The well-known Japanese lyric poet and writer Shuntarō Tanikawa commissioned Kazuo Shinohara to design two houses for him. This conversation took place through the mediation of Eduard Klopfenstein on 22 May 2008 in Zurich. It was realized as part of a translation project of Shinohara’s writings and a lecture series at ETH Zurich.
Christian Kerez (CK): When still a student I attended a lecture in Eindhoven (Holland) by Kazuo Shinohara with the title: “In Preparation of the Fourth Space”. That was more than 20 years ago and ever since then I have been fascinated by his work. One of the houses I like best is the Tanikawa Residence – the “mountain hut” in Kita-Karuizawa, Naganohara (1974). I once said to a Japanese collaborator of mine that if I were offered the chance to see a house of Shinohara this would be the one I would most like to visit. He replied that this was absolutely impossible. In Japan everybody, he explained, had such great respect for Shuntarō Tanikawa that no one would even dream of asking whether it would be possible to see this house. And therefore I am extremely happy to be sitting here with you today and I’m curious to find out how you actually met Shinohara.
Shuntarō Tanikawa (ST): Besides the mountain hut, a few years earlier, in 1958, I had a small dwelling house in the district of Suginami (Tōkyō) built by Shinohara with my father’s money. My father was friendly with the architect Yoshio Taniguchi and initially wanted him to make the plans. Taniguchi was already well known at the time and was actually too eminent to build a house for someone like me who was not even thirty years old. He therefore suggested Kiyoshi Seike, one of Shinohara’s professors. However he refused the commission and suggested his student. He said: there’s this interesting younger architect, Shinohara, he’s the same generation as you.
When I then met Shinohara he had the appeal of a philosopher. I was still young and it was my first time to build a house. I had no precise, detailed ideas but only a general abstract concept in my head of how a house for me should look – a kind of container for the spirit. However, this very much reflected Shinohara’s way of thinking. I wrote a kind of poem about how I imagined my house and he was very taken with this way of writing a memo.
CK: Would it be possible to read this poem? Was it ever published? What was its most important aspect, its mood?
ST: No, unfortunately it no longer exists. I can only vaguely remember that the house was to offer the person living in it a kind of inner dwelling, a place of calm. Thus, initially, it was conceived independent of any practical considerations. At that time many young fellow-poets believed that inhabiting a house – domesticity in the normal sense of the term – was nothing important. I was not that kind of vagabond poet, since I wanted to embody a positive, constructive type and herewith protest against the dominant tendency. I therefore belonged to a minority that distanced itself from my generation. I wanted to have a real house where a family could live well, and a refuge where I could write my poems. In my concept the house was a workplace, a base; a kind of fortress in which I could lead my life and write my poems. The problem, however, was that I had just got married, whereas my wife’s opinions were not considered at all in this concept. My wife, it is true, did not have any particular demands, she was still very young and did not have a major part in formulating this domestic ideology and no great interest either, at least at first.
Altogether, this is one of the main points of criticism of the houses built by Shinohara – including my one – that the opinion of the women and the functional aspects of living were not sufficiently considered. Women particularly criticized this. And I have heard that several married couples who had a house built by Shinohara later split up. (Laughter)
But, be that as it may, when I was shown Shinohara’s plans for the house in Tōkyō I was absolutely delighted by its simple forms. Then it was erected; almost entirely by an old experienced building contractor and carpenter.
You can see the functional difficulties, for instance at the entrance: it was extremely direct, but there was nowhere to take off your shoes as one does in a usual Japanese house. On account of the many sliding paper doors there was also no private sphere, no separation in an acoustic sense – it was like one single space. I found that all very nice and didn’t consider the functional aspects. When the children were born we had an extension added a few years later, as the layout of the house was clearly not family-orientated. It just didn’t work anymore. And so a student of Shinohara designed an extension – in the style of the Katsura rikyū (Katsura Villa), he maintained.
CK: What about the furniture, was it also designed specifically for this house? The way the house and furniture fit together seems very harmonious.
ST: Yes, there was this young furniture designer, Katsuo Matsumura. The three of us designed the furniture especially for this house.
CK: In one of his aphorisms Shinohara says that if he had the chance to make a space he would make two rooms, one for the man and one for the woman. It remains a single space but the division into two makes the large space more complex and varied.
ST: Shinohara designed these two rooms in such a way that they could be used for both purposes depending on the way you arranged the furniture. It was simply free, available space. If I could live in the house today I would make better use of the space than I did in younger years. Actually I would like to have retained the house. But when my son grew up he wanted to have his own house. We thought about whether we could transplant this building somewhere, but this would have been far more expensive than erecting a new one.
CK: The photographs of Shinohara’s houses seem to have been taken with great care – on the one hand everything appears a little casual, with the shadows and so on, and yet at the same time they seem very consciously constructed.
ST: Before his clients moved into a house Shinohara took his favorite photographer and had him take photos according to very precise instructions. It was his concept, to make at the start this first photo-documentation entirely according to his own ideas. Afterwards he didn’t care much about how one used the house in publications.
CK: What about the execution of the architectural details: was that also a subject of discussion between client and architect, or did you give the architect a free hand?
ST: Shinohara decided on everything himself. But during the construction he did not visit the site so often, I believe. In fact he was really a mathematician and he did not have a proper architect’s license or diploma or something of that kind. Thus, in the concrete implementation of the project he remained in the background and on this account his fees were also more reasonable than those of other architects. He also got others to carry out the calculations for the construction plans.
CK: How did Shinohara illustrate his ideas and convey an impression of how the house would look when built? Did he have a model made, for instance?
ST: Yes, he had a model made, which he showed me. At this level he presented me everything very precisely and in detail.
CK: Let’s now turn to the second house, the one in the mountains. How did that project come about?
ST: My father had owned this site in the mountains of the Gumma Prefecture, in Kita-Karuizawa, for some time. Originally there were two buildings on the site: one that served as workplace and a second for the family. We spent the summer there every year. My father erected these buildings with a bank loan. And when I became independent it was agreed that I could build a house there in accordance with my taste and at my own cost. I, then, very consciously asked Mr. Shinohara again whether he would design this house for me.
Shinohara then got all the students in his studio to work on the design. I looked at all the plans, but the one by Shinohara himself was nevertheless better than all the rest.
This wasn’t a dwelling house like in Tōkyō, but a holiday house, in which it should also be possible to live the entire year. I had the vision of a much freer designed space. Shinohara took up this idea and gave it concrete form. As the plot was on a site once owned by the founder of the Hōsei University many other people had erected holiday houses there and formed a casual community of artists and professors. For that reason I had the idea of making a semi-public space that could be used for gatherings of poets, for example, as a literature house or for exhibitions. And so this large, free, multi-purpose space was included in the design.
But unfortunately shortly after the completion of the house my mother became ill. Since I had to help care for her, it turned out that I rarely lived in the house. The floor without any boards is an earth floor with a slight incline – a most curious space. I had actually looked forward to using it for all kinds of things; for instance, I intended to set up a stage in it. By the way, I remember another plan that also appealed to me: to define a large space by means of earth walls and then to build a house within this rectangle.
CK: Did this architecture also inspire you to write poems or texts?
ST: There is nothing direct. Albeit I do believe that I influenced Shinohara’s designs for both the house in Tōkyō and this house considerably on an ideal, conceptual level. Shinohara was really a man with interesting ideas. Unfortunately there are no photos of this here. But through this really very narrow window, for instance, you see the ground outside directly; you look into the landscape. This is where I set myself up to work; it was my study. You look outside into the woods and towards a stream; I often worked and wrote poems there, too. The usual thing in this region is to make terraces and in this way to create a boundary to the surroundings. But Shinohara rejected this. His concept was that from inside, through the window, you should have an immediate, even pictorial approach to the natural setting.
CK: There are a number of rumors about your encounter with this house. May I ask you whether they are true or not?
ST: Yes, please do.
CK: The first rumor we heard maintains that when you first visited the house you are supposed to have said: “The house that kills”, since its impression was so strong.
ST: (Laughs). No, that can’t be right! Somebody must have made that up. That’s inconceivable.
CK: So it is just a rumor! Another rumor says that during the first year, due to the dampness of the earth, individual pieces of plaster loosened from the ceiling and fell down. Shinohara was very worried about this and wanted to have it repaired immediately but you, Mr. Tanikawa, are supposed to have said that this didn’t worry you.
ST: No, that’s not how it was, either! (Laughter) What is true is that it was so damp that mushrooms grew on the earth floor of the room and mold also formed. Therefore it was thought necessary to mount an air extraction unit on the ceiling. That’s when I probably said: I would prefer to do without this, as the whole thing turned out so well and beautiful. This natural floor is really good! As long as the house is not actually collapsing I would like to leave it the way it is, even if a few mushrooms grow there – I probably really said something along those lines ...
But something else that I said occurs to me now. Nothing about that the house kills, that’s certain, but something along the following lines: I haven’t built a house; I’ve bought a large sculpture of a friend. That is to say, I regarded the house as a sculpture, whereas everybody said that I had built a house. But my own feeling was that I had acquired a sculpture from Shinohara.
CK: The house is truly in a wonderful condition. The last time we visited it (2006) we were really impressed by the fact that in the interior the ladder, the water basin and the cock are still at the same place as in the photographs. We heard that the house had been sold to a gallery owner from Kyōto, but with the condition that he is not allowed to change anything. Is this right?
ST: Well, this man isn’t from Kyōto; he’s a gallery owner from Tōkyō. He also has branches in Paris and in New York – he’s an old friend of my father’s. That’s whom I sold the house to. Without any conditions. But this Mr. Yoshii, the owner of the Yoshii Gallery, is an art connoisseur and collector and has many artist friends. Do you know the story of this ladder? It is a reproduction of an object from Cézanne’s studio. I didn’t make any conditions but the present owner, this gallery owner Mr. Chōzō Yoshii, bought the house as a kind of art object. He probably only goes there rarely. Whatever the case, it’s his idea to leave the house the way it is.
CK: But the idea of placing a ladder there, that was your idea?
ST: As far as I remember we had worked that out together. Shinohara had brought some photos with him… but you can’t use the ladder – it’s far too dangerous to climb up on it.
CK: And the water basin and the cock?
ST: I bought that myself and had it mounted. Shinohara was amazed about it when the photographs were being taken but he had no objections. That is Mexican folk art. Also the furniture … all the furniture that exists was designed especially for this house by a designer called Akio Ōhashi, a very well known furniture designer.
CK: I find the way the house withdraws most impressive, as it doesn’t have a real front and the entire roof surface is closed. With that it conveys something very secretive but also something very great, almost monumental, which creates an interesting tension. What I find tremendously beautiful, too, is this double division: on the one hand this huge space, whose function one does not completely grasp, and besides it the rooms that one can describe functionally, which are really small and compactly arranged on one side.
For most architects a house is simply a functionalist instrument, whereas in his writings Shinohara emphasized that a house is art (“A house is a work of art”, Shinkenchiku, May 1962). Perhaps in this context it was also necessary for the client to be an artist in order to really create a house that is so much like a work of art?
ST: What particularly impresses and amazes me about Shinohara is his enormous stylistic development and changeability. At the very start he built simple houses in a style that was based on the Japanese tradition. Later, pure avant-garde concrete buildings – an unbelievable transformation!
By the way, a poet friend of mine also had a house designed by Shinohara (House at a Curved Road, Uehara, Shibuya ward, Tōkyō, 1976-1978). This poet, Shirōyasu Suzuki, wrote a very different kind of poetry than mine; more experimental, avant-garde texts, and his house is accordingly very different. I really liked Shinohara, although he was a difficult character.
CK: In what sense difficult?
ST: Well, how should I put it? He was a rather “cool” person. He was somewhat older than me and if I made a joke of some kind he didn’t like that. Clearly, fun was not his thing. But I really regarded him very highly and I am very happy that after his death somebody is so interested in these houses.
CK: A period of almost twenty years lies between your first house and the second one. Did you remain friends in the intervening period? Was the contact kept up?
ST: No, I had practically no personal contact with him throughout all those years. All that occurs to me is a short review that I once wrote about an architecture book of his.
Christian Kerez (1962) was born in Maracaibo (Venezuela). He studied architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ). After publications in the field of architectural photography he founded his own architectural firm in Zurich in 1993. He became a visiting Professor in 2001 and assistant Professor in 2003 at the ETHZ where he was appointed to a full Professor in 2009. From 2012 to 2013, he led the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard University, Cambridge.
Translation of the original Japanese conversation into German: Eduard Klopfenstein (Prof. em. Asia-Orient Institute, University of Zurich)
English Translation: Roderick O’Donovan
Editing and organization: Florian Sauter and Savvas Ciriacidis
The unabbreviated Version of this conversation between Shuntarō Tanikawa and Christian Kerez will be published in the catalogue accompanying the upcoming Kazuo Shinohara retrospective at gta exhibitions / ETH Zurich in Spring 2016.