Japanese houses are small


Small houses with a future

Japan's way of living in modest, confined private townhouses is hardly changing. The small-scale parcelling continues to determine the image of the metropolises

Text: Hubert, Daniel

In Japan there are also small houses in the city. They are narrow houses that have found a free spot next to their large neighbors and that serve their residents as apartments. Many also see the need and potential for such small houses in European cities. The Tokyo architecture office Atelier Bow-Wow calls these houses "pet architecture" and in the book of the same name primarily gathers those that would otherwise not make it onto the catwalk.

As Barrie Shelton notes in his book "Learning from the Japanese City", the Japanese cities were characterized by one- to two-story buildings up to the Meji period (1867–1912), from which only castles, rarely pagodas and finally towers for fire control protruded . Shelton describes even the former as horizontal in their basic construction. Indeed, the cantilevered, stacked roofs do not express the pure verticality, as has been done in European cities by representative buildings.

Contrary to its historical building tradition, Tokyo has meanwhile moved vertically. However, this evasion is limited to the various sub-centers such as Shinjuku, Ikebukuro or Maronouchi, and there above all to the area around the train stations, the proximity of which is an important factor when evaluating a property. Often, wide traffic aisles are also lined with high buildings. They play an essential role in disaster control, in which the road represents the escape route and the high buildings represent the fire barrier. Peter Popham compared this structure to an egg, the hard shell of which represents the concrete, fire-proof high-rise buildings and the soft core of which the low, often wooden buildings represent.

Beyond these tall and wide streets and the sub-centers around the train stations, however, the real Tokyo stretches out, consisting of mostly low, two-story buildings with narrow alleys, some of which are less than two meters wide. This abrupt change of scale from one street corner to the next is one of the most impressive and peculiar city experiences in Tokyo.

Small terrains - small houses

Tokyo's fragmentation has historical origins, but is also based on a number of planning law peculiarities from more recent times that differ from western urban planning. Uta Hohn writes in her book about Japanese urban planning that it is characterized by great openness, which is reflected in a "both - and" thinking and in which "the delimitation debates that are common in the West" are dispensed with. The Japanese city as it presents itself today is "essentially the result of a lack of or very generous frameworks for a long time through land use planning, which gives the builder a considerable degree of freedom of design and rights of use."

In addition, a coarse zoning of land use prevented the separation of functions in Japan, as it was propagated in the Charter of Athens and was often implemented in European cities - a circumstance that proved to be an advantage for the preservation of the typical Japanese urbanity, which is characterized by high density, It is characterized by small parts and liveliness.

As happy as the loose guidelines for the liveliness of Japanese urban structures have turned out to be, the boom years of the fifties and sixties and later the years of the so-called bubble economy were responsible for a rapid change in Japanese metropolises. The great pressure to create more and more office space led, as in many other cities around the world, to an erosion process that displaced living from the inner cities to the sprawling suburbs.

In the 1980s, the liberalization of the financial market and a low interest rate and money market policy made land ownership even more attractive as an asset, as the tax value for inheritance tax was set well below the market value. So the recommendation was to convert property into land ownership in order to save the heirs so much inheritance tax. In the 1990s, the standard land values ​​for real estate tax and inheritance tax were raised, which put an end to land speculation and the oversupply of office space. The result was often the division of land in order to be able to pay inheritance taxes.

In residential construction, however, the high land prices have also meant that the increase in living space consumption has been kept low. So people have a lot of external contacts. Laundromats and bathhouses are a permanent fixture in the district and are frequented by all age groups.

In addition to these historical and economic reasons for small properties and small houses, the fact that many properties remain in the ownership of the same family for generations, who feel very connected to the neighborhood and the property and ultimately a smaller remaining property, also plays a role would always prefer to give up family ownership entirely. Despite an extremely capitalist social system, Tokyo shows a very low degree of segregation compared to other metropolises.

Nevertheless, large project developers are interested in acquiring contiguous plots of land in order to build residential high-rise buildings there. They advertise these projects by pointing out that with the same number of floor areas, there would be plenty of space for open space and urban greenery. In addition, the construction industry has a powerful lobby that has often been able to influence legislation in its favor. On the other hand, with “Machizukuri”, literally “designing the city”, there is an instrument that ensures the participation of the population and has found more and more recognition and anchoring in planning processes over the decades, although the influence of Machizukuri is limited to decisions at the micro level. Machizukuri does not play a role in large, centrally planned infrastructure measures.


For the architect Sou Fujimoto it is elementary to counter the tendency towards large-scale interventions, as he explains in an interview: “With my buildings I try to create something like Tokyo myself, regardless of what the neighborhood looks like. Because if a building itself represents Tokyo, then it also fits Tokyo. The scale is extremely important. When the small old houses are replaced by medium-sized buildings, Tokyo loses its scale. And I despise that. We have to save Tokyo by designing buildings that are like Tokyo. "

With his "Tokyo Apartments", Fujimoto showed what that could look like with a wink. In the project, several small houses are stacked on top of each other. They accommodate a total of four apartments. Fujimoto says: “If it were made up of a large volume, it would destroy the scale of Tokyo. So I designed several small volumes that interlock. "

In addition to adapting to the scale, Fujimoto uses sheet metal, a material common in Japan, and with the roofs of the individual houses also makes the frequent, pagoda-like roof stacking his own. Another typical feature is pointed out by Fujimoto's Tokyo Apartments: the all-round view of Japanese houses that have no front or main facade. It is created by positioning the houses in the middle of the property, without any connection to the neighboring buildings.

Barrie Shelton writes: “Every piece of land, every limited piece of land in a Japanese city has an invisible center (oku) and a certain degree of autonomy that arises from a higher level of disconnectedness with the environment. So it happens that in Japan there is a great acceptance for introversion and autonomy of a property. In relative terms, there are not the same demands for harmonious visual continuity along public facades and the orderly transitions to neighboring buildings as one would expect in the west. Without a sequence and connection there is no strong line, instead there are scattered spots that are mostly surrounded by other houses, but still stand on their own in isolation. "

Architect Go Hasegawa is also interested in designing buildings that fit Tokyo. His "house in Kyodo" is a small house in the literal sense. The basement is less than two meters high and houses the owner's manga collection. A bed can be folded down between the shelves, behind which there is a small bathroom. The upper floor consists of only one room for living, cooking and dining purposes. Hasegawa says: “I am interested in typologies and ask myself how an architect can achieve an everyday or self-evident expression of a house. How can you design a house that resembles an ordinary building? As an architect, how can you meet daily life and the everyday requirements of a house. "

While Fujimoto piles up the elements typical of Tokyo and Japan in the “Tokyo Apartments” with fine irony, Hasegawa tries to integrate himself into the urban structure of Tokyo by inconspicuousness. The site plan proves the success. A comparison between the site plan and the photo of the house shows another phenomenon of small houses: where there is still an undeveloped zone to the north on the plan, a new building is in the background in the photo a few years later. Houses in Japan do not get old; very few live their thirtieth year. Hasegawa's house also gives the impression that it is only there for a short time instead of standing firmly on the floor. The site plan could be structurally similar in twenty years, even if the buildings have been renewed in the meantime.

Edward Morse wrote in 1886: “Since, like us, a fire-resistant building for residential purposes is beyond the means and means that most people have, they went to the other extreme and built houses that can be dismantled in a flash if a fire breaks out. The mats, parts of the partition walls and even the ceiling boards can be quickly packed together and carried away, as can tiles and roof battens, the half-timbered skeleton then provides little food for the flames. "

The short life of Japanese houses can be explained by the humid climate; it may be related to the constant threat of earthquakes and conflagrations and is due to the enthusiasm for technical innovations. However, there is reason to believe that Shintoism and Buddhism, Japan’s most important religions, also have an impact on town and home. The idea of ​​life as constant change and succession of temporary existences in Buddhism on the one hand and Shintoism as a non-hierarchical, decentralized, fragmented natural religion on the other hand provide a strong background for explaining the appearances of the house and the city in Japan.