Westerners often look on in bewilderment at Japanese architectural design. The West is more accustomed to the idea that worth runs parallel to pageantry and plethora, to the point where it is assumed that as one accumulates wealth, the physical world around them undergoes a kind of metamorphosis – the number of rooms in their house multiply, hallways stretch out until the vanishing point, and living rooms swell into yawning spaces of impossible size. But this trend can detract from the pleasure of living in such an environment, with function being lost in the pursuit of grandeur, making the end result the architectural equivalent of a Rube Goldberg device with thousands of unnecessary independent parts, haphazardly working together to accomplish the single task of creating a home.
However, many Japanese architects have approached home design from the complete opposite direction. Instead of turning their eyes outwards to the vastness of space, they instead opt to focus inward, looking at home design through a microscope to achieve serene and subtle living environments that are difficult for Western eyes to appreciate at first glance.
Takaharu Tezuka is one such architect, and he holds a profound belief in the concept of design with a surgical knife rather than a hacksaw, and the importance of creating functional homes uniquely catered to the residents living within. “Everything we design is about human activity,” Tezuka says. “We are interested in what people want to do in our building.”
Tezuka says that this idea is partly based off of a philosophy by psychologist James Gibson called “affordance.” According to affordance theory, every object contains a specific functional purpose. “For instance,” explains Tezuka, “a chair is for people to sit in, while a ladder allows you to climb. Everything has a kind of action and emotion and so our design is about what people want to do in their home.”
To give an example of how he has instilled this concept into his design, he refers to one of his firm’s most famous projects – Roof House. Tezuka says that he was commissioned to design a home for a family that particularly enjoyed relaxing on their roof. Working from this simple starting point, he designed the home so that every room has a skylight through which one can access the roof by way of a ladder. Tezuka says this is perhaps the best and most basic example of his design philosophy – a design which appears so simple, but yet which contains many subtleties that one may not immediately notice.
“[Roof House] looks simple but it’s not. For example, we made the rooftop inclined. This lets the rain water down but it serves another function as well… By doing some studies about public squares, we found that the most popular squares have an incline, such as Pompidou Center [in Paris]…. But if you have a famous flat square such as [London’s] Trafalgar Sq., people tend to stay off to the sides and not go into the middle.” Tezuka says that his design Roof House has illustrated this idea in a real world scenario, citing the family’s propensity to sit or lie down across all areas of the roof.
Tezuka says that his Roof House project also illustrates a second important character of his design philosophy, which is to incorporate the surrounding natural environment into the home experience as thoroughly as possible. “Wherever you find a human being,” Tezuka says, “we are supposed to be able to cope with the nature around us. Whether you go to Stockholm, where either half of each year is quite comfortable, or to China where most of the places have bad weather, we should be able to use that nature as it should be. [Of course] we want to change nature so we can live comfortably all the time, but we are not able to do that so we need to adjust our human being self.”
This last point Tezuka emphasizes as fundamental to his design philosophy. Tezuka holds firm the conviction that almost any weather can be perceived as comfortable by the human body and that the trick lies not in the human body’s adaptability, but in the mind’s ability to perceive climate in a different light. As proof of his theory, Tezuka points to the extreme temperatures of many popular vacation spots. “I always use an example of people going to the beach in the summer,” he says. “You might say you want to be in air conditioning, but still you go to the beach even though the surface is 50 degrees Celsius. In the winter you go skiing, but the ski resort is very cold… My point is you need a whole existence, not just a temperature. As long as there’s some kind of fun or joy coming with that nature, the human being is strong enough to cope with all these kinds of temperatures. So my rule as an architect is to create and intone a joyful environment for human beings where people cope with change of temperature.” He also mentions that as a resident of Japan, utilizing this principle in architectural endeavors is especially important since Japan is a country marked by extreme seasonal changes from freezing winters to boiling summers.
Despite the success he has experienced in implementing this philosophy, Tezuka does say that he has faced criticism from skeptics who question the practicality of this idea. “Some people say, why don’t you make everything natural so that just a field is good enough?” However, he counters this argument by saying that though nature should be embraced it still needs to be moderated by human intervention to make it habitable. In order to draw a parallel, he refers to the ancient Japanese cuisine of sushi. Though best eaten raw, Tezuka says that we are unable to eat the whole fish raw as a pelican might. Rather, sushi must be prepared using precise human instruments. “There’s a very delicate procedure we have to follow. To make it right, we must use a very sharp knife to cut the fish meat into a specific thickness, and each fish has its own specific thickness to taste just right.” To further the analogy, he says that similar to architecture, if one uses too much sauce, or prepares the sushi with too many elaborations, it overwhelms the flavor of the raw fish and detracts from the enjoyment.
“We treat architecture the same way,” Tezuka concludes. “We don’t put any extra sauce in it… and we try to slice nature with perfect precision to make the perfect condition for the human being to live in.”
Images by Katsuhisa Kida/FOTOTECA
Alex Levin is a writer for Granite Transformations, a remodeling company dedicated to advancing green remodeling practices by finding new ways to recycle and reduce waste like making countertops out of blue Skyy vodka bottles.