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Transformation of Collective Housing in Japan

Class: Architecture and Cities in Japan A (2010-2011) / Lecturer: Prof. OTSUKI Toshio
Name: Bebio AMARO / Dept. of Architecture
The University of Tokyo

In this report, I will summarize the contents of Prof. Otsukis lecture at the 1
of August of
2011, and present my personal impressions about this topic. Focusing on the theme of collective
housing, Prof. Otsuki starts at the Edo period, showing the distribution of Samurai dwellings, temples,
shrines, and commoner dwellings inside the city. It was surprising to see the similarities between the
floor plan design of the samurai residences in that period, compared to the currently existing collective
housing buildings.
In a certain way, Europe has faced a similar path. During my undergraduate years at the
Faculty of Architecture in the Technical University of Lisbon, one of my Architecture Theory teachers
argued that there had been little or no evolution in the spatial program of houses since the 17
During this period, we can see that the function of rooms was not as rigidly defined as today, and
corridors had very little importance in the overall design. An example of this is the Palace of Versailles:
in order to reach a certain room, it was often necessary to pass through a series of linked rooms. There
were very few internal distribution corridors that connected rooms together. This function was mostly
carried out by rooms, staircases, halls or courtyards. But as time passed, the functions of rooms
became more specialized, and independent from each other. Internal distribution corridors grew in
importance and since then, little has changed in terms of internal spatial programs in collective
housing projects.
For this reason, it was interesting to see that in the Edo period, within daimyo houses, the
internal corridors were more important in the design than its European counterparts. Also, although
the rooms in Versailles had more defined purposes than daimyo houses, we can also sense that it was
not a very rigid definition, because as time passed the functions of many rooms were altered. Of course,
if we compare common European and Japanese rural houses, inhabited by poorer people, in both cases
multipurpose spaces prevail, and internal corridors are almost non-existent.
Another interesting moment was when Prof. Otsuki explained about the Japanese
appropriation of Western architecture elements in the areas of Shimbashi and Ginza. Although the
facades clearly imitated the British Colonial style, the inside of the houses was mostly kept free of
Western influence. It seems to be the case that Japanese culture, although appearing to embrace
external appearance elements of other cultures, they use these elements as a decorative shell,
somewhat stripped of its original meaning. During their history, for the most part Japanese people had
resisted introducing Western architectural elements in the interior space.
Regarding this, I would like to make a brief mention about my current research, which deals
with the first cultural exchanges between Westerners and Japanese people in the late 16
During this period Jesuit priests (and other religious orders) from Europe attempted to introduce
Christian religion in Japan, with varied degrees of success. In the beginning, the Christian priests had
to adapt the Japanese space into a religious space, by introducing a small portable altar (whenever
possible, located far away from the door, so as to create a longitudinal plan, similar to Western
churches), and decorating the room with Christian elements and symbols.
At the peak of Christian expansion, the Westerners succeeded in creating some hybrid
churches in Nagasaki, where, by using Japanese construction techniques, they attempted to reproduce
the traditional cross floor plan and room layout of Western churches. There is one example, called the
Church of Santo Domingo, where the traditional Dominican monastery layout was reproduced in a
very small scale. But these examples were short-lived, and were destroyed after a few years.
Essentially, it was mostly Westerners who had to adapt their architecture patterns to the Japanese
context, and not the opposite. Unlike Western churches, these Japanese churches were built in wood
(instead of stone or brick), using similar roof tiles to the rich noblemen houses; the floors were often
made of tatami or goza, and people sat on the floor, instead of sitting in chairs; at the entrance of
the church there were small water pools for people to wash their feet on rainy days; the doors were the
typical Japanese sliding doors, and the whole wood structure could be easily disassembled and
transported to another place.
But probably the most important aspect of this lecture was the focus on the social aspect,
and regarding that there are some things that I would like to mention. Firstly, it was shocking to hear
how the social aspect in collective housing came to be ignored within Japanese disaster relief and
reconstruction efforts. It was a clear demonstration of how specialization and fragmentation within
the structure of a government can have serious consequences on the well-being of the citizens. Within
Europe, the same focus on pure housing took place as well, but it was caused more by capitalist
pressures from private industries than by the internal structure of the government offices.
It is also tragic to hear about the death of 260 elderly people in the aftermath of the Kobe
earthquake. During my undergraduate years, I did some research and a presentation on the disaster
relief efforts executed by the Japanese authorities after the Kobe earthquake, with a special focus on
temporary housing. However, although I was aware of some deficiencies in the rescue plans, this tragic
event regarding the elderly was completely unknown to me, and I regret not having learned about it at
the time. The fact is that many European countries look towards Japan when thinking about how to
deal with natural disasters, since Japan is widely considered to be at the forefront in this area, and
Western architects have great interest in learning about how this relief aid is carried out. From this
episode, we can learn that the role of architecture in providing a basis for community building is
perhaps one of the greatest challenges of this era for our profession.
Despite all this, many things have improved since the Kobe earthquake, and during the
Tohoku earthquake many lives were saved because of these improvements. Although Japanese
authorities may have found many imperfections in the current relief plans, the fact is that few
countries in the world would have succeeded in providing the kind of aid that Japan provided to the
earthquake victims.

Image 1: Ground Floor Plan of the Versailles Palace, in Paris.

Image 2 (Left): Floor plan of Santo Domingo Church in Nagasaki (1609-1614),
elaborated by Kenji Miyamoto. Image 3 (Right): Original floor plan (12
century) of the
Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, Spain.

Image 4: Aerial view of the current Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos.


Fletcher, Adrian. (2000). Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. Date Viewed: 2011-08-01.

Miyamoto, Kenji, The Restoration of Santo Domingo Church in Nagasaki The Study on Western Techniques
Hidden in Early Modern Japanese Architecture Part 15 , in Intercultural Studies, No. 8, 2004 (Otsu, Ryukoku
University), pp. 59-66.

The image of the Versailles floor plan can be obtained at the following link: