According to the myth of its creation the Farnsworth House was placed in the site by Mies so the location would enlarge the effect of the building, and looking back it is hard to argue that landscape is anything but entwined with the design. Made iconic by its perfect openness to the surrounding landscape, part of its success as architecture must be understood to come from how the site is treated. This is ironic. As an exemplar of universal design, where space and place are abstracted to the point where external concerns are consumed entirely, the home makes sense only in the singular location where it was built.
The role of landscape is just as powerful in Tokyo. Admittedly it takes slightly different form.
Searching for ways to come to terms with the modern city, we arranged a literal and simplistic test. Transplanting the Farnsworth house into Tokyo, we wondered if we could make use of some of the lessons of Mies’ modernism. Wilfully naïve we take the leap and find that only a fraction of this home - built for a single person! - fits into a typical plot of Tokyo land. We could accommodate some steps, a porch, possibly a part of the kitchen, nothing more. The Farnsworth was made as a retreat, and the scale seems to fit that ambition and it does not feel oversized at all. There is nothing grotesque about it. And yet it needs land many times larger than is possible in any modern city, and many times more than that in truly built up places. The connection between building and site is just as compelling though, even if the scale is impossible. Distortions of this “historical” architecture remain alluring. We wonder still how we might learn from the glass and steel box. Icons are not about the surface after all.
We are often reminded that cities look more alike everywhere in the world. Some parts certainly do. Truthfully, Tokyo can be hard to pick out in a line-up of world cities in some of its newer areas. Even so, the globalized generic city does not rule. Instead there is a particular landscape, mostly low-rise, with a dense seas of houses, shops and businesses that dominate even in the various centres where global standards dominate. Occasionally the mat is lifted and mini-manhattan’s appear to serve the financial services community, dominated by ex-pats who perhaps prefer to not be reminded that they are not home. These areas are filled with tall buildings as one might expect in any world city. Yet it’s all built without fear or favour when it comes to style or intent, and in the end the menace of globalization is entirely swallowed by the city as a whole.
If we step back to a more basic point of view the fact that people are choosing to live in cities at all is somehow more interesting than what they look like. If we look backwards to the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Tokyo was reaching its pinnacle as a world power, the city was wilfully rejected by architects as a place to live in. The world’s first modern megacity was perhaps a place of fear, unfamiliar in its newness. People moved to Tokyo by the tens of millions, and architects built homes and places of work for them all. The timing could not have been worse for architects however. With money and work in abundance the profession had ironically just come to terms with its inability to plan large-scale utopias and instead felt a general unease about urbanism in general, and about the legitimacy of architecture at the personal level. Paradoxically this setting of uncertainty and growth gave us an introverted urban architecture that put Japan’s architects firmly onto the world stage.
Given the times, the stance was not unreasonable. What urban architecture could honestly embrace the global uprisings of 1968, the OPEC embargo, the massive population growth and urban migration that was turning the city into a collection of isolation, making every inhabitant a stranger? It is not surprising the architecture of the time took a consciously inward turn, abandoning urbanism as an idea and focusing instead on the poetry of interior space. Not to be mistaken, the outcome was exceptional. For architects like Kazuo Shinohara the city became a place of beautiful interior landscapes of columns and platforms (to be fair, this was also the case with the villas he built outside the city). Toyo Ito built the most extreme example of the time in the form of a home for his sister, who was in mourning for the loss of her husband - to create perfect quietude he designed lyrically curved walls around an inner courtyard that was barely accessible, suggesting that even a protected exterior space was not welcome. Building on this work Tadao Ando famously reduced the city to light and sky.
These choices were powerful and fascinating, but whatever the impulse driving them was, it has ebbed in the intervening decades. Fear or nervousness perhaps remains, but there is a growing feeling that the city is safe enough that it can now be treated as something legitimate, something to look upon with as much favour as a grove of trees.
One of our clients once argued that when they grew up in Tokyo it was perfectly normal to live with the city as part of daily life. The barriers between homes were a weak formality, allowing free passage between street, garden, and interior, and indeed between families as well. The public lifestyle that typology allowed was taken for granted. As they tell it, when they grew older an influx of immigrants from outside the city changed their world. Unaccustomed and afraid of their new landscape they closed it down into introverted capsules, and built communities of strangers (and strangeness) as a result. Their story is as good an explanation as any. Population in the centre certainly increased - from about 5 million in 1950 to 8 million by 1960, and has more or less held steady since then. Growth was even larger in the suburbs, expanding by some 20 million between 1950 and 2000. In the city centre the physical change that went along with that growth was particular. Tokyo did not grow vertically, it subdivided. The size of land for sale became smaller and smaller as houses were torn down and replaced with smaller versions. Governments at every level allowed the change to continue, requiring only that access to light and fire safety was preserved. Decades later regulations of construction continue to be performance based rather than prescriptive, but the attitude has changed. The city is no longer a strange construct, but something familiar and customary, and the architecture is no longer so ruthlessly withdrawn. The question now - if the city is finally a legitimate landscape, what might its buildings look like?
The modernism of Mies was vestigially classical, separating strategies between those of the city and those of the countryside. The language was less obviously divided however, and this seems something to consider. When the city is so dense that all space is at a premium the waste of isolating land by building walls is fantastic. A glass-boxed rural villa makes far more sense than a closed urban escape. The Farnsworth House in that case is the perfect model, but how well can it be transferred?
As a first step to test this thought we searched for a piece of land large enough to accommodate the entire Farnsworth house, but found it impossible. Land large enough to fit the entire house is almost non-existent. Even though the city was familiar to us this outcome was still a surprise. Continuing forward we shifted our approach and tested to see how much could of the iconic home could fit onto the sites of our recent work in Tokyo. Only fractions were possible. These pieces were in themselves fascinating as designs. They could almost be enough.
Still, the scale gap between Mieseian space and the Tokyo reality is enormous. Desiring the same openness we either need to invent a new language or manipulate the concept of free space in a more creative direction. Lacking access to actual space the inevitable choice is to stack floors and multiply the ground, giving priority to plan over form. New York rationality is not the point at this scale however. It makes more sense to avoid duplication of floors and instead treat each level as a distinct ground in its own right, and to find quality at that scale. The city overwhelms even skyscrapers in Tokyo. In which case, why not take advantage of what it offers?