‘Chise‘ (‘house‘) was the traditional housing style of the Ainu, indigenous people of Japan and Sakhalin Russia. As a “house of grass” and “house of the earth”, its roof and walls were covered with sedge or bamboo grass to provide insulation and it did not detach from the ground for ventilation but it directly lied on it.
This traditional type, together with other vernacular models such as the Minka (video) and the Sukiya, was taken as a reference by a generation of Japanese architects that in their practices problematized and rethougt the values of Modernity and Modernism. The one who seem to better represent an unmodern perspective and shift the focus from the technocracy of the Metabolist culture towards small, intimate residential projects was probably Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006).
Shinohara’s House in Ashitaka (1977) is part of a group of stark, concrete houses, the architect built between 1970 and 1977 (together with the monumental ‘Uncompleted House‘ in Tokyo, ‘House at a Crooked Corner‘ in Tokyo and a house in Uehara). Starting with his 1961’s ‘House with a Big Roof‘ the architect shifted his interest from reductively modernized versions of the traditional Minka and Sukiya houses, -and from the relationship these original models established between interior and landscape-, towards iconic projects that produced a critique of how tradition could be brought into modern architecture; that could be identified with a single-minded image as a basis for their design; and that were entirely devoided of furniture.
In his ‘Conversation with students’ Valerio Olgiati refers to Shinohara’s Ashitaka House with these words:
When you look at the plans, it looks simple at first. When you look at the building, you think there is a direct affinity between what you see on the outside and what you expect on the inside. Shinohara lets secrecy and straight-forwardness coexist, so much that one could define the houses as being shizophrenic. However, there are always those moments when two seemingly disparate systems overlap because Shinohara carefully omits to build borders between two things. So, it is not a collage. The two realms are not pasted together. They remain separate but still communicate something that is beyond what each disparate system can suggest on its own. The complexity in Shinohara’s architecture is achieved by means of a certain ambivalence that mysteriously nits the entire work together. I find this interesting because it appears less logical but at the same time it is very logical. (From: Valerio Olgiati – Conversation with students” Virginia Tech Architecture Publications – pg. 23-24 – available online here.)
A more recent example of investigation in experimentality grounded in the tradition is the Même House by Kengo Kuma, a house that adopts the Chise model both in its formal and technical underpinnings (read: the big roof and the insulation qualities) to completely overturn the model respect of the materials, the constructive characteristics and the ingenious thermal engineering.
From the project’s statement, published on Archdaily in January 2013:
We were in charge of the first experimental house, and in the process of designing, we got a number of clues from “Chise,” the traditional housing style of the Ainu. What is most characteristic about Chise is that it is a “house of grass” and “house of the earth.” While in Honshu (the main island) a private house is principally a “house in wood” or “house of earthen wall,” Chise is distinctively a “house of grass,” as the roof and the wall are entirely covered with sedge or bamboo grass so that it can secure heat-insulating properties. Also, in Honshu the floor is raised for ventilation to keep away humidity, whereas in Chise they spread cattail mat directly on the ground, make a fireplace in the center, and never let the fire go out throughout the year. The fundamental idea of Chise, “house of the earth,” is to keep warming up the ground this way and retrieve the radiation heat generated from it.
Here is how section of the house is structured: We wrapped a wooden frame made of Japanese larch with a membrane material of polyester fluorocarbon coating. Inner part is covered with removable glass-fiber-cloth membrane. Between the two membranes, a polyester insulator recycled from PET bottles is inserted that penetrates the light. This composition is based on the idea that by convecting the air in-between, the internal environment could be kept comfortable because of the circulation.
We do not treat insulation within the thickness of heat-insulation material only, which was a typical attitude of the static environmental engineering in 20th century. What we aim at is a dynamic environmental engineering to replace it for this age. That we utilize the radiant heat from the floor is part of it, and it has been verified that you could spend several days in winter here without using floor heating. The other reason we covered the house with membrane material was our longing for a life surrounded by natural light, as if you were wrapped in daylight on the grassland. Without relying on any lighting system, you simply get up when it gets light, and sleep after dark – we expect this membrane house enables you to lead a life that synchronizes the rhythm of the nature.
In one part of the house, a wooden insulated window sash is installed external to the membrane. It is a new device to monitor the living environment of the house by changing various types of sashes. Likewise, all glass fiber cloth in the interior can be removed so that we can continue many kinds of environmental experiment.
Why does Modernism refuses to die (Conference Proceedings of ACSA Northeast Regional Meeting October 4-6, 2002 – McGill University, Montréal), in particular : Session 4: International Modern (Moderator: Professor Ricardo Castro)
Kengo Kuma’s Même House images and statement via: archdaily.com