Shigeru Ban interrupted the international scene with its ingenious usage of carton tubes for rapid assembly of refugees camping places after recent earthquakes in Kobe and Turkey. This same 'paper architect' - as he was known from then on - designed a house, "naked" of any partitions, as a reply to a commission for a house that had to encourage the relationship between the members of a three generations family.
Space for the family
This large family had a land in Kawagoe, a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo where the accelerated speed of city life gives way to a calm landscape of greenhouses and rice fields that extended along the river Shingashi. In a Japanese context, it is a privilege to possess a land that can contain a house of more than one hundred square metres. The client having such an opportunity, decided to maximise, the significance of the communal space in the house where the different generations could communicate and relate to each other.
Also, being part of the client's culture, one could argue that Shigeru Ban, took as a starting point the traditional Japanese meaning of the word "dwelling" - symbolising the roof as a gateway between heaven and earth. Consequently, the roof expresses the atmosphere of the place and it is precisely by the ceiling that people's thoughts have generous space.
Even more so, the delicate floor in the traditional Japanese house is understood like a platform which forms part of the furniture. It implies a magnet state similiar to that of walls in Eurpean dwellings which we tend to sit against. In Japan the main pole of attraction is the floor and where one is seated rather than standing or walking on. The way of life in the Japanese house is motivated by movements that cherish the floor, leaning against it or even moving about it on four feet. The floor also gains attention with horizontal lines, the sliding doors and movable screens, as well the black lines that frame the places where things happen. This list of elements directs the viewers' attention to the floor as a place of communication.
Between the floor and ceiling, the foundation for people's dwelling lies in the spiritual. It is the place where the soul is nourished without any distraction of ornamentation or external influences - an idea that derives from Zen Buddism and the belief that knowledge is obtained through reflection and insight.
A house naked of partitions
Working within the concept of different generations fusing their lives, Shigeru Ban came up with a translucent shed-like structure containing a single common space in which private areas were reduced to a minimum. Private spaces for each member of the family are organised by four mobile, cubicle bedrooms. The three generations thereby shared a house which took reference models so opposed as the room of four and a half tatamis - the basic unit of traditional Japanese architecture - and the loft - a summary of a residential ideal, occidental and metropolitan, that renounced partitions in the interests of greater spatial amplitude.
The open-plan and neutral space of the shed can be organised and transformed as needed by moving the bedrooms, they even can be drawn out to the garden through the large window on the western facade. With them, and by emphasising the movement of the cubicles by making their wheels highly visible, the surface of the floor reinforces its quality as a place of communication.
On the opposite end of the house, next to the porch that serves as the parking area, the bathroom, laundry and a dressing room are drawn together. All the clothes of the family members are stored together to avoid the use of wardrobes that would impede the movement of the cubicles. The kitchen is placed at one side of the shed and separated from the common living area by way of a curtain.
With a similar appearance as the greenhouses nearby, a translucent enclosure was designed to protect the family's privacy and to avoid unwanted glances from the access route. The exterior of the wooden framework which forms the structure is clad with corrugated translucent plastic reinforced with fibreglass, while the interior facade is covered with cotton fabric fixed with Velcro to make it easier to clean. The problem that Shigeru Ban was faced with was to find thermal insulation, which permitted the light to filter through. Once more following his interest in introducing new materials in the building construction, and by practising with colourful materials such as wood splinters and remnants of recycled paper, he decided to fill the cavity left between the two planes with polystyrene shaving that in Japan is used to pack fruit. The only requirement to make this product suitable was to have to saturate it in a liquid that held back fire and to enclose it in transparent vinyl bags that were sealed and nailed to the wooden structure. With the exception to the cubicles, which were constructed with brown corrugated carton, the interior of the whole house enjoys the same milky white light that characterised the old houses with screens made of rice paper.
In the same way as the traditional Japanese house is not thought as a permanent dwelling but a place where the inhabitants stay temporarily until their situation changes, the Naked House is designed as a one space which describes the course of time like water in the river that never stands still and takes on enumerable forms.
Photographs: Hiroyuki Hirai
a. Shigeru Ban (b. 1957), architect.
b. The neutral space of the shed can be organised and transformed by moving the bedrooms, which even can be drawn out to the garden.
c. The Naked House (2000) is surrounded by rice fields by the river Shingashi.
d. According to traditional Japanese culture, people's thoughts have generous space by the ceiling.
e+f. The evolution of the house throughout the day.
g+h+i. Polystyrene shaving, a substance very much used in Japan to pack fruits, was adopted as a building material to achieve enclosure that was both translucent and isolated at the same time.