You know what I love about Japan? Buying clothes that fit me, right off the rack, that’s what. It’s a luxury you standard-model-sized-Euro-Australians take for granted, but imagine you had Asian genes (jeans) for a moment. Like me. Every pair of jeans I’ve ever purchased have had to be altered. The legs are always frustratingly long. Jackets too must be taken up at the sleeves and in at the shoulders. The shirts I buy in Australia must be altered or the sleeves rolled to ¾ length. I don’t do that to look rakishly casual, I do it so I can wear my purchases the day I buy them without having to factor in a trip to the seamstress (with associated costs).
In Japan however, everything fits me. Instantly. Without alteration. Sure, Brisbane to Tokyo is a long way to go to buy clothes and I haven’t worked out the figures exactly but I can say that all the money I’ve spent on alterations over the years could most probably have financed a flight there. In any case it’s wonderful to try clothes on in Japan and know you can say to the shop assistant as she hands you your receipt, “Don’t bother wrapping them. I’ll wear them now.”
I rattle around uncomfortably in clothes designed for bigger people and I am equally uncomfortable in living spaces that are also designed for bigger people than me. I feel vaguely oppressed and exposed by all the spaciousness I find in modern Australian houses. I appreciate what it means to have the luxury of space, but even so, I don’t luxuriate in it.
That’s one of the motivations behind this whole Minimalist Monument to Moi project and one of the key reasons I chose a Japanese architect. The Japanese don’t only understand how to make the most of small spaces; they also understand implicitly how to design houses for smaller people. Smaller people don’t need as much room to move around in. We still like to have enough room to swing a cat but we just happen to swing smaller cats. We’re more efficient with the movement we make and if we have too much space, we don’t luxuriate in it, we more often than not curse it. We’re forced to take an extra step, or to stretch for things that are frustratingly beyond our comfortable reach.
I was hoping that Yo Shimada’s design for the X-House had taken all of this into account (it was after all part of my brief to him). But in fright one night I woke to the sudden realisation that my hankering for smaller spaces was largely an untested notion. It had up to this point only been something I’d imagined I’d like – to live in a Japanese house built to Japanese proportions. I’d never physically been in one of the houses I’d admired on the Internet and I’d certainly never been in one of Yo Shimada’s. So I felt it was probably high time I got myself over to Kobe to visit Yo Shimada and specifically to walk around inside one of two or even three of the houses he had designed. I felt I should get a proper gauge on the proportions, inspect the finishes and imagine myself living in a similar house in Australia.
I probably should have done all of that before hiring the guy, but sometimes dreams take precedent over reality.
Several thousand kilometres later I was in Tokyo and a further three hours later I was exiting the gate from the Shinkansen Nozomi at Kobe station looking around for Yo Shimada who had agreed to meet me on my arrival there. Instead of Shimada san, the very efficient Chihiro Ishii was there and she magically recognised me amongst the other short dark-haired people that were streaming through the gate. She quickly ushered me to where Shimada san had parked his ancient Suzuki Jimny outside the station.
This was to be our trusty steed for the day. I didn’t understand why an architect of great style and taste would drive an old banged up Suzuki Jimny until I discovered where he lived. The back streets of Kobe were only as wide as the footpaths back in Brisbane and where Shimada san had built his home (which was also his office) was high up on the side of a hill where the roads were more like skateboard ramps than streets.
So the Jimny came into its own and eventually delivered us safely to Shimada san’s place, which was conveniently the first of his designs that he had planned to show me through.
Known as Tato House this home is clad in the same compressed fibre cement sheeting that he was recommending for the X-House in Hamilton, but that’s where the similarities end. Tato House is really two houses, or more accurately two towers, separated by a chasm that is open to the sky but enclosed by glass. The chasm houses the internal stairwell as well as the gangways that cross between the living areas in each tower. It’s a surprisingly simple space, not as complicated as it sounds. The glass chasm lets soft light into every room and as a result every room feels both cosy and open.
This is what good architecture can do. It can make a space feel efficient but not oppressive or closed in. There was no rattling around to be done in this house. That’s for sure. The living/lounge room on the top floor would have been no larger than maybe 9sqm (Yo Shimada may correct me on that guesswork) but even so it felt as open as any Australian verandah, thanks in part to the way it was oriented to the chasm of light and also because it was sparsely decorated.
Across the chasm was the dining room and kitchen and there, taking pride of place at the dining table was the epic model of the X-House that Shimada san and his team had constructed to help theirs and my imagination through the design process.
It wasn’t just a model of my house; it was a model of the hillside in Hamilton on which it sat. Yohei Omura had constructed a similar but smaller scale model back in Brisbane, an impressive model in its own right, but this model by Tato Architects was something else. I could instantly appreciate not just how the house would look but also how it would work when it was built. It took very little imagination for me to picture myself there and it helped of course to be viewing it whilst standing in a house that had also been designed by the same architect.
We had coffee prepared in a Chemex (which those of you who are of the hipster persuasion will know is deeply cool). Then, while the coffee did its wake up call, we discussed some details of the plan that had been submitted to Council for Development Approval. We also spoke about finishes, in particular the walls and floors for which Shimada san again recommended compressed fibre cement sheeting but this time in a treated form.
We also spoke about furnishings, specifically which existing furniture of mine would fit. Sadly my large white leather Poltrona Frau Kennedy corner lounge suite would have to go, to be replaced by a smaller two-seater couch. I only ever sit on one end of the Kennedy anyway, so a smaller couch would seem more efficient. Expect one barely sat on Kennedy to make a brief but glamorous appearance next year on EBay.
After lunch, Shimada san elected to take me on a tour of two of the other houses he’d designed in Kobe. The first was called House in Kitano, which wasn’t far from Tato House. Just up the road really (and I mean “up” the road). It was the home of a sommelier. Its most surprising feature was a hidden cellar that only revealed itself through the vast bathroom mirror when lit from within.
This house felt like a beach house. Like something you’d see on Stradbroke Island, yet here it was in Kobe. I noticed that the kitchen bench was much lower than the usual 900mm. And why not? The diminutive owner seemed quite comfortable with its proportions and so was I.
Next stop, House in Rokko, THE house that started me on this whole journey with Yo Shimada in the first place. This house had lit up the design blogs with its breathtaking simplicity and edgy disregard for all the rules of privacy. If you recall, it’s the house with the corrugated steel clad volume on top and the glass enclosed (transparent) living space underneath. I couldn’t wait to walk around in it, so we piled into the Jimny and drove for 15 minutes to a street at the base of Mt Rokko and then continued our journey on foot.
House in Rokko has no access from the street. It’s actually on a mountain (called Rokko). There are communal stairs that rise up to it from several blocks below. I asked the owner when I met him what he disliked most about the house, wondering if he would mention the lack of privacy. Instead he nominated the stairs. I think he had more stairs to climb than I eventually will to the X-House in Hamilton, but it was a point well taken and a clear premonition.
The house itself though was a wonder. Strangely, it looked larger in person than it did on the blogs. It felt surprisingly spacious, probably because all of the walls on the ground floor were glass and also because the ceiling height was around 3m (similar to the ceiling height in my Queenslander). I didn’t expect those proportions in a Japanese house. The ceiling on the top floor, where the bedroom, storage and bathroom were located was lower and these rooms as a result felt cosier, more Japanese.
I discovered while we talked with the guy who owned House in Rokko that he was once a graphic designer (a creative person with an eye for design) but who now sold real estate (a creative person with an eye for property). He also was not and I repeat not a minimalist. The House in Rokko was littered with belongings rather than sparingly furnished. I wanted to empty it out. I felt my obsessive-compulsive streak goading me to hijack the house and put it back in order. But this wasn’t my house, it was his and so I remained a respectful visitor and only tried to imagine how I’d furnish its industrial chicness if it were mine.
The thing is, I don’t think the design of House in Rokko suffered from the presence of all that eclectic clutter. It was still breathtakingly purist in its idea of privacy. I thought perhaps that the owner was filling the house with gear in an effort to hide amongst it, but in fact all that clutter did little to obscure the owner from the world. It actually revealed more about him.
It must be noted though that the block on which House in Rokko sat was tucked into a ledge on the mountain. Neither neighbour on either side had windows overlooking the house. The neighbour on the hill above could only see the roofline. And the neighbour below was too far below to see up into the house. So it was really very private and designed that way as all good architecture is, to work with the features and limitations of the site. The view of course was incredible and that after all was the main show and the real reason why the walls were glass.
Before we left, I asked Shimada san to take a photograph of me on the balcony of the house. Standing out there I was exposed to the elements and wide open to the view but when I took a step back inside, I stepped back into a home that embraced me, tightly. Even so, it was built to proportions that felt comfortable to me. Shimada san told me that the rooms in House in Rokko were similar in dimension to the ones he’d designed in the X-House in Hamilton. So what I was seeing and feeling in this house in Kobe I could expect to see and feel in my own home. If I hadn’t seen it here I wouldn’t have known that until my own house had been built. Which may have been too late if I didn’t like it. But I did like it. I came here, I tried it on, and it fitted perfectly.