This article was published in Domus 970 / June 2013
In 1960, during the first heady flush of ambition that propelled the group of young Japanese modernist architects known as the Metabolists to international fame, Kisho Kurokawa, the group’s youngest and most flamboyant member, devised a speculative project called the “Agricultural City”.
His design envisaged an infrastructural system for agricultural production consisting of a concrete macrogrid measuring 500 metres on a side and subdivided into 100 by 100 metre cells, propped 4 metres above the landscape on pilotis. The cells would support housing or public functions, the grid beams transport and utilities, while the ground plane would be left completely free for farming.
Kurokawa saw the grid as a rational, flexible framework that would be both responsive to and controlling of the topographic variability of the land and the morphological irregularity of the village — a cartographic cage with which to tame nature and tradition, those pre-modern spectres haunting the heart of modern Japan. Meanwhile, in good mid-century Marxist fashion, the historic contradiction between city and country would be resolved as one integrated artificial productive landscape.
The reading of Makoto Takei and Chie Nabeshima’s Gate Villa is inevitably coloured by its resonance with Kurokawa’s modernist dream, despite the architects’ professed innocence of the association. Here, in a semi-rural setting, is the monochrome square grid, suspended four metres above the ground on pilotis, within whose abstracted rectilinear order the life of both nature and humans is orchestrated.
As a single-family residence planned around a module of seven metres, both function and scale are completely different, but it shares with Kurokawa the ambition to integrate complementary realms (in this case house and garden) via a uniform gridded framework. Within this apparent similarity, however, lie significant differences, marking out the distance between the techno-futurist modernism of Kurokawa and what could be described as the abstract contextualism of Takei and Nabeshima.
The project is located on a residential subdivision in a small town about three hours’ drive from Tokyo. Farmhouses, small fields and small watercourses make up the immediate site context; nearby are a couple of public schools, while behind rises a low wooded hill. Although now completely overgrown, this hill once formed the ramparts of a castle hundreds of years ago, and the flat lands at its base were the sites for the estates of the local lord’s vassals. For the client, who has family roots in the area, the project became a means of recollecting this history, with the image of the castle lord overlooking the ordered estates of his domain forming an underlying motif. In place of the present fragmented and diffuse condition of the context, neither urban nor rural, the client imagined an embracing and harmonious order linking the site with its surroundings.
In order to realise this vision, four adjacent residential plots were brought together and combined, enabling the generous scale of the house that has an overall site area of more than 1,000 square metres. This contextual sensitivity can be felt in the choice of the seven-metre grid module, which is taken from the structural grid of the schools nearby—itself a product of the largely standardised design codes for schools that were once seen as one of the achievements of a modernising Japan.
At the scale of the project’s internal spatial relations, the deep beams spanning between columns are treated as flexible armature for tuning the visual and spatial connections between spaces. From a cat’s-eye view, just above the level of the floor, the space is visually continuous, with only the columnar point grid and the transparent membranes of the glass walls intervening. As the eye level rises, the spatial field adjusts, resolving itself to the boundaries of a specific room or space. At the height of the roof, the grid takes on its completed, cellular aspect.
In addition to their structural duties, these deep beams or suspended shear walls serve as spatial delineators, whose heights have been precisely adjusted to obtain the optimal balance between openness and enclosure. No modernist module fixes these elevational dimensions in the manner of a Modulor; all has been set freely by intuition and sensibility during exacting design review meetings with the client.
With its historical recollections, contextual responses and sensitive attention to local spatial relations, the Gate Villa can be seen as a project of its own era, rather than a recuperation of the swashbuckling modernity represented by Kurokawa. Takei and Nabeshima employ their grids, frames and other modernist manoeuvres not in the service of a universal, rational space, but with the aim of reinforcing the spirit of specific places and settings, investing them with a sensibility of dignity, order and repose.