City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Moriyama House, by Ryue Nishizawa

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Approaching the Moriyama House

“The quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life” #1

I recently took the opportunity to make rapid visits to two houses in Tokyo, both of which sit an hour or so on the subway from Tokyo central station, well into the city’s sprawling suburbs: Sou Fujimoto’s House NA and Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, the subject of this post. I circled each furtively with a camera for a while, trying to ever-so-discreetly stalk their structures as both are private residences. Yet as both are also pinned up on foundations of ‘radical transparency’, I didn’t feel too awkward in doing so. But the photos I’ve selected below represent that privateness, as well as their publicness, and I’m not revealing their precise locations accordingly.

Both are highly influential buildings, produced in the early twenty-first century, and both now exemplify for me the most interesting forms of urban architecture, of housing, or urbanism; the sense that “architecture and the city are seamless”, as Ryue Nishizawa, architect of the Moriyama House, has said elsewhere. And thus, public and private, individual and collective, personal and shared are part of a more complex continuum than is traditionally understood, at least in ‘the West’. The emphasis on the collective — through a rediscovery of public realm, of communal and cooperative buildings, of buildings like this, of participative urbanism, of urban technology enabling collective networked organisation, infrastructure and services as never before — could be the essence of the future contemporary city, balancing richer notions of private and personal with more sophisticated forms of shared and public. Somehow, in these small, relatively humble houses may be the answer, the alternative, to the individuated urban development of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century city.

For as the architect Koh Kitayama writes, reflecting on the way the city actually moves:

The main focus is on the people who live in the city, and the spaces are based on the notion of collective forms for them. A basis for collective living (=the reason for the existence of a city) is something for which there is a serious need in contemporary society. The state of the city’s smallest structural units, the houses which support people’s lives in Tokyo, is undoubtedly changing in order to provide the optimum solutions. Through the small, personal matter of dwelling units, the city, with its dual extremes of massive authority and capital, seems to be undergoing a grand reorganization.

This “grand reorganisation” thus happens at the scale of individual houses, rather than the overblown, grandiose developments seen in other world cities, such as New York’s Hudson Yards or London’s Nine Elms. It is far more complex, sophisticated, interesting and arguably human as a result.

The second visit to one of these types of house was to the ‘Moriyama House’ (2005) in the Tokyo suburb of Kamata, designed by Ryue Nishizawa, who has is own practice as well as being part of SANAA. (The first visit was to ‘House NA’ by Sou Fujimoto, and is documented here.)

(For context on both, I picked up the excellent Tokyo Metabolizing (2010) from Tsutaya at Daikanyama T-Site. It was produced to accompany the Japanese pavilion at 12th Venice Biennale of Architecture, and it provides most of the quotes below, particularly interviews between Koh Kitayama, the book’s editor, Ryue Nishizawa, and Atelier Bow-Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. Other insights come from Niklas Maak’s brilliant book Living Complex (2015) — described in this post — and from The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 exhibition at The Barbican (2017), where a scale model of the Moriyama House took much of the ground floor of the exhibition. The subtitle of these pieces, “The quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life”, is a Kitayama line, repeated below.)

Whilst Fujimoto’s House NA was perhaps the more immediately beautiful, in terms of a traditional architectural reading of light, mass and materials (though there is far more to it than that), Nishizawa’s Moriyama House was perhaps the more conceptually adventurous, formally. Both houses melt into their immediate environments, though Nishizawa’s does so through its fundamental formal organisation as well as through its transparency, and its material choices. By disaggregating itself into multiple pieces, it feels fused into the city around, emerging discreetly from the quiet streets of Kamata, such that you almost walk into it before noticing it.

Taking a step back, Kamata, around the station, is lively, relatively dense and built-up, yet falls away quickly into a more typical suburban Tokyo residential pattern. (I’d previously only heard of Kamata via the odd brief reference in David Peace’s brilliant if horrifying novel Tokyo Year Zero e.g. a murder suspect relating during interrogation, “I worked for Nihon Steel in Kamata.”)

As with almost everything else in that book (“The city stinks of defeat. The city is on its knees.”), much has changed since then. Nishizawa talks about how he examined this quieter end of the district, walking around it before designing the house.

As the area was originally arable land, the roads crisscross in a vaguely haphazard way to produce a strange pattern that is neither entirely random nor gridlike. The alleys and roads are attractive spaces that convey a sense of the local residents lifestyles.

Kamata is the immediate context of Moriyama House

When you do finally chance upon the house, it’s immediately extraordinary, yet in the most humble way — again, in line with the extremely pleasant, everyday jumble of streets around it, somehow highly ordered and complex in that distinctly Japanese way. It’s not easy to spot at first, so easily does it blend in, but then its brilliant white cubes gently lift it from the street around.

Various views of the Moriyama House, from the streets and alleys around.

The house is actually a small complex — perhaps in both senses of the word — a cluster of ten discrete units of various sizes distributing various functions, with garden spaces threaded in-between, with no formal borders to the street or passageways around. The units range in scale from a slender three-storey ‘tower’ down to the scale of the body, the smallest housing only a shower. The spaces between the boxes feel as important and as occupied as the boxes themselves, although there is a genuine sense of space, air, and greenery blowing through these gaps—activity and greenery occupy the spaces inbetween as much, no doubt, as within. Rooftops are also occupied. A table and chair sits on one of the medium sized elements. A ladder is glimpsed through a window leading to the roof of the tallest.

The owner, a local, had decided to stop working (there’s a film by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine about the owner and the house) and wanted to be able to rent out individual elements while living in others.

Although it would be possible to walk directly through the house, between the cluster of boxes, it doesn’t feel like you ought to. (For more on the house generally, do read Maak’s Living Complex and the Barbican/MAXII catalogue, The Japanese House. I don’t intend to go into that in too much detail, as it’s a well-documented building.)

As Nishizawa says, “The structures turn into a cluster and a concept of the environment or landscape begins to emerge.” Writing in The Japanese House, Florence Ostende describes the logic of the Moriyama House in its setting: “Undoing the property generated a form of continuity with the urban fabric rather than a division. The house becomes an environment.”

Niklas Maak writes of the Moriyama House:

What is this? A new kind of living landscape, a stage set, a house whose corridors are unroofed? Or a small city with room-size houses? For the first time we are in a living community, a commune that works—because it wasn’t squeezed into the wrong architectural form.

Or as Koh Kitayama says:

Even though it’s a space with a form that could be anywhere at all, it’s also a space that you’ve never experienced before. It was as if there wasn’t any core, and the outside and the inside of the structure is completely equal … It was like a cloud without any firm place to grab hold of …

When I visit, a couple of chairs have noticed propped on them: one pointing out where not to take photos from (a neighbour’s private space), and another asking not to walk in. Clearly the principles of transparency are difficult to manage once a house achieves fame to the extent that people like me make a beeline for it. Without foreign tourists, I imagine the notices would not be required, given the way the neighbourhood around appears to work to similar principles, and Japanese culture’s ease with complex divisions of public and private.

Light bounces around from its large glass plate windows and walls, the trees and bushes offset and blur the edges of the boxes beautifully, the large windows frame views as a Kyoto temple does. It’s delightfully difficult to photograph, as you can’t really stand back from it, nor can you get into it; it’s both opaque and transparent. But every glimpse, every angle, is rewarding.

Those blank white boxes, and delicate drapes in windows, focus the eye on the spaces in-between: the trees and their shadows, the little objects placed around, like stools, chairs, boxes and tools, the structures and spaces of the surrounding houses. It’s quietly beautiful.

But it’s what it does as a beautiful little chunk of city that is particularly interesting. Koh Kitayama says:

Though the city is the site of economic activity, the majority of its space is taken up with living places … In contrast to cities of the past that were shaped by tremendous administrative and financial power, Tokyo has the potential to create change in the city through the quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life.

Here, Kitayama is describing the intrinsically organic development one sees walking around Tokyo, or glimpsed through its subway windows, based on multiple interventions at human scale, which accumulate to move the city forwards. At this scale of the small house, multiplied to a city of approximately two million individual lots, it’s as if the city is in constant flux, harmoniously guided by an invisible hand, yet not the hand of capitalism, but the multiple hands of people, and the city’s own malleable fabric. In fact, Kitayama places Tokyo’s “Metabolising City” as a third alternative to the “City of Monarchism” (the medieval European city) and “City of Capitalism” (for example Manhattan, as conjured in Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.)

A key to this malleable fabric is the fundamental difference in the life expectancy of a Japanese house compared to those other models: ~26 years. Due to the constant renewal, with that clock speed of replacing housing at that rate, the city moves forward, but is also better able to recalibrate itself to the needs of people at any one time. It’s as if Tokyo shares the incremental, networked development model of organic development in bottom-up urbanism, but within in advanced, well-organised and massive metropolis. As Nishizawa says:

A democratic city can be realised because there isn’t a hierarchy or class system, and the landscape of the city itself somehow appears to be a community or a group of people. Like a collection of living organisms, it is an extremely organic landscape, and that’s something I rate very highly.

This tradition of continual redevelopment can clearly be seen as highly unsustainable in terms of material and carbon (just as with Archigram’s ‘Instant City’, which Nishizawa refers to at one point in the interview, with a laugh.) And there is no doubt that this ‘replace rather than repair’ model would have been, until recently, problematic in terms of material use, for all of its cultural advantages.

Casey Mack’s critique of Maak’s Living Complex at Avery Review is also a critique of House NA and Nishizawa’s Moriyama House by extension, and especially these particular architectural qualities, qualities which Maak sees as so valuable. Perhaps sitting within a Western context of property-based wealth — and ignoring all the attendant issues that creates — Mack sees little advantage to the way that Japanese houses lose value as they age, and apparently necessitate replacement. Although we might agree that completely rebuilding every few decades unthinkingly can only be unsustainable, despite its cultural advantages, Mack doesn’t want to see that we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He notes with implicit approval the Japanese government’s recent tax incentives to “steer the country away from scrap-and- build practices by encouraging the construction of durable, adaptable, and energy-efficient housing as defined by design guidelines whose specifications are purported to result in houses that will stand 165 years longer than the current national average of thirty-five.” While the intention to be “adaptable and energy-efficient” is absolutely correct, the real question would be how to achieve these outcomes whilst retaining an architecture with the plasticity to drive cultural change.

For it needn’t be the case that rebuilding is unsustainable, given advances in circular economy principles, contemporary fabrication and reusable material innovation, and the ability to take advantage of the latest technologies at each point. And just as importantly, it enables buildings to change at something close to the rate of culture, potentially enabling forms of living that are also more sustainable, as cultural change in that sense is as important as material and industrial change. A new approach of sustainable adaptation and plasticity would enable a form of adaptive design that could have immense benefits (in Europe, certain collective housing models are exploring similar principles, though within the slower tradition of building here.)

We often use Stewart Brand’s (really Frank Duffy’s) pace layers principle in our work, but the inability to let buildings move at the rate of social and cultural layers in a European or American context denies a great deal, not least the ability to better tune a building to its occupants. Yet in Tokyo, as Nishizawa points out, it’s possible to do just that.

I think that European cities introduced an ‘unchanging model’. Within walls, they created cities out of stone that could be maintained for longer than a person’s life. They believed that if you’re going to accommodate people’s lives, you can’t keep changing the forms every day. On the other hand, Asian cities are based on a model of ‘change.’ This is true not only of Japan, but also of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and all of Asia. People’s lives change, and values do too, and because they change, the idea that a city that supports them should also change rapidly is indicated by its form.

We live differently to our parents, just as they lived differently to theirs. It is odd we try to contain or freeze these different living patterns in the intransigent and ossified architectural fabric of previous generations. As Florence Ostende asks in The Japanese House, “if our brain can change in the course of our lives, why shouldn’t our houses?” Indeed according to Ostende, Nishizawa draws from French philosopher Catherine Malabou, whose interpretation of plasticity as a form of disobedience is quite different to a more compliant flexibility. Nishizawa wanted “a house with plasticity, not flexibility (as) the ability to change positively and drastically, rather than simply adapting to environmental changes. A house that fuels “the courage to continue the process of destruction and creation, without compromising to the present situation.”

As well as this plasticity, partly charged by the rapid clock speed, Japanese culture’s particular qualities of community cannot be ignored when standing in front of the Moriyama House. A culture centred on high levels of respect, trust and passive safety, often enabled by individualism being subservient to various forms of communal organisation and representation, can no doubt produce negative outcomes as well as positive — but in my limited ‘surface’ experience of Japan, the general outcomes are highly positive, whether observing the quality of the public transport systems, the pervasive quiet respect, or the humbly decorated, lively, heteregenous yet safe streets. While Nishizawa is perhaps underplaying things when he says “there isn’t a hierarchy” in Tokyo — as there clearly is a strongly developed sense of hierarchy throughout Japanese culture — the built landscape of Tokyo does feel remarkably open, mobile and adaptive, as if social mobility can have its counterpart in ‘built mobility’. (Which may be an interesting thought to develop, with the UK’s social mobility slowing down, perhaps partly as it is glued to its almost static ‘built mobility’; with so much personal wealth stuck in housing, it weighs down both built and social mobility.)

Certainly this sense of culture is key to several of Nishizawa’s principles for Moriyama House. In fact, almost all of Nishizawa’s design principles, listed in Tokyo Metabolizing, are immediately visible. These include: dismantling; smallness; acentricity; transparency; the creation of an environment; multiple tenancy/density; and the absence of borders.

In fact, they can also be seen in almost any Japanese suburban neighbourhood too, and certainly in Kamata, in the streets around Moriyama House. They can be seen in the personal possessions that are left open to the street, fully trusting they will still be there when the owner returns in the evening. The human scale of dwellings, at two or three storeys. The greenery planted in the street, or rather for the street, lending the neighbourhood with a communally-produced garden. The diversity of ground floor activity, with houses or shops or bars opening directly onto the street. That sense of openness and living in public, with the half-metre set-back from the pedestrian- and bike-focused streets. The ‘acentricity’ of a constantly moving clustering, such that, in Nishizawa’s words, “any place can become the centre.”

Nishizawa’s principles, played out in the surrounding neighbourhood.

It’s as if Nishizawa has read the organisational ‘structure of feeling’ of the neighbourhood, and “simply” played that out in architecture at the scale of a building. I say “simply” in inverted commas as this is no mean feat, clearly, as many of the buildings in the the existing neighbourhood have few intrinsic qualities in terms of built refinement, and are in effect the single boxes that Nishizawa states he had little interest in. Nishizawa has instead created a subtle jewel of a building, or cluster of buildings, which both draw from the fabric of the surrounding neighbourhood and move that fabric forward. It shares the neighbourhood’s qualities and now, vice versa, the neighbourhood can share its qualities.

Kamata metabolising in the blocks immediately around Moriyama House

It will be interesting to see if or how Kamata ‘metabolises’ itself in the various vacant plots around Moriyama House, in response.

As I was walking around Kamata I thought, the most straightforward way to create a comfortable house is to create an environment … In the end, I started to think that it’s not merely a question of architecture but that’s also important to create an attractive environment. But rather than looking at things from an urban or social perspective, architectural creation ultimately lies at the core of what I do.

(As an aside, this insight of his was inadvertently helpful to me personally, as the urban and social perspective is at the core of what I do, with the architectural a more tangential concern, if still of great interest.)

In Koh Kitayama’s summary to Tokyo Metabolizing, he notes that :

The concept of ‘public’ seems to be non-existent in Tokyo. The majority of the land is filled with narrowly segmented, privately-owned living spaces. In these residential areas, spaces that anyone can pass through blend together with private spaces, and many of the most private spaces allow a clear line of sight from the outside. Due to this complicated line of sight, the Western concept of ‘privacy’ has never taken hold. Instead there is a code of behaviour mediated through presence. These relationships, in which people remain aware of each other’s existence, is a form of communication that could only be conducted between people in a recognised community.

This more complex form of public and private is played out around us with the Moriyama House. While I never quite felt comfortable with setting foot onto the property, despite the lack of any kind of physical barriers, I was able to see right through the thing, almost literally. And perhaps if the notices on the chairs — again no doubt present due to encounters with people from outside of the “recognised community” Kitayama describes above — had not been there, perhaps I would’ve felt able to take a step or two inside. Yet the invisible barriers of those “codes of behaviour” were perceptible, and meaningful. I was an intruder here, my presence clearly from outside of the community.

Yet the house remained a delightful offer, a genuinely urban condition as much as a building. As a ‘fourth-generation house’, to use Yoshiharu Tsukamoto’s model, it is a gift. Tsukamoto’s conditions of what such a house should exemplify — 1) bringing people from outside the family back into the house; 2) increasing the opportunities to dwell outside the house; 3) redefining the gaps— are all at play here.

Of course all of Nishizawa’s design principles were clearly visible too, and seemed highly effective. Whilst there was no sign of life from inside during my brief mid-morning visit, it was easy to imagine it lightly and subtly populated, or full of life, for the wedding ceremonies, BBQs and exhibitions that occasionally happen here, or any point in-between.

Drawing of Moriyama House (ground-floor plan), by Office of Ryue Nishizawa, via MoMA

The house was beautifully simple in conception, if complex to finalise (as the many drawn studies printed in Tokyo Metabolizing make clear.)

There are many wonderful, deceptively simple touches, such as the blade-like canopy over one of the many ‘front doors’, or the way certain windows align to create lines of sight through multiple units, and enabling interior and exterior to have similar amounts of light, or the blending of garden and structure, or the variety of scales of unit, tied to various functions or left open to reprogramming on a daily basis.

For a house over ten years old, effectively middle-aged, in terms of that expected lifecycle in fact, it feels pristine, thanks to the high-quality construction of smart material choices. It is weathering better than Fujimoto’s younger House NA, actually; though perhaps the latter’s developing patina is at least somewhat intentional.

Moriyama House is both genuinely beautiful, in the quietest sense, and conceptually thrilling, in the humblest way.

As with Sou Fujimoto’s House NA, and much of the work of Atelier Bow-Wow, Moriyama House humbly sketches out possible futures for individual residential development that may be of value well beyond Tokyo. And when taken together, due to their emphasis on weaving urban fabric in and out of the houses, as urban development models they are human scale first, and then with an organic logic that subtly and humanely accumulates at neighbourhood scale second. As Kitayama puts it:

Through this ‘new architecture’, the city of ‘Tokyo’ is slowly beginning to change shape. On a macroscopic level, there seems to be an invisible system, which, while incorporating numerous distinct concepts, provides an optimal solution … Tokyo presents one type of future for the contemporary city.

Through its ability to organically bind the smallest grains of living into shared urban fabric at the scale of the megacity, we might learn much from this possible future.


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