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Modern Japanese House By Naomi Pollock. Phaidon, 2005. £45

REVIEW BOOK

This is a beautiful, revelatory book, opening up a world of Japanese architecture that has been little known in the West.

By taking us inside 25 modern houses across Japan, from fourstorey tower dwellings rising from minuscule urban plots to holiday homes threaded among pine groves, Naomi Pollock conveys the ingenuity - the sheer variety of solutions - of architects facing some decidedly 'challenging' sites. Their designs are full of wit, surprise and a sense of grace and serenity.

The context for Japanese design is unfamiliar. Typically there is none in the physical sense, since urban land values tend to dictate not only small plots but also a volatile pattern of renewal, in which an adjoining building may be torn down and replaced at any time as an obsolete product with just a 20-year life span. While zoning controls and building regulations - notably those ensuring adequate sunlight - shape density, there are no style police to placate. Architects have a relatively free rein and house design becomes a matter of protecting the privacy of family areas - sometimes an extended family - exploiting opportunities to bring light, air and greenery into the dwelling, and juggling personal space.

But these constraints have made the architecture. Even the inevitable uncertainty over what might happen next door can lead to inventive responses, such as the system of interchangeable external panels devised by Hiroyuki Arima for his UNS house in Tokyo, allowing outward views to be edited and the privacy of rooms and outdoor terraces to be safeguarded. In fact, the book is a veritable primer on creating enclosure and transparency.

In selecting materials for their domestic projects, Japanese architects are blessed by the country's relatively mild climate and by contractors who are ready to experiment. Alongside houses painstakingly composed in timber and steel are ones where the choice of materials is anything but conventional.

In electing to build the external walls of his Naked House from sacks of the white polyethylene noodles used to pack fruit, Shigeru Ban found exactly what he wanted in terms of light transmission and insulation, even if it meant transporting 500 sacks to site on the back seat of his car, then stapling them to the building's timber frame.

The ingenuity continues inside, with the spacious open volume playing host to rolling tatami boxes, each of which serves as a mini-room and private retreat.

A great strength of this book is that each group of houses is prefaced by an introduction which sets them against a background of tradition and social change in Japan, followed by a detailed description of each design which shows exactly how it evolved.

If there is one complaint, it has to be that there is no mention of the parallel universe presented by the Japanese houses of Ushida Findlay, singular creations which suggest a whole alternative direction yet to be pursued.

Neil Parkyn is an architect and town planner in London

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