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  • John Barr

Two Houses : Part 1 (Maekawa House)

In the next couple of posts I’m going to look at two Japanese houses. Both were designed at times of great change in Japanese society and are particularly interesting because both were designed by Japanese architects for their own use and reflect the architects’ direct responses to the issues of the day, unencumbered by the requirements of an external client.

The first is the house designed by Kunio Maekawa for himself and his wife in 1942. Maekawa was one of the first wave of modernist architects in Japan. He had travelled to Paris and worked in Corbusier’s office from 1928-1930. Returning to Japan he joined the office of Antonin Raymond, a Czech émigré who had established his office in Tokyo, and worked there from 1930-1935, when he set up his own practice.

The issues dominating Japanese politics and culture in 1942 still shook with the reverberations of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Meiji Restoration was the restoration to power of the emperor although, more precisely, it was the ousting of the last shogun by the forces that opposed the bakufu government (the shogunate) under the guise of restoring imperial power. Even during the bakufu period power nominally rested with the emperor but in reality the emperor was controlled by the shogun. The history of the bakufu is complicated and not entirely linear but, in simple terms, it existed from 1195 until 1867 encompassing three major periods: the Kamakura Shogunate from 1192 until 1333, the Ashikaga Shogunate from 1338 until 1573, and the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 until 1867. Pertinent to this discussion is that during the Tokugawa period Japan sustained a self-imposed exile that prevented any contact with the rest of the world and which was only ended by external force. The Western powers had long wanted to open Japan to trade and in 1853 U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with four ships carrying arms that were so superior to anything possessed by the Japanese that he was able to force the Japanese government to sign a disadvantageous trade agreement. The U.S. was quickly followed by other Western powers; Russia, Britain, France and Holland all sent fleets and forced the Japanese government to sign similar trade agreements.

Japan’s self-imposed exile for over two hundred years, covering the entire industrial revolution, had left it vulnerable to domination by the superior technology developed in the West during that time. Alarmed by these events, forces already opposed to the feudal government of the shogunate moved to oust the shogun and establish a centralised government under the nominal rule of the emperor of the day, the Meiji emperor, hence the Meiji Restoration.

The priority of the Meiji government was to make Japan a world power capable of resisting and competing with the other world powers of the day and the policies it pursued in that regard had a direct effect on the political, cultural and material situation facing Japan in 1942, when Maekawa built his house.

Japan is a relatively small island, poor in natural resources. How was it to compete with the Western powers? A model was not hard to find. Britain was an even smaller island, with some natural resources but nowhere near enough to account for its wealth and power. But Britain, like the other European powers, had an empire to keep it supplied and so Japan set about the task of getting one of those for itself. Its target colonies were its near neighbours and this inevitably brought it into conflict with the existing colonial powers in the region: Britain, France and Holland. With the outbreak of the Second World War, and whilst these European colonial powers were otherwise engaged, Japan saw an opportunity to expand and consolidate its territory in the region, leading to war with the allies including, after Japan’s pre-emptive strike against the US fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941, the USA.

By 1942 Japan was involved in all-out war against the allies and the government had requisitioned all steel for armaments. When Maekawa designed and built his house there was no steel available for construction and, by extension, no reinforced concrete. This is the only period where we see Maekawa designing in timber; when materials are available his buildings are designed in steel and reinforced concrete. It is reasonable to conclude that he would not have used timber in the design of his own house had steel and reinforced concrete been available, especially in this early part of his career, when his designs follow closely the work he had done with Corbusier.

The term Meiji means enlightened rule and the goal of the Meiji government was for Japan to match and compete with the Western powers technologically (which inevitably meant the adoption of much Western technology) without becoming completely overwhelmed by Western culture. The aim was to develop a modern country that was still recognisably Japanese by combining Western technological advances with traditional Japanese values.

The two images below illustrate the problem of a society trying to face in two directions at once. Both images are of the young Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor, one in Japanese ceremonial dress and the other in Western ceremonial dress. The two seem irreconcilable; in fact it is difficult not to see the Western version as something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as something comical. And the Japanese, like anybody else, did not want to look comical.

Meiji Emperor in Western and Japanese ceremonial dress

Another aspect to this problem was the definition of Japanese values. A closed society (as Japan had been), having no intercourse with the outside world, has no need to define its culture; indeed the Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki has argued that it is impossible to define a closed culture from within as any attempt to do so simply results in an endless cycle of self-reference. So Japanese architects in the early 20th century were struggling with two issues: how to adapt imported modernism to suit Japanese culture and how to define that culture in the first place. There were some early attempts that employed a combination of elements from each culture, as if someone had cut the two images of the emperor in half and spliced them together.

Amongst these early attempts were works by Sutemi Horiguchi, who had visited Europe and who promoted an eclectic approach involving the combination of Japanese and European elements. In the house pictured below, which was built in 1925, we see a mostly Japanese style building, with a pitched, tiled roof, to which has been appended a flat-roofed, modernist frontage. The interior remains almost completely Japanese, although the choice of wall colour is not usual in traditional houses.

House designed by Sutemi Horiguchi, 1925

House designed by Sutemi Horiguchi, 1925

During this period the Japanese government had begun to pursue its quest for empire and was keen to have an ‘Imperial Japanese Architecture’ to project into that empire. A number of competitions were organised for the design of public buildings, many of which prescribed the use of the so-called Teikan Style. The Teikan Style had been proposed by the Japanese architect, Kikuda Shimoda as the way to assimilate Western advances whilst retaining Japanese values and essentially consisted of a large, Japanese-style roof placed on top of a Western façade. An example of the style is the Tokyo Imperial Museum, won in competition by Jin Watanabe in 1931 and completed in 1937.

Tokyo Imperial Museum, designed by Jin Watanabe in 1931, completed in 1937

However there was some resistance to this approach, notably amongst a group of young architects based in Osaka who disagreed with the concept of simply combining elements from Japanese and Western buildings and favoured instead a reinterpretation of traditional Japanese architecture in accordance with the principles of modernism. They sought to demonstrate that 'pure' Japanese elements could form the basis for a modernist approach. This group, based in Osaka and remote from the centre of power in Tokyo, had little influence but, in 1933, they recruited a powerful spokesman. That was the year that Bruno Taut arrived in Japan, having left Germany when Hitler came to power. He first went to Kyoto, where he was met by the Osaka group, who took him to see the 17th century Katsura Imperial Villa. The architects presumably explained their cause to Taut, who perhaps saw an opportunity to adopt the role of spokesman to the West on Japanese architecture and to Japan on modernism. In any event, Taut immediately declared Katsura to be a highpoint of Japanese architecture and culture that contained within it the attributes of modernism and wrote, in his book Nippon (Seen With European Eyes), "The modern architect will determine with surprise, that this building is absolutely modern insofar as it fulfils its requirements in the shortest and most simple way".1 This assessment by Taut offered a solution to the discourse over the best way to create a Japanese modernism. Katsura is an imperial building and so its adoption as a model would satisfy the ‘imperialist’ camp. At the same time Taut, a recognised authority on European modernism, by declaring Katsura to possess the attributes of modernism, satisfied the purist faction.

Shortly after, Taut was taken to see Ise Shrine, dedicated to the ancestral gods of the imperial household, where he repeated the same exercise. Ise Shrine is known for being rebuilt every 20 years and is believed to have been originally constructed over 2000 years ago during the Jomon period. The Jomon period represents a much more ancient strand of Japanese culture than that occupied by Katsura and is recognisable by its primitive simplicity. Again Taut declared Ise to be a masterpiece, a kind of armature for Japanese architecture and the source of all that Japan has offered the world.1

Ise Shrine. Not the main building, which cannot be photographed, this is one of the ancillary buildings that exhibits the same style of roof and the placing of a central column in front of the facade.

In declaring these buildings to be important Taut was not telling the Japanese anything that they didn’t already know; there was a reason that his hosts had selected these particular buildings to show him. But, as Isozaki has pointed out, the society that had remained isolated for so long was unable to objectively assess its own cultural value and relied on the power of the external gaze to validate it.

Following these interventions from Taut, Katsura and Ise became the accepted models for architects seeking, or at least claiming, a base from which to develop a Japanese modernism, certainly up to and including Kenzo Tange’s competition winning Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum in 1950.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, designed by Kenzo Tange, 1950, opened 1955.

And so, by the time Maekawa built his house in 1942, the climate in which he did so was deeply influenced by two strands that can be traced back directly to the Meiji Restoration and everything that flowed from it. The first strand is political; the whole quest for empire and the colonial adventurism that brought Japan into conflict with the West and led directly to its involvement in the Second World War and, specifically, to the unavailability of steel and reinforced concrete. The second strand is cultural; the quest for Japanese values and the whole discourse that resulted in Katsura and Ise being promoted as the essence of Japanese architecture.

Maekawa had always been a modernist, as his decision to travel to France and seek a position in Corbusier’s office demonstrates, and throughout his career he sought to design modernist buildings. He is on record as stating that his goal was to develop a specifically Japanese modernism and he spent most of his career in pursuit of that goal. However, this is not evident in his earliest designs, which are pure Corbusier in influence and execution. It is fair to say that, on his return from Paris and in his early independent designs, he sought only to introduce unadulterated Western modernism to Japan. The design of his house in 1942 marks a turning point and it is possible to conjecture that this was prompted by the necessity of building in timber. As mentioned previously, Maekawa did not design in timber at any other period in his career and it is reasonable to conclude that he did so on this occasion only because other materials were not available. Could it be that his determination to design as a modernist and the necessity of building in this most Japanese of materials combined to initiate his attempts to develop a specifically Japanese modernism? The result is certainly a fusion of the two traditions and is the first of many Maekawa projects to exhibit specific Japanese references.

The plan is Western, as is the interior, and includes the recognisable device of the mezzanine overlooking a double-height living space, which is present in several of Corbusier’s houses, including the design of the Maison Canneel, which Maekawa worked on. Other details candidly lifted from Corbusier designs include the horizontal sliding window where the cill board doubles as a counter linking the interior and exterior with a radiator tucked underneath, which Maekawa uses in the design of the three main rooms.

Maekawa House, 1942, Plan (redrawn)

The section and structure are Japanese, and of particular note are the roof and the four circular timber columns on the central axis. The use of a dominant roof, orientated so that the gable forms the principle façade, and the placing of the outermost columns external to the building envelope both appear to be direct references to Ise Shrine.

Maekawa House, 1942, Section (original)

Maekawa House, 1942 (note the dominant roof with the gable forming the main façade)

Maekawa House, 1942 (note the circular column set in front of the façade)

Maekawa House, 1942, Living Room.

Maekawa House, 1942, Living Room.

Maekawa House, 1942, Living Room.

Maekawa House, 1942, Looking down on Living Room from Mezzanine.

Maekawa House, 1942, Stair up to Mezzanine.

Maekawa House, 1942, Looking towards Mezzanine and Entrance.

Maekawa House, 1942, Study illustrating window/shelf/radiator detail after Corbusier.

This small house is significant and important for two reasons. Firstly because it is directly born out of the seismic political and cultural upheavals that wracked Japan from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century and secondly because it marks the beginning of Maekawa’s lifelong quest to develop a specifically Japanese modernism, where Western ideas and technology were to be adapted to suit Japanese society. These were issues not only for Maekawa and not only for Japanese architects; they dominated Japanese thought for the whole of the 20th century.

1 Nippon (Japan), Bruno Taut, 1934.

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