Recognition and Delineation

Situating Kazuo Shinohara in a Genealogy of Japanese Architecture

David B. Stewart

Coming to architecture from mathematics, Kazuo Shinohara distanced himself from Metabolism by employing elements of tradition in untraditional ways and defeating the reduction of “style” to a mere echo of lifestyle.

“…je me demande continuellement moi-même ce que je suis en train de faire.” Jean-Luc Godard (1966)

At Tokyo Institute of Technology Kazuo Shinohara, having formerly been trained in the field of mathematics, executed a sudden (and, in Japan, rare) career shift— retraining in architecture under Professor Kiyoshi Seike (1918-2005), who in 1946 had first begun to teach there. Shinohara received his bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1953. He began at once to teach as Seike’s assistant in the latter’s architectural design lab.


Kiyoshi Seike’s own teacher at Tokyo Tech was Yoshirō Taniguchi (1904–79), a distinguished modernist and also the father of Yoshio Taniguchi (b. 1937 and architect and consultant to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its recent rehab). Seike, in any case, like the Metabolist Fumihiko Maki, was awarded a grant that enabled foreign travel— at that time almost impossible for most private Japanese citizens.

From 1951, Kiyoshi Seike initiated a series of modular houses that were minimal dwellings in a new, simplified key. For example, in the timber-framed Saito House of 1952, raised alcoves of tatami, a Seike trademark, afford traditional-style living at either side of a broader wood-floored living room furnished in more or less Scandinavian-modern style.

The adjacent Miyagi House of the following year was of concrete block with a roof supported on light steel trussing. This roof could be pushed back to reveal the sky. As a group, these houses, including Seike's own home, recall the design of Marcel Breuer's residence for himself at New Canaan, Connecticut built in 1947, which Kiyoshi Seike must have been aware of through photographs.

Imitation as Homage

As a final-year student of Kiyoshi Seike's in late 1952, Shinohara had recently won a quick, informal studio competition. This project was realized at suburban Kugayama in 1954. In many ways it bore a startling resemblance to the larger and nearly contemporary Kenzo Tange Residence in nearby Seijo. In Asia imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery and is considered an essential element of any successful artistic apprenticeship. As it happened, the young Shinohara on site visits from Tokyo Tech would pass by the Tange house on a daily basis and was smitten by the emergence of its intriguingly neo-traditional forms.

What then are the essential differences? First of all, the Tange House was completely of wood, while Shinohara’s Kugayama design made use of twinned lightweight concrete-filled C-beams paired back-to-back to form ten equally spaced vertical piers. Steel structural beams were not widely available in postwar Japan, and Seike, too, freely substituted other materials in innovative ways. Thus, at Kugayama no details of carpentry are simulated. There was, instead, a low-pitched overhanging roof but with its rafter ends concealed. By contrast, the two-tiered roofing of Tange’s much grander house plays a conspicuous part in its overall aesthetic. His façade at Seijo incorporated subsidiary bays in an a-b-a-a-b-a rhythm, while the four equal double-bays of Shinohara's more modest work were disposed in Miesian simplicity. If the Tange House is fed into a modern three-dimensional computer-graphics program, a specious decorativeness emerges from the bare bones of its structure.

The House in Kugayama had less than one hundred square meters of usable floor area, of which a third was assigned to a dining area with exposed counter-kitchen on the ground floor. From here a simple open stair rose to the living room, master bedroom and bath, and a small tatami-room. The latter makes use of slightly unusual square mats arranged in a nine-mat square. By contrast, the Tange House in Seijo was tatami-floored with mats laid longitudinally throughout a single space variously partitioned by sliding paper fusuma, with only the service areas reserved for wood flooring. This house must have been very pleasant in summer but glacial in winter. With the second story transoms open, the pitch of Tange’s roof is visible through the disengaged façade, while at Kugayama Shinohara’s low-pitched hip roof is read as just a simple plane.

Ideal of Discipline

Before the end of the sixties Shinohara had produced thirteen houses, all featuring iconoclastic adaptations of traditional styles and techniques, whereby elegance was unnervingly associated with rusticity. However, such anti-conventions were not always fully articulated, so that a Shinohara interior might at times be confused with the work of his teacher Seike or other practitioners. Yet, going beyond ordinary fittings and furnishings, Shinohara's work rejected a sense of facility or commodity in a larger sense.

It is not so much that these houses were uncompromising— a charge regularly leveled against Shinohara by other architects. Instead, each design was built up in a nearly abstract manner from the simplest of elements. Most importantly of all, Shinohara purposely employed structural solutions that distance his work from the domain of strict tradition. Gradually, a very personal ideal of discipline evolved in these First Style houses, in which self-imposed tectonic requirements seek precision within a neutralized spatial expression. The later “zero degree machine” was already ticking, and we have in a certain sense the jockeying for position of a Japanese Stéphane Mallarmé.

Such, then, is the Umbrella House (1961). Far from any classicizing intent— and in theme recalling the radically conceived late rustic-hut style for the tea ceremony— its aim was in a sense to re-construe the structure of space itself. This Umbrella House of fifty-five square meters remains the smallest of Shinohara's canonical works, while the length of the unsupported span is entirely nontraditional. The spatial content of such a work is apt to be diagrammatic, immobile, and highly charged via the quality Shinohara came frequently to refer to as “symbolism”— in a sense that House in Kugayama only partly prepares us for.  

Shinohara, increasingly a public figure, was to become an implacable enemy of Metabolism and its purported building culture. His stance derives from the so-called Japanese tradition debate that involved a search on the part of postwar Japanese intellectuals for a reoriented cultural identity. Noboru Kawazoe, as Kenzo Tange’s appointee to the position of Metabolism’s chief theorist, nurtured Metabolism as an outgrowth of this quest for what he called an “alternative tradition,” at times referred to even more confusingly by Tange as a “new tradition.” These aims had little, if anything, to do with Shinohara’s First Style.

Abstraction via Tradition

House in White (1966) represents one of the landmarks of Kazuo Shinohara’s oeuvre, together with the later Tanikawa House (1974), House in Uehara (1976), and House in Yokohama (1985). It is almost surely the work for which he remains best known in Japan. House in White is the climax and defining work of the First Style; it also adumbrated the use of a personal numbered style system put in place by Shinohara to organize his own production.1

The abstraction of House in White, as opposed to the more tangible symbolism in the exactly contemporary House of Earth, may not be immediately obvious. Nor is its perfection necessarily understood from photographs. The house is based on a one hundred square meter plan surmounted by a strictly pyramidal roof endowed with a nearly 1:2 pitch and extensive projecting eaves. This was a structural paradigm that for Japan has no residential-style association.

In a recent monograph2 I described how with the House in White Shinohara’s abstract, or as he often calls it “symbolic,” space emerges from the chrysalis of tradition in the ostensible guise of an almost purely Western-style interior. In other words, he believed at last he had achieved full expression of his much sought after “abstraction” using only traditional forms.

In House in White traditional syntax was for the first time replaced by what the architect refers to as a newly independent spatial quality. Up till now the expressive means borrowed by Shinohara from tradition had been rooted in largely intuitive preferences, a breadth of choice reinforced by Shinohara’s belief that a house need not respond to any up-to-the-minute concerns posed by contemporary society.

Now like the great cineastes that were his contemporaries, Shinohara took note of the high-handed way postwar social and environmental transformations were penetrating the realm of the individual. He thus began to consider means by which the resources of architecture might be used to stake out a domain not only of the individual but also of the family and the dwelling itself— to combat the leveling effects exerted by the pressures of mass society and industrialization.

Specifically, Shinohara had long conceived of the space of Japanese tradition as divisional as opposed to additive, as seen in Western-style building. By severing a space generated by a perfectly regular and symmetrical plan irregularly via a sectional move— and without regard to the symmetrical structure of the scheme— he obtained a high vertical space that situates the central pillar of naked cedar in an off-center position. By imposing a false ceiling, which is distinctively not an element of the Great Buddha, or daibutsuyo, style, to which the house ultimately refers, the rectangular white cube of his main living-dining-kitchen space approaches the space of recent European modernism. Moreover, Shinohara was astonished at what he called the “independent existence” of a vertical emphasis in this work achieved for the first time here.

Legacy and Appreciation

Finally, there is the question of Shinohara’s impact on the present generation of architects in Japan. This was brought to the fore by Kazuyo Sejima (b. 1956, a disciple of Toyoo Ito) as director of the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale of 2010. In her award to Kazuo Shinohara of the first Golden Lion in Memoriam Sejima stated in no uncertain terms the impact of his oeuvre for her own work and for that of her generation and after.

In Japan building has for long been regarded as a technical domain, with any fine arts influence  seen as recent at best. For such reasons, Shinohara’s impact upon Japanese architecture in the twenty-first century has enabled younger architects freely to pursue a notion of conceptual space. But the word is not strong enough, and the acid test is not the quality of the space produced but rather the method of obtaining it. Shinohara was aware of the dialectical evolution of Picasso’s painted and sculptural oeuvre, in which Picasso was forever competing against himself. Moreover, Shinohara once explained to me that for any commission he would establish an “anti-project” at the same time as the actual project in hand— as a kind of controlling device.

Or, as the cineaste Jean-Luc Godard queried (as cited above in my epigraph, from the year of the completion of House in White)— and, I believe, with a like passion and forcefulness: “I ask myself continually what it is that I’m doing.”


Brief Historical Sketch of Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech)

Tokyo Kogyo Daigaku was first established as the Tokyo Vocational School in 1881, thus roughly a generation after ETH Zurich, which surely provided one of the more important models. Twenty years later it became the Tokyo Higher Technical School.

However, transfer to a suburban campus occurred much earlier at Tokyo Tech than in Zurich, owing to the Great Kantō Earthquake of September 1, 1923. On that day, like much else in downtown Tokyo the entire campus was burnt to the ground. The school was then re-founded at suburban O-okayama, the highest spot in then still semirural southern Tokyo, a part of the city considered to be less earthquake prone than the low-lying downtown area. Soon after this move the college became a degree-conferring national university, Tokyo Institute of Technology, in 1929.

Today the main campus at O-okayama is much changed, not least by the construction of Shinohara’s own great Centennial Hall (1987). The university at the time of Kazuo Shinohara’s graduation in 1953 was still dominated by its prewar Main Building (1935), depicted here shortly before World War II. It was a state of the art, steel and reinforced-concrete construction that it is rumored would resist collapse even if overturned.

The plan is centered about four large inner courtyards. The facade is revetted in a cream-colored ceramic tile and surmounted by a spare Lombard cornice. By contrast, the main entrance consists of a five- arched porte-cochère of flush ashlar masonry. The whole may be thought of as designed in a sort of updated and streamlined Rundbogenstil— despite the rectilinear form of the prominent clock tower.

David B. Stewart is a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he teaches the history of architecture. He is author of The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture: 1868 to the Present, Tokyo (1987/2002) and Kazuo Shinohara, Centennial Hall, Tokyo, Stuttgart (1995) as well as of numerous other publications on Japanese architects and architecture.

1 ‘Style’ is a translation of the Japanese term yoshiki, whereas the more traditional architectural usage would be zukuri, or way of building. Meanwhile, ‘style’ for Shinohara should be understood in this context as exercising a limiting function or attaining a certain plateau.

2 David Stewart, “Kazuo Shinohara’s Three Spaces of Architecture and his First and Second Styles”, in 2G 58/59: Kazuo Shinohara Houses, Barcelona (2011).

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