For those in the know when it comes to architecture, it's no secret that Japan is an absolute design powerhouse. But what is it that makes Japanese architecture—and the homes in particular—so unique? They're effortlessly cool, and no other regions have mastered minimalism quite like the Japanese have.

It’s not just the refined finesse that sets their designs apart, though: they also boast some of the kookiest homes the world over. From sleek, minimalist design to blocky constructions comprised of odd, geometric shapes, Japanese architecture is varied, but has strong aesthetic unity and ingenious functionality as a common theme.

To uncover what it is about Japan that gives rise to these clever and unexpected abodes, and why residential architects from all corners of the globe ache to practice their craft in Japan, we’ve rounded up some of the best examples of Japanese architecture and delved into what makes it so special.

Minimalist Masters

Firstly, the mighty m-word: minimalism. We couldn’t talk about Japanese architecture without talking about minimalism—the two are almost synonymous. Minimalism took root in the Western art world post-World War II and, in this context, it was a reaction to an art world that was seen as stale and too academic.

However, Japanese design exemplified minimalism centuries earlier—in fact, as early as the Higashiyama culture of the 15th century. Guided by the aesthetic principle of Wabi-sabi, which reflects a deeper worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, Japanese architecture has always nurtured authenticity and simplicity in the most incredible ways.

Space Scarcity: Pet Architecture

Sure, the Japanese grasp of minimalism is second to none, but that’s not all that Japanese designers are bringing to the table. In the high-density urban environment of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, space is scarce. Small, leftover and once-neglected spaces are increasingly being appropriated: a traffic island, an awkward triangular site or the interstitial space between two buildings, for example.

"Pet architecture" was a term coined by the famous Japanese design studio Atelier Bow-Wow, to describe buildings which have been squeezed into the leftover over urban spaces of Japanese cities. These strange sites produce unusual constraints and give rise to interesting building forms. In some ways, the form is a by-product of the constraints.

The buildings have a miniature quality and adopt inventive solutions in response to the site constraints. Much like our furry friends, these micro-architectures appear as cute little companions to the surrounding buildings that make up the fabric of the city, hence the name.

Take, for example, the Ogimachi Global Dispensing Pharmacy in Osaka, Japan, pictured above. This site was previously occupied by a home that had been illegally built on a farm road, following World War II. Somehow it managed to remain for decades as the neighborhood developed around it, leaving an unusually small parcel of land. Architects Ninkipen! + TKY designed the pharmacy, which recalls the history of the site in the form of an adorable home, sitting wedged between its towering neighbors.

Another example of pet architecture is Lucky Drops in Tokyo, Japan by Atelier Tekuto, also pictured above. As far as small plots of land go, this one is particularly unique. Responding to the very tough constraints of the narrow site, Atelier Tekuto designed a clever and quirky home. Standing 29.3 meters tall, it is a mere 3.2 meters wide in plan at the front and only 0.7m wide at the rear. A required setback of 0.5m from the site boundaries could be avoided by burying some of the home’s spaces underground, resulting in a creative and playful home.

30 Year Life Span

Alongside beautifully minimal structures and quirky byproduct designs, the streets of Japan are home to some of the most avant-garde houses. Why are aesthetic boundaries being so bravely pushed—and not just by the mega-rich, but the middle class too? It appears that this penchant for innovation and creativity is driven, or supported, by an unusual economic quality of the housing market in Japan.

While the Western World anticipates an increase in houses' value over time, the direct opposite is true for Japan: they depreciate just like any consumer good, and are demolished after an average of just 30 years! In Japan, it's conceivable that your fridge could outlive your house.

Because Western homes tend to be designed not just for the individual inhabitants, but for the generalized tastes of future buyers, personal taste can’t run too wild because home-owners might make investment faux pas. However, if a home is likely to decrease so much in value that it is practically worthless by the time the property is sold, as is the case in Japan, eccentric taste and individual expression can reign supreme.

While this phenomenon surely creates a lot of unnecessary construction waste, it is refreshing to see emphasis shift from houses as investments towards the home as a container of our most intimate lives: a personal expression of our tastes and values.

These are just a few reasons and some beautiful examples which demonstrate why Japan’s residential architecture is at the forefront of the profession. Watch this space—Japanese architects are constantly surprising us with their minimalist masterpieces, micro-architectures and kooky homes, and we can expect more great design in the near future.

For more on the topic of architecture, check out these 10 fashion designers influenced by architecture.

  • Words:Melissa Harrison
  • Lead image:Hiroki Kawata

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