Clarity of Purpose

Ulf Meyer
19. January 2022
Mayumi Miyawaki added a garage beneath the cantilevered hortus conclusus of the SH 60 house. (Photo via Google Maps)

One of Kenji Hirose’s best houses — SH-60, located in Nakano ward of northwestern Tokyo — has been demolished.

Docomomo Japan is an active branch of the international organization focused on preserving modern architecture, but it seems as if in a country like Japan, where there is no functioning protection of precious modern architecture, all they can do is compile insightful lists of buildings that would be worth preserving — only to see them knocked down one after the other. Japanese society may be shrinking and aging like no other, but the metropolitan real estate market still knows no mercy when it comes to building newer, taller, and denser. Not long after fans of modern architecture had to come to terms with the impending demolition of the city's most iconic modernist building, Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, one of Kenji Hirose’s finest buildings also got the axe.

Hirose (1922–2012) first studied engineering and later architecture during and after the war, and then founded his firm, Kenji Hirose Architect & Associates, in 1952, when Japan was getting back up on its feet. Hirose’s houses of that time were “engineered objects designed to extract maximum performance from a minimum of materials.” During the 1950s, the decade of Japan’s post-war reconstruction, he perfected and multiplied his pragmatic architecture that “performs the task it exists to perform.”

Like the architects of the Case Study Houses in California around the same time, Hirose thought of buildings as “design objects.” He gave his SH-Series houses numbers from 1 to 65, so the SH-60 in the Nakano ward of northwestern Tokyo that was recently knocked down was one of his last buildings in that series. It dated from1963 and was built for the painter and illustrator Seiroku Otsuka. The house sat at the foot of a hill and, since there was no beautiful sea view, the architect designed a windowless house with the living room oriented towards a hortus conclusus. Though common in Japan, this one atypically dramatically cantilevers over the slope of the site using diagonal bracing.

Just like the Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, and John Lautner in California, Hirose experimented with prefabrication and standardization, developing prototypical solutions using low cost materials and modular construction. Hirose’s houses suggested a new lifestyle, but they didn’t work in Japan like they did in California. His houses were dictated by site constraints and therefore chose structural systems and plans according to site and topography, exhibiting great structural ingenuity and clarity of construction.

Hirose’s SH-Series lasted from just 1953 to 1963, but it achieved a new take on construction and spatial configuration. One year after SH-60 was completed, Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games and the new movement of the Metabolists let itself be known to the world. Yet with the dawn of postmodernism in the 1960s, minimal, modern houses fell out of favor in both the US and Japan. Following the SH-Series, Hirose became a Professor at Musashi Technical College, apparently devoting himself to teaching rather than the design of houses.

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