Moriyama House: Living Informally In-Between

Moriyama House

Moriyama House is a building that materializes itself as a domesticity think-piece, raising a reflection on what kind of homes we collectively have been living in. What is your home like? Is it any more atypical than what imagination beckons? The mere word ‘house’ often convolutes itself in contextual definition, but it is conventionally and simply a building encapsulated within a neighbourhood. A slightly more helpful definition would entail a compression of services and living quarters; a collection and rooms and non-rooms (thresholds with the outside world such as balconies, and verandas), and a roof over your head.

Moriyama House, though, has much greater aspirations for a house. It is another one of the famous Japanese architects SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates)’s entry into the experiment of completely deconstructing and redefining domestic conventions. One could say that it is an avant-garde showcase of the architects’ alternative vision for a house; distributing and redistributing its functions into constituent individual rooms, housed in separate volumes, that together act as a whole dwelling. Unbounded by any periphery walls, its collection of white boxes blends the house’s footprint seamlessly into an inconspicuous neighbourhood.

After his mother passed away, Yasuo Moriyama demolished the house where he had lived with her. He wrote a letter to SANAA/Kazuyo Sejima+Ryue Nishizawa, advising them of his situation and asking for a house to be built. The architects’ response was rather prescriptive and stark:

You don’t need a house, you need a little village in the middle of a forest. But in the centre of Tokyo.’

SANAA to Yasuo Moriyama

This little village in the centre of Tokyo, Japan, is one of the most influential houses in contemporary Japanese architecture. Minimal white volumes – each differing in size – create a complex streetscape between the varying functions of the house, while the multiple entrances are unified by the unique spaces in between.

The modern house suggests that domestic living takes shape in the intermediate, and sometimes contentious, space between the aspirations of the dweller and architect. Through its arrangement of separate but adjacent individual units, Moriyama House proposes a mode of semi-communal living, building a new sociality between its inhabitants.

Every defined room a building, every undefined space a room.
The multi-building residence consists of ten separate buildings, ranging from 1 to 3 stories high.
Even the bathroom is contained within a separate ‘building’.

A look at the plan shows the streets bleeding into the paths between the dwelling volumes. The boundaries between private and public, as necessarily cliché as it sounds, are well and truly blurred.

Steel walls—as thin as possible—were employed in the Moriyama House. A minimal wall construction, the blurring of spatial thresholds with garden spaces threaded intimately in between the standalone white blocks, offers a zesty, informal manner of domesticity. With subtlety aplenty, the trees and bushes offset and blur the edges of the boxes.

Moriyama House epitomizes a most exciting take on modern urban architecture, urbanism-housing. The building is altogether at once public and private, individual and collective, personal and shared.

A Tangential Look

After being introduced to this project, the desire to refer back to the roots of domestic architecture in Japan lingers. A brief look into it would perhaps provide enlightenment into whether Moriyama House was the product of an architect’s mastery, an unorthodox whim—or rather, was it grounded within a much more fundamental response to stimuli provided by domestic life in Japan, or Tokyo specifically?

Retracing this established history, clearly, there is no secret here; the perpetual renewal of Japan’s built environment is its defining characteristic. Destruction, whether by man-made or natural disasters, seems ingrained in the national consciousness. Japanese cities have endured successive waves of reconstruction – after earthquakes and tsunamis, after catastrophic fires, after bombing raids – which have, in turn, shaped urban morphologies.

But Moriyama House is not a commentary into prefabricated structural components, nor is it one about ephemeral architectures, with plastic contexts enabled by plug on-off components. It is not about the simple erection and consequent removal of the structure. What it is, with its emphasis of a minimal and compact impression, is the reconfiguration of rational methods to ‘the house’. There seems to be a necessity—or rather, an understandable impulse—for the constant reinvention and radicalization of architecture, of urbanism, in Japan. Whatever various metrics you look at it from: social, economic and technological forces have played a crucial role in shaping house design in Japan, and the country has become a trailblazer in radical residential architecture.

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Kon Wajiro’s illustration of ‘what a woman in Fukagawa needs’ after the 1923 earthquake

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, the co-founder of Atelier Bow-Wow, argues that more ‘institutionalised’ building types can easily be imported with a view to modernising a country. Concepts for schools, museums and hospitals can broadly be replicated, he believes, but ‘the house comes before all of this. A home is more intimately linked to, among others, its social behaviour and relevance to its immediate existence.

Western domesticity speaks of permanence and property, privacy and identity, but the Japanese house inhabits a different reality. Its average lifespan oscillates between 25 and 30 years. In the US, this rises to 103 years, and 141 in the UK. Toyo Ito’s seminal White U house, designed for his widowed sister in Nakano, was taken down in 1997 after just 21 years when the family finally ended its period of mourning and decided it was ready to re-establish links with the outside world.

Internal courtyard in Toyo Ito’s White U house
Internal courtyard in Toyo Ito’s White U house, isolated from the outside world

Kazuo Shinohara’s oeuvre is particularly enlightening in its architectural output. In his earlier works, such as the House in Kugayama (1954) or House in White (1966), he revisits traditional language and uses thin structural frames and sliding partitions to fuse programmatic components into unified spaces.

Always opened or closed from a kneeling position and imposing a downward line of vision, shoji screens highlight the importance of the floor in Japanese architecture, where space is experienced from the tatami mat rather than from the chair. In his experimental Tanikawa House (1974), Shinohara places an exposed timber-frame structure directly onto the earth. Both surprising and delightful, the main room is effectively a bare interior landscape covered by a white-coated pitched roof, the antithesis to Japan’s dark interiors where the brightest surface was the tatami-covered floor.

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Tanikawa House

In the late 1960s, the emerging generation of Japanese architects was disappointed with its Metabolist predecessors, seeing their architecture as little more than entertainment spaces and corporate pavilions, a ‘hollow utopian ambition’. Paradoxically, while advocating flexibility, the monumentality of the Metabolists’ buildings was often too hefty to be adaptable. For instance, none of the seminal Nagakin Tower’s capsules was ever removed or replaced. Going back to the drawing board, a new generation discarded theoretical posturing and focused on experimentation at a much smaller scale, deriving inspiration from sources as diverse as esoteric Buddhism, children’s toys and Post-Structuralist theory. In Project House A (1968-71), Hiromi Fujii makes use of the grid’s neutrality in an attempt to reactivate user subjectivity, while in his Toy Block House series, started in 1974, Takefumi Aida joins together colourful elementary solids in childlike compositions to stress the value of individual imagination. The house was turned on its head, again.

When reacting to the lack of planning and urban chaos, particularly in the 1970s, architects conceived the house as a place of refuge. The austere geometry of Tadao Ando’s Azuma House (1976) imposes its blind concrete facade in Sumiyoshi, Osaka, otherwise dominated by timber dwellings. Ando opts for an aggressive posture to the surroundings, describing his enclosed houses as ‘urban guerrilla housing’. For several architects, it was necessary to offer individuals a place of respite from the encroaching city. When engaging with the city’s messy vitality, transparent dwellings see the light of day. Encased in glass and featuring no internal walls, Sou Fujimoto’s House NA (2011) has become emblematic of an architecture of lightness and weightlessness.

‘Architecture can remain a powerful and optimistic force, healing and reinventing urban landscapes, building a better, if temporary, tomorrow’

Large areas of Tokyo are made up of detached houses, but plots of land are endlessly subdivided as high inheritance taxes force family heirs to maximise their assets. This has the effect of progressively fragmenting and atomising the urban fabric, leaving architects to tackle cramped and convoluted sites. While the Japanese house has traditionally been horizontal in its orientation, Takamitsu Azuma reimagined the type on a vertical axis on a 20m2 site for his Tower House (1966).

Tower House by Takamitsu Azuma

Constraints, regulations and ever-changing circumstances conspire to subvert traditional ideas of domestic comfort and convention. Relentless experimentation seems the only viable response to Tokyo’s restlessness and constant pace of change, even if some of the houses might appear impossible to live in.

Moriyama House embodies an almost extreme cultural resistance to a norm of living. In the documentary shot by Bêka and Lemoine, Moriyama-san sleeps with just a pillow on the floor and doesn’t even own a mirror. Although he is by no means representative of the wider Japanese population – more like a hermit than Ito’s urban nomad – his occupation of space speaks of the dual interaction between dwelling and city, blurring the threshold between inside and outside, that point where architecture effectively begins. The project’s internal ‘alleys’ permeate the plot as natural extensions of the surrounding streets, directly connecting the house to its neighbourhood. You don’t have the same ‘time’ as Tokyo inside this house, it’s completely different.

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Moriyama-San

Understanding the whole as the sum of its parts, Shinohara prefers the concept of machi, rather than city, to describe urban environments. Machi, closer to ‘town’ or ‘neighbourhood’ in its meaning, implies that ‘a street doesn’t generate houses’ but instead it is houses that ‘make and produce the street’. While the Metabolists advocated a tabula rasa approach, Shinohara advocated a deeper understanding of the city’s informal composition. In his eyes, Tokyo’s messiness is a testament to its liveliness. This constant back and forth between the small scale of the family dwelling and the conception of the city as an organic entity speaks of a life-affirming fluidity and reciprocity. As Maria Shéhérazade Giudici and Pier Vittorio Aureli argue in ‘Familiar Horror: Toward a Critique of Domestic Space’, ‘once the house became a fixed point, it also became a burial place for its members’.

Though ‘disposable architecture’ sounds like an oxymoron, impermanence can be liberating. It provides the impetus to challenge the pre-established and start anew, to confront change and foresee the unforeseen. To see this experimentation materialising on site instead of being relegated to the realm of paper architecture is a compelling experience. But as mentioned, Moriyama House is not of a disposable nature. For all we know, if and when its dwellers have grown much less fond of being visible to its perceived neighbourhood – tall, imposing white fences might be erected to clearly mark the peripheries of Moriyama House, unblurring the threshold between public and private. After all, in this day and age, who could blame them?

In Moriyama House’s conception, it was not a question of ‘fine architecture’; instead the design sprang from an architectural approach based on empathy with a very particular contradiction to norms of domestic living, engaged with everyday life and its cultural history – as well as with the architectural implications of its inhabitants’ longevity.

Moriyama House’s architecture is not for everyone, nor should it be. It is aspirational, and it would be a welcome sign was the global profession to focus on this fundamental requirement. I can only imagine instilling houses with a careful bespokeness would be a good thing.

To end, if you would like to immerse yourself in a sliver of mawkish sentiments, I offer you words from Buddhist priest and writer Asai Ryōi, who wrote in 1661 about how Japan in its Edo period embraced the ‘floating world’ and how life’s inherently ephemeral nature calls for a more epicurean every day:

‘Living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo’.

Asai Ryōi, 1661

Reading that passage alone seems like it has the grasp to justify the way of life that Moriyama House foists on its residents, doesn’t it? Its carefree, simple pleasures of a simple life. Then again, there is no right or wrong to how one wishes to go on about one’s day-to-day mannerisms. But sometimes, when your eyes are opened to radical entities such as Moriyama House, curiosity begets and I would say – introspection is fairly advised. Why not?

I implore you to watch Beka and Lemoine’s documentary MORIYAMA-SAN (2017) available online. It is what inspired me to write this article. Thank you for reading!

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Photographic Credits: © Bêka and Lemoine, Shinkenchiku Sha, Edmund Sumner

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