The (not so) very small home

This past Monday, my neighborhood bookstore hosted a lecture by new Orleans born architect Azby Brown. Brown now resides in Japan, where he is associate professor of architectural design at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and founder of the Future Design Insitute in Tokyo. He was discussing his new book, The Very Small Home-Japanese ideas for living well in limited space. The subject matter isn’t exactly foreign to Brown, whose previous books were Small Sapces, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, and The Japanese dream home.

The title might be a bit of a misnomer. Flipping through the book prior to the lecture, I noticed that none of the represented homes are VERY small. I was expecting 500 sq ft or less but the total floor area for most of these residences was well above 1000sq ft. Personally, I also take issue with the word “home.” These spaces are extremely elegant and incredibly intelligent, but -speaking as someone born and raised in the American Midwest- they’re not exactly “home-y.” Nonetheless, Brown presents some extremely innovative space solutions by a variety of architects, including Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban. I didn’t realize that the Japanese value light much more than area, and many of these buildings sacrificed a lot of potential space to get more light into a room or to avoid blocking their neighbor’s light.

Appropriate to the subject matter, almost a hundred people were crammed into the small bookstore and – this being new Orleans – they got a little rowdy. Although to be fair, their behavior might have been a result of the constant supply of wine. I have been to many a catered lecture, but never one where my wine glass was constantly kept full by one of the many tuxedoed servers quietly milling through the room. An hour into the lecture, the questions started, but there was no “does anyone have any questions,” or “now I’d like to take a few questions.” A woman interrupts loudly: (in my best John Kennedy Toole-like literary dialect) “Baby! I bin to Tok-yo, and d’ere were sooo many people, well I jes tought dey was havin’ Mardigras or somethin!” …No, no there’s no mardi gras in Japan, but the lively, uninhibited crowd added some excitement to the lecture, and it was a nice change from the stuffy, elitist crowd often present at the University Lectures.

The most interesting portions of the lecture, which unfortunately isn’t represented in the book, were the slides showing Japanese homes in the 1950’s. In these spaces, there is a clearly evident clash of cultures. The small ultra efficient, traditional, Japanese peasant homes that have a place for everything suddenly were forced to accommodate televisions, radios, and refrigerators. The resulting spaces looked more like a junk shop than a tea room.

(for great ideas on truly small spaces, see apartment therapy’s recent competition)

2 Replies to “The (not so) very small home”

  1. Thanks for attending. Many of the historical images I showed appear in my Japanese Dream House book, which is unfortunately out of print. I think only one of the houses in the new book is significantly over 1000 sq. ft. (Ambi-Flux) and most are less than 1000. And quite a few have footprints of 300 sq ft or so. But you raise a good point, namely, How big can a house be and still be considered small? As for the relative “hominess” of the projects I showed, I wanted to stress how the current generation of Japanese is reconceptualizing what “hominess” means. Finally, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the talk, people just piped up with comments, and the rowdiest folks were probably relatives of mine. And yes, it was well catered. One of the waiters practically hovered at my elbow with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Makes it all seem worthwhile!

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