Why Japan’s Futuristic Micro-Homes Are So Popular

IRA, "KHT House" (2013) in Kahoku, Yamagata Prefecture (all images courtesy the architects)
IRA, “KHT House” (2013) in Kahoku, Yamagata Prefecture (all images courtesy the architects)

Like in many of the world’s most densely populated nations, real estate in Japan is tough to come by. Many of its cities are filled with small, narrow lots, giving rise to the trend of designing and building kyosho jutaku (or micro-homes) that rethink traditional residential spaces through unconventional and striking architecture. Jutaku, a new book from Phaidon by writer and architect Naomi Pollock, presents a photographic survey of over 400 of these futuristic structures built over the past decade that illustrate the popular, highly experimental nature of contemporary Japanese architecture that is continuously changing the nation’s landscape.

"House of Density" (2013) by Jun Igarashi in Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture (click to enlarge)
Jun Igarashi, “House of Density” (2013) in Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture (click to enlarge)

Jutaku explores all eight of Japan’s regions — Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu-Okinawa — showing the widespread presence of these diminutive homes not only in cities but also in towns and villages. As Pollock explains in the book’s introduction, individual pieces of land tend to change hands frequently in Japan, and developers often carve them up into as many smaller lots as legally allowed, leading to extremely tight spaces. Incredibly long and narrow ones that are no wider than 15 feet are even known as “eels’ nests,” while sites enclosed by buildings and accessible only via a passageway just roomy enough for emergency vehicles to drive through are called “flag pole” plots. Owners of such lots often choose to demolish the existing structures and build new ones, preferring to live in a place without any wear; an average house’s lifespan, Pollock writes, is just 30 years, meaning that innovative buildings are constantly popping up.

Japan’s particular building laws also contribute to the proliferation of these eccentric houses. Although there isn’t a minimum lot size for construction to be permitted, regulations dictate that buildings remain separated, leaving room between them for fire-safety reasons. While this somewhat reduces the construction area, it also presents architects with greater creative freedom since the walls of individual, unattached buildings may be manipulated as desired. Pollock also cites the influence of so-called “Sunshine Laws” that limit the size of the shadow cast by a building to ensure that public streets receive the sun’s rays year-round. Such restrictions give rise to highly specific architectural calculations that yield oddly shaped and angular roofs, and unconventionally stacked rooms, for example. The building code does more to shape contemporary design than a desire to faithfully adhere to traditional architectural tropes. As Pollock writes, “…western icons, like pitched roofs and dormer windows, are merely forms. Devoid of deeper meaning, they are used without so much as a nod to their history. In the absence of symbolic or stylistic ties, Japan has become something of a design free-for-all where everything goes with everything else.”

The resulting homes are each unique — a characteristic emphasized by the fact that many are even given names. Rather than arbitrary monikers, these names often reflect aspects of the homes’ appearances, suggesting that the very structure of each kyosho jutaku forms a kind of identity for its residents. One home, composed of three white blocks, varying in height and stacked one behind the other, has been christened the “House of Density”; another imposing structure, with part of its base scooped out, is named “Tunnel House.” “Dancing Living House” plays on the windowless white building’s apparent pliéing motion, and “Fold” highlights the unconventional angles of its walls and high-pitched roof. Whether playful or austere, these small, short-lifespan homes prove that having to conform to impractical conditions can lead to some incredibly inventive results.

054 OBI House
Tetsushi Tominaga, “OBI-House” (2013) in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
"House in Nada" (2012) by Fujiwaramuro Architects in Kobe, Hyogo, Prefecture (all images courtesy the architects)
Fujiwaramuro Architects, “House in Nada” (2012) in Kobe, Hyogo, Prefecture
179 Tunnel
Makiko Tsukada, “Tunnel House” (2011) in Suginami-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
105 Double Skin
Studio NOA, “Double Skin House” (2011) in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
098 Dancing Living
ALX, “Dancing Living House” (2008) in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture
104 Hamadayama
Satoshi Okada, “House in Hamadayama” (2006) in Suginami-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
199 Fold
APOLLO Architects, “Fold” (2011) in Nakano-ku, Toyko Prefecture
247 Lucky Drops
Atelier Tekuto, “Lucky Drops” (2005) in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
Cover of 'Jutaku' by Natalie Pollock, published by Phaidon
Cover of ‘Jutaku’ by Natalie Pollock, published by Phaidon

Jutaku is available through Phaidon.

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