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Density and Destiny

March 18, 2009


Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (2008) is everything my house is not. Simple, sparse, clean, abstract, both a communication of a utopian urbanism and a built reality, a miniaturization of urban complexity, a pixilation of a slice of Tokyo real estate. My home is nothing out of the ordinary. It could be called oversized ordinary. Sitting on an acre lot in a field of acre lots, all of which used to be a field of tomatoes, my neighborhood, “The Estates,” is a self determinant architecture, the last vestige of pioneerism. My house is at the edge of urbanism, the minimum of middle-class density, and the maximum of manifest destiny. An acre homestead, a custom home with customizable options, room for a pool (built), room for a tennis court (unrealized), traditional farmhouse style built in 1998. It’s nice I guess though its maintenance and cooling costs are steep. A giant people cooler in the middle of the arid American West. Some summer days it’s too hot to go outside and the poor positioning of the house and cut-corner insulation means more money wasted, more energy consumed, and a really awful night sleep for my parents, whose south-west facing master bedroom is subject to temperatures to which the north-east facing bedrooms never approach. Who specifically designed my house?  Populist design.

We bought it three-fourths of the way done, just in time to choose the wood on the cabinets, the tile in the bathrooms, the hardwood on the floor. Just in time to choose corian over granite, cherry over oak, and spackled paint over smooth and glossy. Oh the possibilities of the 3,700 square feet, the extra bonus room above the garage, the double-height living room, the three-car garage, and the formal dining room. Most of all, we loved the acre of land, a tough find in suburban California.

But Moriyama House, clean and simple; a set of appropriate living boxes. What a monk of a client to fund such a utopian and ascetic project! A house as a community of rooms, a continuation of the city, an ode to the virtues of public space; Ryue Nishizawa you are a masterful architect. To miniaturize the city, the house as city, it’s the simplest gesture of goodwill towards mankind, a functional argument for dwelling well in the company of others. As the house must function in order to sustain human life, the city must do the same to sustain civil life.

A house, like say mine for example, sustains a family of four (with dogs) while also providing private amenities for comfortable leisure. Built on an acre of once cheap farmland far from civic amenities such as parks, swimming pools, and playgrounds,we invite civilians over to use our private amenities for the afternoon. Community as an temporary event. We live responsibly and enjoyably. We dwell passively and abstractly, overshadowed by the mega-infrastructural project of American private amenity.

The Moriyama House offers private space and communal amenity. The client envisioned daily interaction between neighbors in shared communal facilities. Nishizawa extracts the rooms of a single-family house as discrete boxes and subdivides the property into a collection of indoor and outdoor spaces. Each room is a separate structure, surrounded by a network of small interstitial gardens. How would rooms look if they were ripped from a traditional house? Like little people-scaled boxes; thoughtfully placed and simply crafted by Nishizawa. While the client claimed several of the rooms, the other are rented; a means by which a privileged man can stave off loneliness and isolation in alienating Tokyo. Nishizawa’s spatial gesture does seem to evoke the psyche of the city dweller; searching for solitude yet never content alone.

The Moriyama House alludes to utopian forms of the past. Like the Japanese Metabolist movement of the 1960s, it articulates the individual unit within a greater urban agglomeration. However, unlike the parasitic Metabolist superstructures designed to tower above Tokyo’s plagued urban fabric, the Moriyama House functions within the confines of reality. On a smaller scale, the Moriyama House’s form addresses the universal condition of dwelling, first articulated by Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Primitive Hut, built only to shelter man from god’s uncontrollable nature. To build a house of 3,700 sqaure feet with a six-range burner, Jacuzzi tub, hot tub, and pool is to deny man access to his own being. The Moriyama House is in touch with some sense of being, at least my own conception of my position within a righteous urban world. The bright white of the bedroom people-box soothes my suburban angst. Like a clean white hospital bed, The Moriyama House’s formal sterility promises wellness for all those who have lived excessively.

I have often heard that Ryue Nishizawa is an architect’s architect. His buildings, with their sparing use of material, white surfaces, and ample use of plate glass, tend to resemble scale models.What architect would resist admiring a structure that can maintain the lightness of paper walls. You could say Ryue Nishizawa in the business of turning the lightness of the architectural model into built reality. Nishizawa accomplishes this task with the Moriyama House using advanced steel plate technology to keep walls thin yet strong. As real estate prices rise once again, space continues to diminished and Tokyo’s congestion necessitates innovations in construction technology. Thinness and lightness effect developers’ profit margins. Perhaps the Moriyama House functions more as an exotic story of dwelling densely than built reality but from afar, the Moriyama House is more than a house; it’s a simple poetic gesture in a conflicted urban world. A man’s home, subdivided.


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