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A woman's place

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Nearly 20 years ago, I attended what turned out to be a tense press conference in the Tokyo hotel which replaced Frank Lloyd Wright’s earthquake- surviving structure (it survived everything except the real estate market). The occasion, appropriately enough, was the World Property Congress; the conference gave us a chance to ask what were expected to be pat-ball questions of that year’s president, a genial Australian housing developer. Welcome controversy was injected into proceedings when a Japanese journalist asked the president whether he agreed with a recent ec assessment, that the country’s housing stock could largely be characterised as ‘rabbit hutches’. The embarrassed Australian was too diplomatic to agree with this outright, muttering that he had not had enough time to see things for himself. Everyone in the room knew that, certainly by Australian or us standards, the only answer was yes, and that answer was finally extracted.

There was much heart-searching in the Japanese press at the time; how was it that what was arguably the world’s most efficient economy was incapable of housing its people in dwellings on a par with those of its closest economic rivals?

Fast forward to 1994, and the issue was still live, especially in respect of social housing. This led to an intriguing initiative, addressing the housing ‘problem’ in a multi-layered way. Four women architects were invited by Arata Isozaki to take part in the scheme, which was and is supported by the governor of the Gifu prefecture (close to Nagoya in the centre of Japan). The governor, Taku Kajiwara, originally trained as an engineer, and has an abiding interest in architecture. There were two Japanese architects invited to take part (Ikiko Takahashi and Kajuo Sejima), one American (Liz Diller) and one Briton - Christine Hawley of Cook & Hawley.

The task was straightforward but far from simple: design idealised apartments, from a woman’s perspective, which would serve as a critique of the post- Second World War system-built blocks which can be seen across the country, and which occupied the given site. There was a twist: the apartment design had to be produced without reference to a specific plot, even though the site was known. ‘Strategic design work was impossible,’ says Hawley. We were being asked to stand on our heads - how do we live, not what could we do with this site.’

For Hawley, the idealised apartment needed to address a series of issues related to both internal planning and external appearance. Internally, she wanted to tackle the inflexibility implicit in the old social housing model, and poor ventilation provisions which result in things literally falling apart (including the housing itself). The chosen form was the duplex, in which a living room and kitchen occupied one floor, acting as a through space facilitating cross-ventilation, with bedrooms above, using sliding doors to provide some flexibility of accommodation. (‘The staircase is a vertical corridor’ - also helping ventilation.) The ideal flat would be one where family changes did not necessitate moving somewhere else; in which the changing nature of the Japanese family itself, less collective now than two generations ago, could be expressed more formally by the use of family as opposed to individual spaces.

‘Externally, the question was whether we could give the building an identifiable character,’ says Hawley, compared with the ‘really grim’ blocks being replaced. The difficulty here was an insistence on the use of standard details and components because of repair and maintenance programmes for social housing blocks. A distinctive appearance for this sort of housing would not, in short, be expected. But it has been provided through simple but effective use of cladding, helped by the deep windows produced from the duplex (and some future triplex) designs. The front of the block has private balconies, while the back has access walks.

Then came site and budget allocation. Each architect had the same budget, and knew that they would have to produce 107 units on whichever piece of the site they were given. Hawley’s is, she thinks (with some justification), the most difficult of the four, since it has the smallest linear run, the smallest footprint, and a south-west orientation. But with the first phases now complete, she is clearly delighted by the result and by the reception from residents who have started moving in to her first 57 units. Extensive consultation took place with the future tenants, who had been moved from their old blocks but who have a choice over which apartment they will move back into; Hawley is obviously gratified at the rapid take- up of her 75m2 three-bedroom units.

The residents have more than just their dwellings to enjoy: Martha Schwartz, the American landscape architect, has designed a communal space running through the middle of the site, which incorporates a series of facilities which did not exist before, from a children’s play area to a residents’ community hall. There is underground parking on the site, which caters for most but not all vehicles. Despite the provision of these new facilities, densities have doubled on the site, even with relatively low-rise units (height was governed by buildings across the street).

Phase two will be completed in 2000, and Hawley’s mid-entry triplexes are apparently already attracting local prefecture officials: they will have views across the city and surrounding landscape, and the top-floor studio will look into double-height space below. This sort of volume must be unprecedented in Japanese social housing, and it almost certainly would not have been designed by the sort of Japanese architect normally found on a conventional project of this sort.

Listening to Hawley and her team (of both sexes) talk about the project, it is not immediately apparent that the analysis of the idealised apartment and the project as a whole spring from an explicitly feminist agenda; at one level this project is about the replacement of doubtless essential but now outdated prefabricated standardised blocks with a piece of proper design, in which volume has become as important as area (if not more so), and where space, light and privacy have been incorporated into living spaces for the contemporary family. Hawley agrees that much of the work springs from the approach that a professional architect of her generation would bring to a project. On the other hand, as a mother with three children (oldest 17), she sees it as inevitable that this experience (not shared by the three other invited architects) has helped form her perception and approach to housing design; she is also keen to emphasise the consultative nature of the project, in which her scheme is, she feels, less likely to govern the way people live than it is to provide more options than perhaps some of the other participants’ designs.

It would be mistaken to draw too many analogies with uk housing. For one thing, the attitude to energy is rather different: at Gifu, the client assumes that provision of solar protection in the form of louvres is unnecessary, since occupants will install their own air-conditioning! The requirement for the major spaces to face south (so that futons can be hung out of the window to maximum effect) ignores heat gain problems. On budget, the project cost is about twice what it would be in the uk, largely because of earthquake-resistant structures (Matthew Wells of Techniker provided advice), and the relatively high price of labour.

Hawley did think about those futons, usually slung over a window-sill. Her scheme incorporates custom-designed futon hangers - decoration follows function.

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