In the 1970s Japanese architects were searching for independence. One example of this search between centuries-old tradition and rigid unbridled Modernist is a Shin Takasuga’s “Railway Sleeper House”, which has a contemporary look but in many respects is linked with Japanese cultural heritage.
The house is situated amidst a forest on the small island of Miyake in the Pacific Ocean. It was planned in the 1970s by students of the New Left and members of the Peace Movement as a communal residential building and place of retreat. Financial constraints meant that the inhabitants had to build the house themselves. Shin Takasuga’s decision to use old, wooden railway sleepers resulted in a five-year construction time. But it was not the use of sleepers that was novel, rather the universal utilization of one single type of construction element for the whole structure – walls, floors, columns, roof structure, the built-in furniture too.
The three-storey building is situated on a slope, raised clear of the ground clear of the ground on a concrete substructure. A skillful arrangement of the rooms characterizes the compact layout. The public rooms can be found on the entrance floor: kitchen, bathrooms, an assembly room and a large dining hall, which extends the full internal heights and therefore takes on the character of a main room. Bedrooms, ancillary rooms and the open, triangular roof void are in the upper storeys and can be reached only by ladders. The architect’s decision to exclude conventional access elements, e.g. stairs, increase the degree of abstraction in the internal configuration and gives the impression of true room ‘stacking’.
In trying to find the roots of traditional Japanese housebuilding and its specific method of construction you will come across a simple dwelling, the lateana. Four timber stakes are driven into the soil to carry four beams. Together with a number of poles arranged in a circle and a covering made from leaves, grass or straw this produces a tent-like shelter. Two basic architectural themes are already evident in this archetypal form, both of which characterized housebuilding and temple architecture form that time onwards. Indeed, they proved legitimate up to the last century and exercised a decisive influence on Takasuga’s work: the house as roof and as structure.
While Western architecture evolved on the basis of the wall and the facade, in traditional Japan the roof assumed this important role. The house is first and foremost a roof, which is constructed immediately after the erection of the supporting structure, even before any interior walls are built. Oversailing eaves and canopies protect against extreme weather and relegate the actual facade to the background. The significance of the roof as a protective barrier and the “compact darkness spreading beneath it” inspired the author Tanizaki Jun’ichinor to write about the aesthetics of shadows, and until the last century women in traditional Japanese house did indeed still blacken their teeth in order to control the light – shade contrast. The roof as an autonomous sculpture-like configuration was described impressively by Bruno Taut in his summary of his visit to Japan – In addition to his deductions based on technical and constructional conditions – as a basic cultural phenomenon of Japan.
— Desplazes, Andrea (Ed). (2005). The Threads of the net from the book ‘Constructing architecture’.