A house for sister Nobuko and her small daughters Sachiko and Fumiko
« There are houses that play host to many stories during their lifetime. These houses host generations of residents, and their uses and habits consequently change over time. Other houses, however, have a history that is dominated by and adapted to a single family and its fate. Occasionally, a house endures for less than the lifetime of its first owners, wether due to natural disasters, war or some other cause, and such houses usually conceal stories that need to be told.
In 1976, Toyo Ito was a young architect in Tokyo. He had grown up professionally among the most famous and sophisticated Japanese architects ( Kiyonori Kikutake, Togo Murano, Arata Isozaki, etc) and had created a few promising works. By that time he had already opened a small professional studio in his own name, and in that year his sister gave him a task: to build a little house on a small piece of land next to their parents’ old home.
For the young architect, the assignment would have probably presented another opportunity to test his abilities in the difficult task of designing a family home had it not arisen from a personal tragedy : his sister Nobuko and her two small daughters (Sachiko and Fumiko) had just lost their husband and father to cancer. In the wake of this event, Nobuko and her daughters were anxious to leave their luxury apartment in a Tokyo tower block with its views over the city. They were looking for somewhere they could find refuge; they needed a place where they could be together and feel safe – a protected and introverted place in which to regain their strength.
The White U’s history began in this way, with its client’s desire to « be as close to the land as possible » and to have an « L-shaped » plan that would allow her and her daughters to always be able to look at each other, perhaps through a garden. The house was also born from the way in which a young architect tried to meet these demands: he accepted them entirely, without discussion or mediation. While a sense of discretion often prevails in these cases, and the architect makes an attempt to tone down the client’s requests (especially when linked to intimate and private emotions), in this case any notion of « distance », which is often what gives the architect a sense of authority, was entirely absent.
The White U thus had its origins in a space forged out of urgent, symbolic need, a condition to which the architectural response was not the logical composition of functional spaces (the kitchen, the bedroom, the sitting room) but rather the invention of a singular spatial concept: a cold, introverted yet rooted place – a niche-like home capable of protecting the solitude of a family enveloped in the mourning process. Almost twenty years later, after having become an internationally renowned architect, Toyo Ito decided to tell the White U’s very particular story, talking about the first sketches he produced on the drawing table, the tension that existed between the house’s interior, which was conceived as an underground, labyrinth-like « tube », and the central, geometric empty space of the exterior, and the gradual creation of the small, cave-like area that enclosed a central patio, which became a kind of suspended space around which the family could gather instead of a garden. Ito has talked about the building process, during which, « every day toward midday », he would observe the builders at work, and about the ways in which he designed the movement of light and shade in the two white corridors and the fading of the sun in the communal space. He has recounted how this isolated, centripetal and introspective structure grew under the watchful eyes of the two siblings, who saw a small, elegant house take form, a horseshoe shape in exposed concrete with a roof that gently sloped down towards an internal patio and clear interiors cut by shafts of geometric light streaming in through skylights.
But Toyo Ito’s story, unlike those usually told in architectural accounts, does not stop here. Ito also tells us how in the year after it was finished, the White U came under heavy criticism, and how some critics saw it as a Corbusian departure from the sophistication of traditional Japanese minimalism. He also recounts how this small, celebrated architectural creation was destroyed (definitively) well before its time, just twenty years after its construction. The mother and daughters who had desired and shaped it would also be the ones who decided on its end: one by one, they had left the house, which had « become like a tomb ». The first to leave was the eldest daughter Sachiko. Later her mother left, and then the youngest daughter Fumoki moved out.
This was not, however, simply the gradual abandonment of a house. It was the liberating destruction of a space whose occupancy by someone else they could not contemplate: it was the disintegration of a place that symbolized for them the idea of an intimate and radical loss. The end of a particular period in the life of this family implied the abandonment of the architectural form that, for them, represented the transcription of that period in spatial terms.
Ito’s story ends with a lucid examination of the fragility of this small and famous work . As he watched it being destroyed, he felt the forces of the metropolis penetrate the small area, where only fragmented of bricks and mortar remained. Ito understood that it had been, above all, an excess of architecture which had led to the death of this place. « Every house », he says, « is born from a dualism between the demand for a deeper form of life, a virtual demand that is often unconscious, and the possibility of staying open to the everyday dynamics of the family and its social rules ». Architects need to be able to respond to both these needs, to give space to the symbolic dimension, to that sense on an « other house », as well as to allow the space to adapt itself to the vicissitudes and chances events of our lives. Architects should not try to determine these events or close off the possibility of change. « But the White U », Ito concludes, « ignored this dualism. It only tried to respond to the first questions or needs ». These house was overly rigorous, and its originality, too fragile. »
Stephano Boeri, White U
in San Rocco #0, Innocence, Milan, 2010