Et is a milestone in post-war architecture in Japan: the Umbrella House, designed by Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara in 1961. It completely reinterpreted the type of traditional single-family house that still characterizes the appearance of Japanese mega-cities today. The cedar, pine and Douglas fir timber frame structure of the umbrella house has a pyramidal roof such as was found only in Buddhist temples in Japan. After studying mathematics, Shinohara decided to study architecture while visiting the Horyuji temples in Nara. For the Umbrella House he used simple and inexpensive materials such as cement fiber board, rice straw mats and wood. The small Tokyo residential building was at the center of the architectural discourse in Japan in the 1960s: it was seen as a constructed critique of both Western functionalism and Japanese metabolism. It was the starting point for Shinohara’s career as Japan’s most influential architect and theorist of his generation.
When Umbrella House was about to be demolished to make way for an urban freeway, architect Kazuyo Sejima learned of the outrageous plan and contacted Rolf Fehlbaum, owner of furniture manufacturer Vitra, known for his interest in architecture and patronage. Fehlbaum did not hesitate and had the house in Tokyo-Nerima dismantled and rebuilt on the site of his Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein. In doing so, he saved a landmark of modern architecture. It is no coincidence that the rescue was necessary: Because monument protection does not work in Japan, the country is currently losing some of its best modern buildings, such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower (FAZ of March 24).
Creating spaces that appeal to people
Shinohara, born in 1925, formulated a critique of functional determination in his treatise A House is a Work of Art. The disciplined geometry makes the Umbrella House look like an abstract traditional Minka house.
The column of the seven by seven meter house is slightly off-centre, while the four main rooms – hiroma (living room), eat-in kitchen, bathroom and bedroom (a tatami room with fifteen half-size mats) – are arranged in a pinwheel pattern. The higher and lower tatami room can be separated from the living room by five sliding Fusuma doors with prints by artist Setsu Asakura. From the inside, the ceiling beams are reminiscent of the struts of the oiled paper screens. However, the column does not support the roof, but rather the cross-shaped beams at their intersection. In this respect, the term Umbrella House is misleading. The visible roof structure spans a four meter high space. A ladder leads to the half-height storage space above the tatami room.
Shinohara’s house combined modern austerity with traditional Japanese architectural forms to create a purist, poetic structure of modest scale but great design ambition. It was the smallest house the architect designed. For Shinohara, it was not just about creating living space as a social goal, but about creating spaces that appeal to people. “Without status as a work of art, a house has no right to exist,” he said.
The Umbrella House was one of the last examples of Shinohara’s groundbreaking residences in Japan. The furniture was designed by Shinohara in collaboration with Katsuhiko Shiraishi. The Umbrella House, reborn thanks to Rolf Fehlbaum, will finally give Shinohara the attention it deserves in the West. The themes of timber construction and tiny houses, but also the combination of tradition and modernity and the non-determination of spaces are still or again highly relevant sixty years after the completion of the house, in the German provinces as well as in the big cities of the world.