also arbitrary.
Scenes that make you want to avert your eyes, or scenes in which people are showing off – sometimes these don’t meet the architect’s intentions and sometimes they exceed them, so the architect must not flaunt such arbitrary images. If you always try to integrate feedback from finished projects into subsequent designs, this operation must allow you calmly to draw the same conclusions from these two opposing situations. Stated logically, among houses that enable lifestyles based on the intentions stated at the time they were designed, there are cases in which a direct evaluation of the design will identify deficiencies in certain parts, or in the entire house. Of course, the possibility of making such a purely formal evaluation is extremely unlikely, so a general verification method should be applied to the various cases heretofore raised. This alternation between disappointment and pleasure is only proof that the autonomy of house design is not owned by the architect but shifts to the client.

6. Beautifully choreograph fictional spaces
You are free to live in a house as chaotically as you like, but it the scenes are unsatisfactory for publication in a magazine, the architect will rearrange things to suit his own preferences, choreographing it such that the residents ‘may not even toss in their sleep’. You must not leap to conclusions as to whether this is good or bad. Make a beautiful space that is a dwelling for the spirit. If it appeals to many people as a beautiful space in a magazine, it is good. If it has no appeal even after having been rearranged, it is undoubtedly bad.
I always put the greatest possible effort into thinking about choreography. There must be wastefulness in spaces, but in everyday life the existence of wasteful objects is intolerable. This is because wasteful spaces are beautiful, but wasteful objects are not. So hypothetically, if a house is always disorderly, the spaces being choreographed may be described as completely fictional. But such fictions must be presented to society at large. If these fictional spaces are regarded as beautiful, the house will attain a presence in society.
This may seem contradictory, but beauty detached from everyday life is meaningless in a house. However, if that is true, then I feel it is wrong to use the word ‘beautiful’ for something other than daily life. This is because beautiful spaces cannot be choreographed independently from daily life. It therefore doesn’t matter if there are wide discrepancies between real life and beautiful fiction. To the extent that something appeals to people, it has value.
Everyone is concerned about the discrepancies between magazine photographs and actual usage. But when the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a strange house built somewhere in America. was introduced to the world in about 1951, we frankly ought to have been shocked that absolutely no one seemed worried about what kind of person it was for or how it was to be used. Such issues are not limited to Mies, I think, but similarly apply to other houses by the great foreign masters. Fictional spaces have a magnificent power. This is because people have taken great efforts to prepare a beautiful house as a stage for deep emotions. What exists is not a real house, but a fictional space.
Why do our house designs not proceed along such paths? It is fine for architects to produce works for their own satisfaction, for photographers to frame their own spaces I within them, and for magazine editors to add the finishing touches and dispatch them into the world. To what extent can these repeatedly superimposed fictions be believed? Like the artists and artworks of medieval and early-modern European cities, or like the small societies that formed around the work of artists during the same period in Japan, the era of small worlds in which value is directly ascertained by seeing with one’s own eyes or touching with one’s own hands does not exist today, and would be meaningless even if it did. Unlike public buildings, it is especially necessary for houses to achieve sufficient fictional meaning. We should undertake our creative activities without worrying about methods of comparison with the real thing.
Indeed, the requirement to make such comparisons is a persistent problem for architects. We can trust that a good ‘work’, even if it has no existence other than repeatedly superimposed fictions, is in a reciprocal relationship with a real thing that is undoubtedly good architecture. Furthermore, the calibre of a work of architecture corresponds to the calibre of the fictional value structure from which it arises. Katsura Imperial Villa may be cited as a tangible example. Today its fictional spaces exist in great numbers, and each one has value.
If such correspondences are overlooked, fictionality will exist only in the negative sense. I have no interest in formal manipulations that allow any bad house to become a good ‘work’ if it is well photographed. That is because I place a high value on fictions that act as paths to link architects with society. Unless these paths are used for reciprocal feedback between architects and society, they will fall victim to their own dangerous toxicity.
I have claimed that a house is a work of art.6 In order to prevent any misunderstanding, I will take this opportunity to state that this is not an issue of sculptural form. The art lies in the ways that the design of a house may bond with society, and if it does not become a work of art, it has no reason to exist. Therefore, strengthening the reciprocal connection between house and society is not a secondary task. It is an obvious aspect of house design, and includes conveying it through mass media. So, for me, a fictional space is never fictional.

7. Design is also free from the client
A house must not be designed for the client. The architect must be free from the client.
This may sound like aggressive language. But to me, all other ways of speaking seem dishonest. Naturally, the conclusion to be reached is that we must be cautious about the starting points of architects themselves, free from city, from site, from family structure and everything else. On the other hand, I consistently claim it is necessary to maintain an appropriate degree of responsibility regarding this freedom. Design ideas and methods necessitating freedom from the client are, put another way, a demonstration of the architect’s absolute responsibility toward the client. Saying that you should not design for the client is therefore a means of clarifying the autonomy of the architect.
When a house is completed I always find it strange to hear the architect offering words of gratitude to the ‘deep understanding of the clients’ or the ‘diligent work of the builders’. I could accept this if it is in truth just harmless commercial promotion. However, if the architect really feels this way, what has become of the design task?
If sincere, the statement that ‘the good aspects of this house are all due to the clients’ understanding is nothing less than a public renunciation of the function of the architect. This is not humility but rather hypocrisy and mendacity. We must detach ourselves from such sentiments, which arise from an anti-modernist approach to building houses. Whether or not the clients understand, whether or not the carpenters are excellent, all the good and bad aspects of house designs should reflect the good and bad aspects of the architects themselves. I hope that everyone will make great efforts in thinking about production methods so as to avoid taking the wrong path due to useless sentiments.
Here I want to make a new proposition for what I call an ‘Original House’7 and its production method. At the risk of being misunderstood, I might also call it a reproducible house. Architects should create their own spaces without being beholden to anything. And when large corporations can reliably and accurately construct them using a system in which as many parts as possible are manufactured in a factory rather than on site, then such new houses may be realised. These new houses will be presented to people via mass media. Moreover, they will be commissioned by people who think they want the lifestyles being represented. The corporations will prepare the production systems accordingly. Whether one house or 100, the meaning of the house will not change. Every year, architects can publish as many original houses as they wish. The sequence of client –> architect –> builder is thereby transformed into the sequence of architect –> client –> factory.
As a single item, a house has almost no value to the wider world. Yet, with factory production, even a single item may be produced in large quantities at one time. I want it to be understood that Original Houses are to be implemented by combining these two facts. I hope it is understood that Original Houses will be subject to the formal limitations of mass-produced houses, but what interests me for the moment is a domain somewhere in the middle. Rather than using corporate profits as the criterion for determining the quantities to be produced, architects themselves can choose the maximum number of replicas of their own houses, allowing them to mitigate the damage to the significance and rarity of a design by, for example, specifying an ‘Original House limited to construction on 30 units’. A wood-block print might be a fairly appropriate analogy. In a sense, all 30 are originals.
If the space is extremely specific, let’s impose very few limitations. If it has a generic strength, let’s indicate a maximum allowable number. It is fine for people to request something to fit their own sites, to match their own family structures, and to accommodate their own interests. A legitimate flow of ideas will arise in the form of a circuit through which the various emotions and aspirations of modern society may be satisfied by commissioning particular architects to create spaces. By the time this essay reaches the hands of its readers, my Original Houses Nos l and 2 should have made their appearance as real proposals.8

Originally published in Kenchiku
April 1964

1 Kenchiku magazine had recently published two special issues on this topic: ‘Court house no gainen sono 1’ [Court House Concepts, part 1] in March 1963, and ‘Court house no gainen sono 2’ [Court House Concepts, part 2] in October 1963.

2 The first house Shinohara designed for poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, completed in 1958.

3 ‘Minimum dwelling’ is a generic term, but a one-bedroom house is an even more extreme format. Such a house can only be perfectly maintained in those special cases where the couple never has children. That is why I call it an extremely small house. In addition to the house for the poet, my House in Komae and Umbrella House have the same character.

4 Shoji Hayashi, ‘Sengo jutaku no mondaisaku 20-dal’ [Two Controversial Postwar Houses], Kenchiku (July 1961).

5 I am not citing this as an example of chaos due to this family’s inability to understand the intentions of the house. I mention it because they are highly sympathetic toward my design.

6 Kazuo Shinohara, ‘Jutaku wa geijutsu de aru: Kenchiku seisaku to taiketsu suru jutaku sekkei’ [A House Is a Work of Art: Production of Architecture Versus the Design of Houses]. Shinkenchiku vol 37, no 5 (May 1962).

7 In his introduction to the ‘Living / Living’ exhibition, held at the same time that this essay was published, Shinohara himself uses the English phrase ‘Original House’ in an otherwise Japanese text. Kazuo Shinohara, ‘Living Spaces by Architect and an Artist’, Japan Interior Design, no 14 (May 1964).

8 ‘Living / Living: Two Houses Built Inside a Department Store’, Kazuo Shinohara and Setsu Asakura joint exhibition, sponsored by Asahi Shimbun / Odekyu Department Store. Apr 1964.

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