The threads of the net

Urs Meister

Urs Meister

Northern Architect

Fig. 59: View from access road

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", house formerly belonging to the Seitogakushi School, Miyakejima (J), 198C

Fig. 59: View from access road

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", house formerly belonging to the Seitogakushi School, Miyakejima (J), 198C

Shin Takasuga

Fig. 60: Miyakejima

Map of topography

In the 1970s Japanese architects were searching for independence. One example of this search between centuries-old tradition and rigid, unbridled Modernism is Shin Takasuga's "Railway Sleeper House", which has a contemporary look but in many respects is linked with Japanese cultural heritage.

The house is situated amidst a forest on the small island of Miyake in the Pacific Ocean. It was planned in the 1970s by students of the New Left and members of the Peace Movement as a communal residential building and place of retreat. Financial constraints meant that the inhabitants had to build the house themselves. Shin Takasuga's decision to use old, wooden railway sleepers resulted in a five-year construction time. But it was not the use of sleepers that was novel, rather the universal utilisation of one single type of construction element for the whole structure - walls, floors, columns, roof structure, the built-in furniture too.

The three-storey building is situated on a slope, raised clear of the ground on a concrete substructure. A skilful arrangement of the rooms characterises the compact lay-

Example

Fig. 61: Plans of roof void, upper floor and entrance floor

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

Fig. 61: Plans of roof void, upper floor and entrance floor

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

out. The public rooms can be found on the entrance floor: kitchen, bathrooms, an assembly room and a large dining hall, which extends the full internal height and therefore takes on the character of a main room. Bedrooms, ancillary rooms and the open, triangular roof void are in the upper storeys and can be reached only by ladders. The architect's decision to exclude conventional access elements, e.g. stairs, increases the degree of abstraction in the internal configuration and gives the impression of true room "stacking".

In trying to find the roots of traditional Japanese housebuilding and its specific method of construction you will come across a simple dwelling, the tateana. Four timber stakes are driven into the soil to carry four beams. Together with a number of poles arranged in a circle and a covering made from leaves, grass or straw this produces a tent-like shelter. Two basic architectural themes are already evident in this archetypal form, both of which characterised housebuilding and temple architecture from that time onwards. Indeed, they proved legitimate up to the last century and exercised a decisive influence on Takasuga's work: the house as roof and as structure.

The roof as a protective barrier

While Western architecture evolved on the basis of the wall and the facade1, in traditional Japan the roof assumed this important role. The house is first and foremost a roof, which is constructed immediately after the erection of the supporting structure, even before any interior walls are built. Oversailing eaves and canopies protect against

Fig. 62: Tstesns, the Japanese "prehistoric shelter"

Finished shelter (top), internal frame (bottom)

Fig. 62: Tstesns, the Japanese "prehistoric shelter"

Finished shelter (top), internal frame (bottom)

Fig. 63: Roof covering of wooden shingles

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

extreme weathers, and relegate the actual facade to the background. The significance of the roof as a protective barrier and the "compact darkness spreading beneath it" inspired the author Tanizaki Jun'ichiro to write about the aesthetics of shadow2, and until the last century women in the traditional Japanese house did indeed still blacken their teeth in order to control the light-shade contrast! The roof as an autonomous sculpture-like configuration was described impressively by Bruno Taut in his summary of his visit to Japan3 - in addition to his deductions based on technical and constructional conditions - as a basic cultural phenomenon of Japan.

Moving closer to Shin Takasuga's building, which today is overgrown, the first thing you notice is the bright, reflective roof. It appears as an abstract surface and its gable line gives the impression of having been drawn with a thick pencil right through the vegetation. What is underneath cannot be readily seen and only by approaching nearer does the house reveal itself to be a solid, heavily subdivided timber structure. The roof covering of wood shingles imparts a great lightness, only the line of the ridge and the verges are highlighted with sleepers - as if the thin roof surface has to be protected against the wind. The delicate covering seems to be reduced to a minimum in order to balance the heaviness of the structure below, the sleeper construction.

Mass and elasticity

However, traditional Japanese houses often show a contradictory picture: the (usually) thick thatch coverings to their roofs contrast in a peculiar way with the delicate construction underneath them. The weight, raised clear of the ground on a fragile-looking arrangement of linear members, paradoxically guarantees the whole structure maximum elasticity - like a heavy table top resting on thin

Fig. 63: Roof covering of wooden shingles

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

Fig. 64: Traditional Japanese house design

Column-beam wood joint

Fig. 64: Traditional Japanese house design

Column-beam wood joint

Fig. 65: Traditional Japanese carpentry tools

Pages from an encyclopaedia dating from 1712

Fig. 66: Detail of jointing at projecting stack of sleepers on the entrance facade

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Fig. 66: Detail of jointing at projecting stack of sleepers on the entrance facade

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Fig. 67: Treasure house of the Todai-ji in Nara

View of corner

Fig. 67: Treasure house of the Todai-ji in Nara

View of corner table legs. Due to the permanent danger of earthquakes in Japan elasticity is vital. The Western tradition of diagonal bracing is known to Japanese carpenters but does not correspond to their classical, aesthetic principles, and it would make the system more rigid and thus susceptible to seismic forces. In Japanese construction the stability of the connections, which is achieved through utmost j oint-ing precision, guarantees the stability of the building as a whole, as well as the necessary freedom of movement for the structure.

Therefore, the sphere of activity of the carpenter in Japan is broader than that of his colleagues in Europe: he has to take on tasks normally performed by architects, along with cabinet-maker's jobs. Japanese carpenters are equipped with an incredible array of special tools and their work is distinguished by extreme intricacy and complexity, recognisable in the exploded views of timber joints. The carpenter's goal - to make the j oint appear like a really simple connection - has resulted in a highly artistic technique of timber members intermeshing at a single point, often with a seemingly absurd sublimation of the cross-section. Despite maximum perforation of the members at the highly loaded joints, the connection itself gains stability due to the accurate fit and precise interlocking, and its characteristic elegance through elimination of all visible details.

In comparison with this, Japanese log construction - normally used only for storage buildings and treasure houses - contradicts the picture of the resulting timber constructions with their linear members. An impressive example of this is the treasure house of the Todai-ji in Nara, which stands out due to its mass, its self-contained nature and the elementary jointing technique. The unusual triangular shape of the logs, laid edgewise on top of each other, creates a three-dimensionally textured f acade on the outside but a perfectly smooth wall surface on the inside. Although the edge-on-edge assembly of the joists does not seem sensible from the engineering point of view

Fig. 68: Treasure house of the Todai-ji in Nara

Detail of log construction joint

Fig. 68: Treasure house of the Todai-ji in Nara

Detail of log construction joint

Sleeper House Shin Takasuga

Fig. 69: The dining hall extends the full internal height of the building

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Traditional Curved Architecture

Fig. 71: House in Takayama

Interior with exposed roof structure

Fig. 69: The dining hall extends the full internal height of the building

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Fig. 71: House in Takayama

Interior with exposed roof structure it has a certain purpose: in dry weather the wood shrinks and small gaps appear between the logs, allowing natural ventilation of the interior. In wet weather the wood swells and the gaps close, thus preventing moisture from entering the building.

The house as a structure

Log construction is characterised by intersecting corner joints that leave a short section of log projecting in both directions. By multiplying this corner detail Takasuga enhances the original planar character of this construction method, creating unsuspected spaciousness; and by letting the ends of the sleepers protrude at the gable facades he creates an abstract, three-dimensional composition. The stability of the protruding sleeper stacks is guaranteed with the aid of transverse sleepers, thus further balancing the horizontal-vertical arrangement of the entrance facade. In the large dining and communal room the same principle grows to nearly monumental proportions and the fragile equilibrium between the load-carrying and load-generating effects of the huge beams gives rise to an impressive three-dimensional sculpture.

Fig. 70: Traditional tatamimat combinations

Four lines intersecting to form a cross is usually avoided - the combination of eight mats (top left) is reserved for special purposes. The arrangement with four mats (top right) is used in rooms where the tea ceremony is held

Fig. 70: Traditional tatamimat combinations

Four lines intersecting to form a cross is usually avoided - the combination of eight mats (top left) is reserved for special purposes. The arrangement with four mats (top right) is used in rooms where the tea ceremony is held

Fig. 72: The concrete substructure beneath the log construction superstructure

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Fig. 72: The concrete substructure beneath the log construction superstructure

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 1980

Fig. 73: The additive jointing principle of the rooms

Katsura Imperial Villa

The "cage-like" clarity of horizontal and vertical elements, of heavy beams and slender columns placed on them characterises the open roof structure inside the Japanese house and gives the impression of a pick-up-sticks game suspended in mid-air. The aesthetic preference for open, exposed timber structures is just a part of the Japanese tradition as is the specific treatment of the surfaces. The warm, dark tint of the treated sleepers used for Takasuga's house reflects the classical colouration of wood, which in earlier times was generated inside the houses by the open charcoal fires and the facade outside was then tinted by applying soot or by singeing. The surfaces of the sleepers, branded by their previous utilisation in the form of notches, cracks and damaged edges, give the wood a raw and rough appearance but at the same time it seems to be coated with a kind of patina, as if every single sleeper has been evenly worn away and polished.

A rigid system of dimensions based on the tatami mat on the floor and the shoji, the paper-covered door, determines the Japanese house and controls the complex network of relationships between the different elements. Both plan and section show characteristics of this modular principle, which led to a "structural grammar" and reached its architectural zenith in the 17th century in the construction of the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Apart from the dimensions and proportions of the individual rooms, the relationships and transitions between them are strictly controlled and form an additive plan layout with an especially open character, which anticipated the flexible layout of Modernism in the Western world.

So the Japanese house is an open, additive configuration of individual rooms and in the "Railway Sleeper House" we can identify a subtractive design principle: the rooms seem to have been hacked out of a closed, cruciform stack with a rigid outer shape. In this context the paradoxical statement of Takasuga - that this house did not have to be designed but that the use of railway sleepers generated the actual structure itself - sounds like an echo of the Minimal Art concepts of the 1960s. The visual power of the succession of the same basic elements and the fascination of the brutal rawness of the

Further reading

1 Arthur Drexler: The Architecture of Japan, New York, 1955, p. 44

2 Tanlzakl Jun'Ichiro: Lob des Schattens, Zurich 1987 (1933).

- English translation: Tanlzakl Jun'ichiro: In Praise of Shadows, 1988

3 Bruno Taut: Das japanische Haus und sein Leben, Berlin 1998 (1937)

- English translation: Bruno Taut: The Japanese House, 1998.

4 This is the title of a chapter in Taut's book.

Fig. 75: View of gable facade on valley side

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

timber members, laid on top of each other like in a children's game, reminds us of the disciplined tendencies of minimalist sculptures.

Far away from the sophisticated carpenter's techniques, Takasuga was able to create an ingenious work that by concentrating the means in many respects relies on Japanese traditions. At the fundamental figurative level - the house as a roof - as well as at the complex design level of space formation, the construction and the choice of materials - the house as a structure - in Takas-uga's unique project the threads of the net4 are woven in many different ways with Japanese architectural culture. However, the artistic radicalness of this project allows it to stand out from the conservative traditionalism which began to grow in Japan during the 1970s.

First published in tec21, No. 21, 25 May 2001

Further reading

1 Arthur Drexler: The Architecture of Japan, New York, 1955, p. 44

2 Tanlzakl Jun'Ichiro: Lob des Schattens, Zurich 1987 (1933).

- English translation: Tanlzakl Jun'ichiro: In Praise of Shadows, 1988

3 Bruno Taut: Das japanische Haus und sein Leben, Berlin 1998 (1937)

- English translation: Bruno Taut: The Japanese House, 1998.

4 This is the title of a chapter in Taut's book.

Fig. 75: View of gable facade on valley side

Shin Takasuga: "Railway Sleeper House", Miyakejima (J), 198C

Sleeper House Shin Takasuga

Introduction

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