People in Glass Houses... | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

People in Glass Houses...

People in Glass Houses...

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We who covet our privacy might look at some of these houses with horror: imagine your most private moments — taking a bath, for instance — suddenly revealed to all who might walk by, as though your entire family were onstage. Stone throwing would be the least of your problems. Yet, in Japan, several bold but ordinary families have hired avant-garde architects to design houses with no exterior walls and several made completely from glass. Other houses incorporate such bizarre features and materials that the very act of living becomes art.

Photographer Michael Freeman discovered these curious homes on three recent trips to Japan. "To find these houses amidst a culture that places so much emphasis on conformity," says Freeman, "thoroughly surprised me." But it enchanted him as well. The images printed here are a sneak preview of Freeman's odyssey into this creative fringe of Japanese society, a collection of photographs soon to be published in Japan Modern, a book he has coauthored with Michiko Rico Nosé.

These houses are not the work of oddball individualists, Freeman soon learned, but creative attempts by cutting-edge architects to redefine the management of space, light, privacy and nature in the Japanese home. Consider Funes House in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, designed by architect Norisada Maeda for an advertising art director, his wife and young daughter. In the center of the house's single-space interior lies a bathroom with walls of plate glass. The glass bathroom plays off a certain openness and relaxed sense of personal space in Japanese life, forged of necessity in part from many centuries of large populations having to get along in limited space. Owner Hideo Itoh likes nothing better than to spend a Sunday afternoon in the bath reading detective novels while family life bustles about him.

Needless to say, living in any one of these structures would prove daunting. Even so, the Japanese might find these houses less outrageous than would a Westerner; despite their radical appearance, they reflect ancient Japanese traditions and lifestyles. Elements of these homes, for instance, incorporate the traditional Japanese design solution of partitioning living spaces with screens, not fixed walls, so they can be configured for an intimate breakfast, rearranged for lunch and reconfigured yet again for dinner. And, the idea of bringing nature into the home, blurring the sharp lines delineating the inside world from the outside, has been reestablished in many of these homes, such as Pine Tree House in Hakata, which sports a live tree on the crown of its roof.

Even with these explanations, however, the question "Why?" remains. "The Japanese are so meticulously controlled," says Kathryn Findlay, associate professor at Tokyo University and co-architect of the Soft and Hairy House. "Maybe when you squeeze people so tight, and hard, which is what has happened in the last 50 years, some extreme things pop out at the edges."

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