Sou Fujimoto Architects: Tokyo Apartment

A micro-city of stacked houses imitates Tokyo. Precise geometries amassed in a dynamic dismantling and recon struction of the architectural ensemble.

Sosuke Fujimoto is surely one of the highest-profile architects in Japan today. His most recent project is a small-scale apartment complex built in a residential area of Tokyo. In common with some of his previous works, it offers a strange spatial experience, blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior and turning them on their head to create a sense of optical illusion. The resulting image is a most intriguing one, like the strata of Rome, where cities have been built on top of one another, finding expression above ground across space and time. One also has the impression of looking at a painting by M.C. Escher.

Fujimoto was born and brought up on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, with magnificent views of nature all around him. When he moved to Tokyo to pursue his college studies, he says that surprisingly he didn't feel ill at ease with life in the densely populated metropolis, which represented the polar opposite of his Hokkaido roots. That's because in Tokyo, where there is no well-defined demarcation between nature and the man-made, he enjoyed the novel sensation of being unable to distinguish clearly between exteriors and interiors. For him this was a contrast to the established dichotomy between inside and outside that is characteristic of the architecture to be found in the occasionally harsh wilderness of Hokkaido. If one steps outside one's home in Tokyo and walks along the complex web of narrow streets and alleys, one has the feeling that one's home and the city are loosely connected, that both are a kind of continuation of a similar spatial experience. Indeed, according to Fujimoto, the city gave him the impression of being like one vast living space, transmitting the physical sensation of a new type of "comfort". This "Tokyo Apartment" project, as it's called, stems from his idea to create housing that could symbolise the city of Tokyo as he experienced it. The form it takes – a grouping of archetypical gabled-roof house units stacked, as it were, in a higgledy-piggledy way – is not only a scaled-down, three-dimensional version of Tokyo's structure, but also a symbol of it.

Having an understanding client is essential when creating such a distinctive and unusual apartment complex that contrasts so strikingly with the surrounding context. Fortunately, however, the owner happens to be an event producer, the kind of profession where one is always trying out new things and looking for new encounters, and perhaps for this reason he was very quick to accept Fujimoto's novel idea. So when the design was commissioned, Fujimoto's project brief was not simply to create an ensemble of dwelling units on a rented space, but rather to come up with a "collective" type of housing in which residents would each have their own privacy, while at the same time being able to live together like one big family, as a community. However, by stacking the housing units of differing sizes on top of one another and subtly staggering them, it appears as if the dwellings are not connected with each other. The approaches to them are all different, and the stairs, which seem to ascend to the roof, give one the weird feeling of walking through the city in 3D. Fujimoto says that by creating a "relationship of non-connectedness", he has taken the appeal of the densely populated city of Tokyo and given it form. Furthermore, because the dwellings are composed of multiple interconnected units, the way they are staggered and the gaps between them mean that the view changes every time one moves. In fact, even inside the homes one has the feeling of walking through the city.

In one of Fujimoto's best-known works (the Children's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 2006), white boxes appear to be randomly arranged on a plane surface. Although the building is actually founded on a precisely calculated programme of interior spaces, those white cubes are one of the typical images abstracted from modernist architecture. Fujimoto's approach, which can be seen as an experimental process of such dismantling and reconstruction, can also be felt in this project, in which white boxes are randomly stacked on top of one another in three dimensions. This is neither deconstructivism, postmodernism, nor minimalism – it's a totally new approach.

Tokyo Apartment, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Architects: Sou Fujimoto Architects
Design team: Sou Fujimoto (principal), Koji Aoki, Takahiro Hata, Yoshihiro Nakazono
Structural engineering: Jun Sato Structural Engineers
Site supervision: Sou Fujimoto Architects
Site area: 83.14 m2
Total floor area: 180.70 m2
Design phase: March 2006 – May 2009
Construction phase: May 2009 – March 2010
Materials: timber frame construction / partly reinforced concrete

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