When I tell my friends that I’ve commissioned a Japanese architect to design a minimalist monument to moi I know they’re thinking, “here we go again”. I know they’re wondering what torturous design trend they’ll be forced to suffer through this year. Cynical that may be but it is a criticism I pretty much deserve.
My mates have suffered a lot. The year I replaced my dining room setting with cold, cushionless aluminium Emeco chairs there was a cold and uncomfortable winter of very succinct dinners and lots of passive aggressive talk of chiropractors. My family takes a more practical and direct approach to me (they’re country people). The year I replaced my ugly but welcoming fat leather sofa with a pair of austere curved chrome Le Corbusier chaise longues they brought their own comfortable fold up chairs to my Christmas event. I tried not to take offence.
It’s not all tunnel-vision vogue that causes me to design my life this way. It’s just that I am drawn to minimalist design. The problem was back then I didn’t quite understand why I liked it or what I was hoping to achieve out of it. I was just attracted to the way it looked. At the time I was focusing on the sleek and simple form of Modernist furniture, but I’d completely missed the whole functional point of its pared back aesthetic.
What a dope.
Then I went to Japan.
I didn’t go there in search of minimalism, quite the opposite. I went to Tokyo to be blown away by the sheer colour, movement, excitement and noise of this epic techno world city. I thought of Tokyo at the time as one big Pachinko machine, all flashing lights, and neon alleys through which people bounced and bumped, colourfully and noisily all day and night.
There was plenty of that to see, but I also found something else. I found minimalism or more accurately, simplicity. Take this restaurant facade for example. I chanced upon it following a day in Harajuku.
If you know Harajuku you’ll know it is anything but a suburb of simplicity. Takeshita Street is its main drag and it’s like a mad river of Japanese teenagers dressed for a fashion fight. This colourful parade flows downhill past gaudy shops that shout at your eyes with fluorescent merchandise, shocking your senses for a full kilometre and a half. After that, it’s a relief to find simplicity. This restaurant’s facade delivered me a moment of calm and it somehow woke me up.
I realised then, when I saw this restaurant, what minimalism and simplicity could actually do for me. It could give me a kind of break. A pause to reflect. Its space and emptiness worked as a tonic.
That restaurant was the architectural equivalent of a glass of water in between courses of chili.
The Japanese have a word for this kind of pause. It’s a concept they call “ma” and it exists everywhere in Japanese life. Ma is the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful. It creates the peace of mind we all desire, so that there is room for our thoughts to exist properly, and to thrive outside of it.
For artists and architects, ma is the negative space. It’s the pause in the design that gives the standout features their dramatic effect. It signals the beginning and the end of excitement. Ma is also the welcome side effect of simplicity. Which brings me to the current phase of the design development of my minimalist monument to moi (or possibly ma).
I fear, once the local building regulations are applied to the design of the X House that I will lose my ma. Yo Shimada’s preliminary models showed very pronounced and dramatic areas of negative space, under and over each arm of the X. The deck areas were deliciously empty, with no balustrades to speak of.
This is neither practical, nor possible in Queensland, a nanny state, where safety is not just the concern of the homeowner, but also the official concern of the council guy with the clipboard who grants the building its approval to proceed. It’s a sensible requirement of course, but council design standards present challenges if you want more ma in your verandah and I was worried that during the development approval stage, I was going to lose most of mine.
The standards that must be applied to houses of height force designers to specify strong, secure and unclimbable barriers, like the ones used on the verandah of my current house. There’s not much ma going on there, quite the opposite. This is a busy balustrade. It blocks the view and complicates it. It acts more like a feature than a pause in the design, which is probably why balustrades on Queenslanders are often so detailed and fussy. Designers of balustrades like this decided to celebrate the problem of safety by making the solution really stand out. That’s great if you want the balustrade to stand out.
Yo Shimada wants it to disappear. His design requires ma at this point in the X House. His design accepts the need for the balustrade but not the need to loudly pronounce the idea of a safety barrier. That’s why his solution is thin, empty, calm and not at all in your face.
The strength in his design isn’t upfront, it exists behind the scenes in the clever Japanese engineering and there’s a real life example of how it works.
Tezuka Architects engineered a child safety balustrade that reads as an ethereal, delicate thing in their celebrated Fuji Kindergarten design. Their balustrade is not only beautiful; it must be pretty safe too. Japanese toddlers are tiny. They could slip through any space. And it must be secure because in Japan they have earthquakes. Don’t forget the earthquakes.
Importantly though, the design of the Fuji Kindergarten balustrade preserves the negative space at the centre of that gorgeous circular deck.
When it comes to the X-House, I’m not sure yet whether this same solution will be the one we settle on. Shimada san and Paul Hotson from Phorm showed me other ways too of effecting a compliant balustrade without losing the negative space. They were all great solutions and all delivered in that lovely minimal, Japanese style. I guess there’s something you can know when you have a Japanese architect. You really shouldn’t worry about your ma. I reckon moi’s ma is in very good hands.