12 Japanese Architects Explore Living (And Aging) Collectively

Sou Fujimoto, Shigeru Ban, and others experiment with communal housing in Tokyo.


Now in its second year, the Tokyo exhibition House Vision pairs renowned Japanese architects with companies to explore the future of the home. This year, the show asked architects like Sou Fujimoto, Shigeru Ban, and Atelier Bow-Wow, and companies like Airbnb and MUJI, to focus on the theme of collectivity and individuality in housing. The exhibit’s official title is CO-DIVIDUAL—Split and Connect/ Separate and Come Together and consists of 12 full-scale prototypes of buildings or public spaces that together make up a forward-thinking urban landscape.


But within that context, there was one topic that came up again and again: aging, and how good design can help reconcile the social and physical challenges of being an elder.

Japan is a country that has traditionally encouraged people aging “in place,” in houses where multiple familial generations live–a situation that generally tends to benefit the health and mental well-being of the older generation. Modern life in Japan has shifted away from that model in the past few decades, though, particularly in urban areas. Many of the ideas proposed at House Vision suggest that designers can make use of space in ways that accommodate a community’s aging population while still giving others room for independence.


For example, the residential leasing management company Daito Trust Construction and Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto reconfigured the standard layout of an apartment complex to subtly increase social interaction. The private units are smaller and the shared spaces are larger, and residents share kitchens, bathrooms, theaters, and gardens–instead of just narrow hallways. The design has an eye toward the elderly: A mixed-generation housing complex with more space to interact and organically check up on neighbors could lessen the need for assisted living environments, or parents moving back in with their kids.


The architect Jun Igarashi, on the other hand, doesn’t just reverse private and public living spaces, but completely rethinks them both. Together with the Japanese home appliance company TOTO/YKK AP and furniture designer Taiji Fujimori, Igarashi designed a living area with a room in the center that fans out into semi-private spaces. The idea stemmed from Igarashi rethinking the basic design of windows, and resulted in window-like openings that don’t just open up to the outside, but create interstitial spaces that can be used for relaxing, eating, or bathing. Each space is built out with furniture that is both functional and divides the space up further. For a multi-generational family home, this could create spaces for privacy while still providing a place in the center to commune.


In one of the wilder interpretations of the prompt, Japan’s largest door-to-door delivery service Yamato Holdings and architect Fumie Shibata built a refrigerator into the facade of a house. The pair wanted to make it easier to deliver food from one refrigerator to another without requiring a person to be at home to receive it. With connected home technology making it easier to control your appliances from afar, it’s easy to imagine unlocking a fridge remotely to allow for a delivery person to slip the food inside. The refrigerator would be accessible from outside the house, through a door built right into the facade.

This would be great for anyone of any age–imagine “grocery shopping” from your computer at work and coming home to everything already cooling in your fridge, without having to let anyone inside your house. But it would be especially useful for older people. As German-American architect Matthias Hollwich pointed out in his recent book, New Aging, food delivery services like Blue Apron could be key to older people’s independence once mobility is an issue. Making it simpler to accept deliveries and share food would ease that challenge, too.


Another example of how collective space can benefit vulnerable citizens comes from the public space created by Airbnb and architect Go Hasegawa (which Co.Design covered earlier this week). The first project to come out of a new innovation lab within Airbnb, the Yoshino-sugi Cedar House is comprised of a public community center on the first floor and private lodging for travelers on the second. When the building is moved to the town of Yoshino, where it will stay permanently after the exhibition, it will serve as a place to bring together the community and foster relationships among neighbors. It will also welcome in foreigners and pay off operating costs by renting out the private units.

It’s this type of design solution–a melding of the public and private, a reverence toward tradition but openness to modern ways of living–that the exhibition is trying to expand. This year’s House Vision explores a range of social issues beyond aging that can be mediated by collective housing. But as these projects demonstrate, community-centered living has natural benefits for the elder population in our communities.

The exhibit runs through August 28, 2016. More information can be found here.

[All Photos: courtesy House Vision]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.