Tokyo – the city where radical architecture resides.
No architects do it quite like the Japanese, who consistently upend formal conventions in an attempt to circumvent Tokyo’s idiosyncratic building regulations and react to the country’s unusual real estate economics. But these factors — building laws and financial drivers — only scratch the surface in terms of the city’s preoccupation with experimentation in architecture: Complex cultural nuances and peculiarities of the Japanese psyche also play key roles, both for local architects and for their willing clients.
According to writer Alistair Townsend, Japan “fetishizes newness,” and given that most houses depreciate quickly in value before being demolished and replaced every 30 years, there is little incentive to remain conservative when it comes to residential design. Furthermore, commercial clients in Tokyo appreciate the need for individuality in a city overflowing with attention-grabbing retail and corporate offerings: Architecture in these realms represents a company’s brand and philosophy, and it is vital to stand out.
Here, we explore 10 classic examples of unorthodox design in Tokyo, revealing the city’s unique brand of eccentric modernism. Enjoy the journey through this mind-boggling metropolis and be sure to click on the links for more information on and images of each project.
An innovative house designed especially for a family of two children whose parents are both deaf, the upper floor of Room Room is punctuated with a series of eight-inch square apertures. These holes offer multiple options for communication between stories — verbally, between the children, and via sign language for the parents who have impaired hearing.
The perforated language is continued through to the walls and roof as a whimsical series of windows and skylights allowing a subtle light to infiltrate the internal spaces and creating a playful external façade on this quiet residential street.
Tucked between an old store and a large apartment block, the façade of this soba noodle restaurant in central Tokyo took inspiration from traditional Japanese architecture — but with a dynamic twist. The building has Machiya-style wooden louvers, akin to a traditional townhouse, but the depth of each louver is varied to produce a striking sculptural elevation.
The interior is kept minimal, with undulating elements across the ceiling echoing the architectural language of the exterior. By night, light from the restaurant and apartment above emanates between the waves of slatted timber, transforming the structure into a local landmark — a true urban lantern.
This unorthodox polyhedral residence is located in the dense suburbs of western Tokyo and was designed as a solution to an incredibly challenging brief: The client desired a private covered parking space, to be sited on an exceedingly small corner plot.
The architects manipulated the geometry to maximize livable space, producing a faceted object with three surface conditions: opaque, translucent, and transparent. These surfaces are carefully angled in accordance with the sun’s path throughout the day, leading to dynamic variations in light and shadow internally.
Reflection of Mineral might be the most famous house in this collection, but as a tourist who found and photographed it, be forewarned: It is no easier to find than any of the others!
The undulating façade of this office conversion echoes that of ISSHO’s Yufutoku Restaurant, but with horizontal orientation and a different material palette, the overriding aesthetic is markedly more modern. The flowing curtain of metallic bands is designed to differentiate the façade from adjacent buildings and form a part of future tenants’ branding.
While it appears complex, the series of louvers was actually standardized for ease of fabrication, with two specific radii being used in different variations to create the effect of distortion. The architects spoke of their desire for the design to “add rich expression to the street” and to “revitalize the neighborhood” — giving this local area its own miniature Bilbao effect.
Designed to accommodate eight families within a single multiunit residence, Static Quarry places great importance on the external spaces within the complex, in a city where gardens and courtyards are at a premium. A split-level roof terrace is equipped with power and water that transforms it into a multifunctional ‘room’ that can be used for dining, socializing, and relaxing just as much as internal spaces.
At the same time, the courtyard also provides a buffer zone to give each family a semblance of privacy in their own home. The building’s bold concrete envelope is punctuated with generous openings that frame views and allow light to flow in.
The design for this house was dictated by its long, thin plot in central Tokyo, turning the site’s limitation into an asset, as its architects explain: “The context of nondescript neighbors is ignored and at the same time appropriated to defy the site's narrowness.”
The building is formed from a slender ribbon of concrete that folds to form the floors, walls, and ceiling of each level in turn. Structural steel columns are placed where necessary to allow for large open-plan living spaces and floor-to-ceiling glazing, lending the interior generous amounts of light and space in spite of its compact plot.
Located in the densely packed Taito Ward of Tokyo, the design of this house was influenced heavily by the restrictions on its aspects — no windows could be placed on either side elevation, so light had to be filtered in from the front, back, and top without compromising privacy.
To achieve this light filtration, the front elevation is made up of floor-to-ceiling glazing and a series of narrow timber louvers provides cover while allowing light through to the living spaces. Like the “House with Self-Standing Wall,” Lattice is incredibly minimal in its style, with an open, black steel staircase and exposed concrete walls featured in the interior.
A fusion of French and Japanese landscape traditions, the atrium of this government building is home to a cascade of stone plinths and luscious green planting, in contrast to the sleek glass walls of the rest of the complex.
Inspired in part by the geological formations of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, the green wall is planted with native species and irrigated from above, creating a subtle mist and the noise of trickling water that evokes the serene atmosphere of ancient Japanese gardens.
Like the Reflection of Mineral House, House in Kohoku is an extraordinary sculptural home defined by its context: the site is tilted to the north, and the neighboring house to the south is two-storied and built on tiered higher ground, making it a challenge to create a bright and airy house infiltrated with sunlight.
Torafu Architects’ solution involved created a quirky, “barnacled” roofscape with three large, tubular skylights that allow large amounts of dissipated light to stream into the open plan space below. The reinforced concrete shell, poured in-situ using precise formwork, forms a column-less space with striking angular walls which subtly vary between light and shade through the day.
Fujimoto’s strikingly skeletal House NA is inspired by the complex habitat of ancient tree dwellers, who could communicate with one another audibly and visually across natural platforms. The house is a classic example of experimental residential architecture in Japan, incorporating many features that would never pass building regulations in most other countries around the world.
The white steel frame is infilled by a variety of split-level living spaces, with famously precarious boundaries and a merging of programs throughout the structure. The home forces us to question the very definition of architecture, flying in the face of convention to produce an inhabitable sculpture for living.