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  • John Barr

Two Houses : Part 2 (Azuma House)

Tō-no-ie (Tower House) is the house designed by Takamitsu Azuma for himself and his family in Tokyo. Built in 1966 and set on an impossibly tight site with a tiny footprint, it suggests a way of maintaining family living in vibrant, urban neighbourhoods that have come under commercial pressure. Like Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester University Engineering Building of 1963 Tō -no-ie offered a remarkably fresh architecture that seemed to have sprung from nowhere. Of course, nothing springs from nowhere…


After the disaster of the Second World War, ending in the destruction of Japan’s military, economic and industrial infrastructure and its occupation by the American-led allies, the country seemed to be back to where it had started after the Meiji Restoration – faced with the task of re-establishing itself as an international power to equal those in the West.

No doubt the Japanese government had learned the lessons of military confrontation with the West but, just in case it hadn’t, the occupying powers wrote a new constitution, key provisions of which were the transfer of sovereignty from the emperor to the people and the renunciation of war and the right to possess military forces. If Japan was to re-establish itself on the world stage it would have to be through industrial rather than military power. It would be supported in this venture by the USA and its allies, partly because of the lesson learnt from imposing a punitive settlement on Germany after the First World War and partly through the USA’s desire for an ally in the region and a base for its troops and weapons. With American support Japan rebuilt its industries, many of which benefitted from supplying US forces during the Korean War (1950-53). In 1952 the Occupation was ended, by 1955 the Japanese economy had regained its pre-war levels and in the following years would go on to become the second largest economy in the world.

The story of Japan’s super-rapid industrial, commercial and economic rise is well known and the events that clearly and explicitly mark its full rehabilitation as an international power are the award and staging of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and the inauguration, nine days before the start of the games, of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) line between Tokyo and Osaka. Japan had caught up by adopting Western technology and was now developing its own technologies that would enable it to compete with, and in some sectors surpass, the Western industrial powers. As a result of these events, and aided by the most advanced transport system in the world at that point, Tokyo became the first city in the modern age to experience massive and rapid expansion: industrially, commercially and in terms of size and population.

Japan 1964.

It is against this backdrop that the young architect, Takamitsu Azuma arrived in the city and, after a short time, sought to design and build a house there for himself, his wife and his young daughter.

Azuma was born in 1933 and grew up in a downtown area of Osaka. In the closing stages of the war Osaka was heavily fire-bombed and Azuma was evacuated, returning ‘on the day war ended’1 from which time, he says, ‘my childhood memories start’1. Those memories consist, in large part, of exploring and ‘digging out’1 the bomb-damaged ruins of his neighbourhood.

Osaka 1945 : Namba Station at bottom left, looking north up Midosuji. Azuma's neighbourhood is off frame to the right at the top of the image.

I enjoyed digging out to find something and also looking for spaces and hiding there. There was a joy in finding something, and finding a meaning in it by myself. By making the ruins and air-raid shelters my playground, the spaces took on different meaning. They transformed themselves while I was playing, which I found interesting. Digging is similar to this. Discovering the remains of life in the ruins and learning something from the findings inspired my imagination. The joy of finding things imperfect, arranging them and making a story about them through reasoning. The attractiveness of something imperfect. 1

I wanted to become an archaeologist or an architect. 1

When I was a senior high school student, I watched ‘The Fountainhead’ and decided that I wanted to become an architect… I learned later that the main character was modelled on Frank Lloyd Wright, but I didn’t know this when I watched the film. I was not moved by Wright; rather I was moved by the architect in the film. 1

The Fountainhead : Starring Gary Cooper as architect Howard Roark : 1949. 2

After graduating from Osaka University Azuma sought, and eventually secured, a job with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication in Osaka. He held out for a position in the Ministry because he had heard that it was a place where architecture was discussed amongst the staff and where architectural expression was encouraged. He began work with great expectations but was disappointed; there was no discussion and, at that time, few projects. Later, on hearing that Junzo Sakakura had opened an office in Osaka he lobbied for a position and, after a period of temping there in the evenings while still working at the Ministry during the day, he was accepted as a full-time member of staff. Like Kunio Maekawa (the subject of my previous post) Sakakura had worked in Corbusier’s office. Leaving for Paris in 1930, just as Maekawa was returning to Japan, Sakakura was to stay with Corbusier for seven years, eventually rising to become studio chief.

After joining Sakakura’s office in Osaka, Azuma was called to the Tokyo office to work on a major project (Shinjuku Station West Exit Plaza).

Shinjuku Station West Exit Plaza during student protests of 1968.

He initially moved to Tokyo alone but later his wife and daughter joined him and they began to look for a house in the city. Such was the rapid growth in the population of Tokyo at that time, sucking in new workers and residents from all over Japan, that new housing sprang up to accommodate the influx. Much of this was in the form of ‘danchi’ (estates of apartment blocks) on the periphery of the city or in minor cities close to the metropolis, where cheaper land was available.

Typical 'danchi'.

Azuma and his wife had lived in a newly-developed danchi in Osaka and decided that it didn’t provide the type of urban living that they sought. Most of these peripheral estates, like their counterparts in other countries, provided only mass housing, and perhaps some essential social services (school, health centre, etc). They were not traditional urban neighbourhoods with a rich mix of uses. The other option was a house in the suburbs, but that was not the answer either:

We wanted to live on the ground. Nevertheless, we didn’t want to compromise by living in a suburb. We didn’t like apartment blocks but both of us felt strongly that living in a suburb wasn’t a life in the town. 1

Both Azuma and his wife had grown up in downtown areas of Osaka, Azuma in Tamatsukuri and his wife in Senba. Both of these could be models for the kind of vital, successful city neighbourhoods promoted by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities 3. They fulfill Jacobs’ four prerequisites for a healthy and successful urban neighbourhood:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must ensure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.

  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they may be there. This includes a dense concentration of people who are there because of residence.

Or, as Azuma succinctly puts it when describing his wife’s aspirations:

She likes a 24-hour active town. A town where workplace and residence are in the same vicinity, or where workplaces and residences intermingle. This seems to be her idea of a town. 1

And so Azuma was faced with one of the fundamental problems of the commercially-successful modern city: how to maintain family homes and vibrant communities under the enormous pressures on land and the cost of land. The only plot they could afford in the kind of mixed, inner-city neighbourhood that they desired was tiny. Even then, Azuma had to persuade the sales agent to half the plot to achieve a price that they could afford. A buyer was found for the other half and so the sales agent agreed. As a result they purchased a triangular plot of 20m2 . Faced with such extreme circumstances Azuma adopts a number of strategies in order to formulate a solution.


Go Vertical

This is inevitable on such a small plot but, in order to achieve rooms of useable size, a separate floor is allocated to each room and the house becomes as high as necessary to accommodate all the functions required: entrance; office; living; bathroom; parents’ bedroom; child’s bedroom – six levels in all.

Original design drawing with plans, stair and fittings all fully resolved.

A small entrance courtyard is set half a level above street, separated from the sidewalk by a few steps. This allows the house to sit hard against the street whilst establishing a clear threshold between public and private space. From the entrance hall one stair goes back down a full level to the office, which is underground, whilst another stair rises a further half level to the living area. This arrangement has a number of advantages:

It provides both a physical and, perhaps more importantly, a psychological separation of ‘office’ and ‘home’.

It connects the house to the street by setting it right on the edge of the sidewalk, at the same time providing privacy by lifting the living accommodation above street level.

Original design drawing: plan: level -1: office.

Original design drawing: plan: level 0: courtyard and entrance hall from which stairs lead down to office and up to living area. Passageway to left connects street to back alley and provides car parking space.

Original design drawing: plan: level +1: kitchen and living.

Original design drawing: plan: level +2: bathroom and mezzanine overlooking living area.

Original design drawing: plan: level +3: parent bedroom.

Original design drawing: plan: level +4: child bedroom and terrace.

Original design drawing: section.

Original design drawing: elevations to street and entrance courtyard.

Original design drawing: elevations to alley and gable.

Solve the Stair

The stair in such a narrow, tall building can take up a disproportionate amount of space. An early sketch shows a typical floor with a regular, rectangular room attached to which is a semi-circular stairwell. In both the external form and the internal perception the stair reads as a separate element, not included within the room. In the final scheme the stair is simply absorbed within the overall form of the building and within each room. It is no longer visible as a distinct unit externally or internally and the individually cantilevered stair treads appear more like a sculptural element in the corner of the room.

Original drawing: early sketch showing rectangular room with stair separately expressed.

As built: the stair is minimised and absorbed within the room as a sculptural element.

Fill the Plot

Again, moving away from the early sketch, which shows an arrangement based on classical geometric forms sitting within the plot, the final scheme uses the entire plot by allowing the external wall of the building to hug the site boundary and create a triangular plan, which is truncated where necessary to provide daylight and views whilst maintaining privacy.

Original drawing: final plans: levels -1 to +2.

Original drawing: final plans: levels +3 to roof.

Increase the Perceived Space

Having maximised the actual space by using the techniques outlined above, Azuma goes on to increase the perceived space by employing a number of devices:

There are no internal doors and this, combined with the integration of the stair within the rooms, creates one continuous, vertically winding space. There is no point in the house where you feel as if you are in a small, enclosed space; there is always the awareness of a larger volume.

One continuous, vertically winding space. There is always the awareness of a larger volume.

Beyond this internal volume there are subtle connections to the wider city. When he interviewed Azuma, the architect Nobuaki Furuya said:

I visited your house and was surprised to find many windows framing scenes from outside such as the street or the back alley. The physical space inside was tiny, but the spatial experience was much more expansive.1

The physical space inside was tiny, but the spacial experience was much more expansive.

Furuya goes on to say:

In terms of the history of urban houses in Japan, there are three significant examples: Kiyonori Kikutake’s Sky House, Tō-no-ie and Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi Row House. Unlike the mysterious Tō-no-ie the other two don’t bring the city into the house.1

The views from inside Sky House and from inside Tō-no-ie are totally different. The fragmentary street scene briefly viewed from a window in Tō-no-ie provides a feeling of wider space. That idea was superb.1*

The fragmentary street scene, briefly viewed...

* What Furuya means by this is that Kikutake’s Sky House sits up on columns, elevated above the surrounding neighbourhood (or would have been so at the time it was built) commanding panoramic views over the city to the horizon and creating the impression of viewing a distant landscape; it doesn't invite the city into the house but rather holds it at a distance. Ando’s Sumiyoshi Row House is completely internalized, with no external views. The windows in Tō-no-ie are designed and placed to frame fragments of the immediate neighbourhood, providing subliminal links to the wider city just outside. This expands the sense of space and creates a two-way conduit between dwelling and neighbourhood.

Sky House, Kiyonori Kikutake, Tokyo, 1958 (photographed at time of construction).

Sumiyoshi Row House, Tadao Ando, Osaka, 1976.

Use the City

Azuma uses the two-way conduit mentioned above to enlist the wider city in more immediate and practical ways. For him, living in the city doesn’t just mean having a city address, it means living in the city, where much of everyday life is conducted on the street, in local cafes and eating places, in the neighbourhood bath house, in the cinemas and theatres, in school or the workplace, in the libraries and museums and parks. It requires a rich and nuanced layering and overlap of public and private space and it has become increasingly difficult to achieve in modern societies. But this is the way that both Azuma and his wife grew up, and he uses it to expand their living space exponentially beyond their 20m2 plot.

He employs a number of techniques to layer the gradation from public to private. We have seen how he uses a change in level between the street and a small intermediary courtyard to create a number of thresholds: first the threshold between the street and the entrance, then two stairs to create separate thresholds to the office and the home. He recounts how this separation of home and office proved to be insufficient for him and so he employed the wider neighbourhood in his daily routine. Each morning he would leave the house using one stair and, taking one of a number of potential routes, walk to a neighbourhood café, where he would drink two cups of coffee, read the papers and work on any articles that he was writing before returning by another route (or on the opposite side of the street) to enter the office directly using the other stair. Giving a flavour of the times, he describes how the change of scene offered by his morning walk might include street demonstrations and burning cars.*

*The 1960’s, and in particular the period from 1967 to 1969, saw mass demonstrations in Japan, particularly in Tokyo. The participants were largely, but not exclusively, students and the causes were a mixture of international and national concerns. In part Japanese students were reacting to events around the world: civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests in the USA; the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia; the Paris street protests but, as Eiji Oguma has argued, whilst these were factors in encouraging Japanese students to take to the streets, Japan’s rapid industrialization and unprecedented high-speed growth and urbanisation played a large part in stirring unrest.4


We have looked at some of the techniques used by Azuma to maximize the potential of an extremely small site and achieve a rich family life by engaging with the wider neighbourhood and city. But the architectural expression of Tō-no-ie was completely fresh and seemed to have come from nowhere.

A new and fresh architecture.

However, nothing comes from nowhere and there must have been influences, whether conscious or unconscious. There are no firm clues from Azuma himself; architects who heard him speak when he was professor at Osaka university remember that he didn’t insist on a particular philosophy of design but spoke to practical and functional matters. This is consistent with the thinking of ARCHITEXT, a counter Metabolist group established by Azuma along with Minoru Takeyama, Makoto Suzuki, Mayumi Miyawaki and Takefumi Wada in the 1960's.

Like Punk Rock’s reaction ten years later to a music industry that had become overblown, self-important and self-indulgent, ARCHITEXT offered an alternative to the ‘movements’ that dominated architectural thinking in the 1960’s. In a Japanese context, their direct target was the Metabolists but the same tendencies could be found internationally with groups like Archigram in the UK and Archizoom in Italy.

We were a group who vowed not to have a slogan. We were not one of those elites trying to educate the people with our slogans. To us, they looked rather dubious, with a gap between what they said and what they did.1

This approach is apparent in the work. If we compare the images produced by the Metabolists and their successors to the drawings for Tō-no-ie, which are strictly functional and convey only the information necessary to construct the building, it’s like comparing Prog Rock’s twenty minute solo, designed to showcase the virtuosity of the keyboards player, with Punk Rock’s 2 minutes 58 of Loud ‘n Fast.

Examples of Metabolist influenced projects. Above: Kiyonori Kikutake. Below: Arata Isozaki

Loud, Fast and DIRTY. At a talk given to students at Waseda University by Azuma, Miyawaki and Suzuki, Miyawaki teased Azuma for ‘still making kitanai concrete' (dirty, untidy, coarse), while his (Miyawaki’s) concrete had become kirei (beautiful, clean, pure, neat, fine). In his later interview with Furuya, Azuma says:

Being ‘kirei’ relates to some kind of weakness in my view. For concrete, ‘being kirei’ has become ‘being homogenous’. I thought that the attractiveness of exposed concrete lay in ‘not being homogenous’. The grain of the shuttering, a slight unevenness, the traces left after adjustment, these things make us feel the presence of the human hand, they give warmth and strong expression, and provide flavour in the long run, so I thought.1

It seems clear that this resonates with Azuma’s childhood memory of: The attractiveness of something imperfect. 1

'Dirty' concrete : the attractiveness of something imperfect.

What about the form of Tō-no-ie? There are no direct precedents in Japanese architecture. The nearest historical precedent is possibly the Scottish or Irish tower house, which often follows a pattern of one main room on each floor, all connected by a small staircase in the corner. It seems almost impossible that Azuma could have been aware of these precedents although there is a potential, but extremely tenuous, connection through Louis Kahn. Kahn attended the Tokyo World design Conference in 1960 and, during his visit, met with a number of Japanese architects at Kikutake’s home (Sky House) where, amongst other things, he talked about his approach to the design of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories. This was the project where Kahn first developed his ideas on servant and served spaces, which had been partly influenced by his study of Scottish tower houses. Kahn’s main interest was in the use of a main (served) central space surrounded by secondary (servant) spaces accommodated within the thickness of the structure rather than any particular interest in the stair. Nonetheless the idea of one main space per floor, all linked by a small stair in the corner is evident in this model. However, there is no evidence that Kahn talked specifically about these tower houses during his visit and, even if he had, no evidence that Azuma had any knowledge of those talks.

Floor plans of Comlongon Castle, Scotland, sketched by Louis Kahn 5

It seems unlikely that Azuma was directly referencing any historical precedent. It is more likely that he was influenced by his childhood memories of ‘digging out’ and exploring the air raid shelters and ruins of his neighbourhood. Tō-no-ie can be seen as ‘dug out’ in two ways:

First, the interior looks as if it has been excavated from solid concrete. Walls, floors*, ceilings are one continuous material; even the stair treads are just a continuation of the wall.

*The floors were originally left as exposed concrete and oak flooring was only added some thirty years later, when Azuma and his wife sought a bit more comfort, as well as a surface that was easier to vacuum.

Second, the whole building seems to have been sculpted out of a solid block of concrete, in the same way that a sculpture ‘pre-exists’ within the block of stone, waiting to be revealed by the sculptor ‘digging it out’.

It’s as if Azuma started with a solid prism, the shape of the plot extruded to the full height of the building, and then cut out volumes as necessary for the functioning of the house. Thus the acute angle at the stair is shaved off to allow the stair to flow and to create the appropriate orientation for the small windows that provide oblique views north-west along the street. The fragmentary street scene briefly viewed from a window…. 1

The acute angle at the stair is shaved off.

The building is cut back at upper levels to allow light to penetrate the entrance courtyard and to create the appropriate orientation and set-back for the large windows that provide oblique views south-east along the street whilst maintaining a degree of privacy.

The building is cut back at upper levels.

A tunnel is driven through the base of the prism, providing a passageway from the street to the back alley and a parking space for the family car.

A tunnel is driven through the base.

An entrance courtyard is scooped out of what remains of the prism, leaving a high perimeter wall and beam to mark the outline of the original solid volume.

A perimeter wall and beam mark the outline of the original volume.


Level +1 : kitchen area looking towards entrance.

Level +1 : living area.

Level +1 : living area.

Level +2 : bathroom and mezzanine.

Level +2 : overlooking living.

Level +3 : bedroom

Level +4 : bedroom


As mentioned in the introduction, Tō-no-ie, like Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester University Engineering Building, seemed to spring from nowhere and introduce a new and fresh architecture. It suggested a new way forward that largely ignored an architectural conversation that had become predictable and entrenched. That later generations of architects have largely chosen not to follow its example in no way diminishes its significance or the lessons that can still be learned from it. Those lessons are not related to style but to approach, an approach that rejects both dogma and fashion in favour of analysis and problem solving. But the results are not mundane, they are exciting.

Leicester University Engineering Building, Stirling and Gowan, 1963

Two elements in Azuma’s approach stand out for me. The first concerns his desire to maintain family living in vibrant, mixed-use, urban neighbourhoods and the variety of techniques he employs to facilitate this. The second concerns his ideas about the attractiveness of something imperfect. On one level this is an aesthetic argument: these things make us feel the presence of the human hand, they give warmth and strong expression, and provide flavour in the long run…. On another level it allows consideration of the relationship between architecture and user. Perfection, by definition, cannot be improved upon. In the perfectly designed house there is nothing for the occupants to add; they can inhabit it but they cannot exert ownership over it. Amongst his recorded thoughts Azuma has said:

It is beautiful for people to live a vivid life with architecture as a catalyst.

Since Tō-no-ie, I have thought that architecture should have some elements that users can discover for themselves…

An architect shouldn’t define how to live. Rather, an architect should provide several possibilities from which users can choose…

The root of my thought lies in my memory of the ruins where I played as a child…The joy of finding something, and of finding a meaning in it by myself… The joy of finding things imperfect, arranging them and making a story….

Tō-no-ie in 1966, like Kunio Maekawa's house in 1942, is very much a direct reflection of Japanese history and of the turbulent times in which it was born. In Maekawa's case the design was driven by a lack of materials and a quest for a Japanese modernism in the face of Western technology and culture; in Azuma's case by a lack of space and the quest for family life and community in the face of unprecedented and rapid social change in the modern city. Tō-no-ie offers an exciting and complex layering of elements related to politics, society, community, neighbourhood, family, public and private domains, the ability of architecture to support or dictate the lifestyle of its users, all infused by memory and even, perhaps, romanticism. It allows the occupants to develop their own stories. For all its small size, I believe it to be one of the most rewarding, interesting and significant buildings of 20th century Japanese architecture.

  1. INAX Report 180, interview of Takamitsu Azuma by Nobuaki Furuya, January 2012, translated by Yushin Toda.

  2. The Fountainhead, 1949 Warner Bros. film directed by King Vidor and based on the 1943 novel of the same name by Ayn Rand.

  3. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, first published by Random House Inc., New York, 1961.

  4. Japan’s 1968 : A Collective Reaction to Rapid Economic Growth in an Age of Turmoil, paper by Eiji Oguma, translated by Nick Kapur with Samuel Malissa and Stephen Polland, published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 13, Issue 12, Number 1, March 2015.

  5. Louis I Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, David B Brownlie and David G De Long, Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art, Rizzoli, 1991.


Rie Azuma, daughter of Takamitsu Azuma, who still lives in Tō-no-ie and took over her father’s architectural practice, for kindly agreeing to let me photograph the interior and for providing copies of original drawings from the office archive.

Yushin Toda for translating Nobuaki Furuya’s interview with Azuma originally published in INAX magazine, which provided much of the background information for this article. Yushin Toda and Fumiko Nakabachi run Japan Desk Scotland.

Further Links

The Japanese House : Architecture and Life after 1945

Shown at The Barbican 23 March 2017 – 25 June 2017

L’archipel de la Maison

Shown in France, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands and, most recently, at Panasonic Shiodome Museum in Tokyo.

Visit the website and click on the MOVIES tab to see short videos of twenty recent houses, which provide an insight into the varying degrees to which the architecture supports or dictates the lifestyles of the occupants.

Japan’s 1968 : A Collective Reaction to Rapid Economic Growth in an Age of Turmoil.

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