The Japanese House of Renowned Modernist Architect Kunio Maekawa

A Renowned Modernist Turns Tradition-Minded for His Own Home.

See the home of 20th-century Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa, who worked under Le Corbusier and Antonin Raymond

One of the least-known treasures of Japan’s fast-eroding building heritage is the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, a 17-acre area devoted to the preservation and presentation of prominent structures of yesteryear. Located in Koganei Park on the outskirts of western Tokyo, it was established in 1993 with about 30 relocated buildings, encompassing a variety of styles and eras, that had become no longer viable on their original sites. 

Among the museum’s historical gems — which include farmhouses, middle- and upper-class urban homes, an inn, a granary, a sento (public bathhouse) and prewar shops — is a small reddish wooden structure with a steeply pitched gabled roof and a bank of wood-mullioned windows, built by one of the 20th century’s architectural giants, Kunio Maekawa (1905-86). For those familiar with his modernist landmarks — Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall (Tokyo Bunka Kaikan), International House of Japan (with Junzo Sakakura and Junzo Yoshimura) and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum — it seems unlikely that this exceedingly simple, compact design could have come from the same drawing board.

Kunio Maekawa (center, bottom row) poses with office mates in 1935, including Antonin Raymond (fifth from left, top row), Junzo Yoshimura (far right, bottom row) and furniture designer George Nakashima (third from left, top row). Photo from Koichi Kitazawa

But Maekawa had spent five years with Antonin Raymond, the former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright who followed in his mentor’s footsteps by opening the eyes of Japanese architects to the possibilities of their own tradition. Maekawa signed on with Raymond after returning in 1930 from Paris, where he had worked for a time in the atelier of Le Corbusier, and was instrumental in helping the Czech-born architect develop a unique fusion of East-West modernism in Japan. His own 1942 home became his first expression of this synthesis.

Maekawa studied architecture at what is now the University of Tokyo during a period of great change, when Japan was seeking to define a new national identity. In architecture, there was much debate about what role tradition should play. Vernacular architecture had always favored modular planning, flexible space use and simplicity. As a student, Maekawa embraced the shinkenchiku (new architecture) movement and its commitment to exploiting new materials and technology, as well as to sustaining local architectural features in the face of international influences.

Maekawa and Le Corbusier talk on a train heading to Hoddesdon, England, to join the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne meeting in 1951. Photo from Maekawa Associates, Architects and Engineers

Swiss architect Le Corbusier was already a force in Europe at the time, but he was best known in the late 1920s for his residential white boxes. Despite having no real interest in these “machines for living,” Maekawa took advantage of his uncle’s residency in Paris and made the journey to the French capital after his graduation. In April 1928, he became an unpaid draftsman in Le Corbusier’s atelier and stayed for the next 14 months. He would return to Japan and begin working for Raymond in 1930, leaving in 1935 to open his own practice.

The architect found Corbusian modernism easily adaptable to Japan’s cultural and climatic context, and would become one of the 20th century’s most prolific practitioners. But Maekawa’s use of concrete was reserved for commercial and government buildings. In his residential designs, he prioritized warmth and intimacy, and incorporated premodern Japanese elements to heighten these features.

oung architects show their true colors when they design their own habitats, and Maekawa’s first home, built during World War II, is no exception. One has only to take in the plunging neo-Japanesque roofline, the oya stone entryway to the front path, and the dramatic glass doors and mullioned windows — facing south, with contrasting akari shoji screens to filter light — to grasp the East-West synthesis at play. As historian Kevin Reynolds sees it, the house is Maekawa’s “most explicitly traditionalist residential design of the period.”

Some historians, intent on maintaining Le Corbusier’s vaunted position in the Maekawa canon, have suggested that the home’s size and materials were selected only because of the restrictions imposed by the Japanese government, which was diverting most construction materials to the war effort. But Maekawa’s family ties had enabled him to go ahead with the project despite the war, and even to build slightly larger (1,190 square feet, or 110.6 square meters) than the limit allowed by law (1,076 square feet, or 100 square meters).

As for the materials, before tackling his own home, he had lived in the Nonomiya Apartments, a well-known 1936 modernist design by Kameki Tsuchiura, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice. Despite his enthusiasm for the innovations wrought by modernism, Maekawa had found Tsuchiura’s concrete complex extremely uncomfortable. Thus his house made liberal use of cypress and other wood, and since Maekawa didn’t like paint, oil-based stain was used on the exterior surfaces.

According to Kosaburo Sakitani, the main draftsman on the project, Maekawa rarely spoke in conceptual terms about the designs that would bear his name, and this habit extended even to his own home. He initially asked staff member Miho Hamaguchi to draw up plans but wasn’t pleased when she suggested a nagaya-style horizontal row house. In 1941, Sakitani was put in charge of finishing the basic designs.

Apparently quite captivated by three oak trees that were on the property, Maekawa had purchased a plot in Kamiosaki, Shinagawa Ward, for his inaugural dwelling. At the time, the Kameki Tsuchiura house, located nearby in Meguro Ward, was the attention-getter among modernist homes. Tsuchiura had spent nearly five years working with Wright, first as an intern on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, then as an apprentice on various projects in California and Wisconsin. He had returned to Japan in 1926, determined to help improve Japanese housing. Taking a cue from the “textile block” houses Wright was building in Los Angeles, Tsuchiura pursued standardization and efficiency, gradually embracing the International Style for its functional, rational and economic attributes. His 1935 home was a modernist white box, but it featured Wrightian vertical interlocking spaces, with a narrow loft floating above a soaring, double-height living room that flowed out into the garden through four sliding doors.

Although the Tsuchiura house had a flat roof that purposely broke with Japanese tradition, Sakitani was partial to its other qualities and devised a plan to Maekawa’s liking that was symmetrical simplicity itself. One enters the home from a door on the north, where hard beechwood floors are designed for entry with one’s shoes on — an unusual feature in Japan, where shoes are always removed in the foyer. According to Sakitani, Maekawa usually traveled by car, so his shoes remained dirt-free. (Shoes-off became the norm later, perhaps after he married Miyo Miura in August 1945, at war’s end.)

Just to the left of the entranceway, through a swinging door, is the home’s triumphal great room, a living room-salon with double-height windows, its airy spaces delineated by contemporary furniture.

Maekawa designed the furnishings and light fixtures in Western style, and had furniture upholstered in cotton cambric.

Up an open stairway from the living room is a small mezzanine loft with display cases acting as an interface with the first floor. The roof reaches its highest pitch above the loft, providing the necessary height. Although used primarily as a study, it is also where Maekawa stored his furniture designs.

The space was undoubtedly influenced not only by Tsuchiura’s loft, but also by a similar one in Antonin Raymond’s 1933 Karuizawa summer house, which featured rough-hewn wooden poles as supports. Access to his loft was via a curving ramp, however, rather than direct stairs.

The cozy dining area, with its Maekawa-designed lamp, table and chairs, is on the north side of the great room. A pass-through from the kitchen facilitates serving.

The pass-through is an unusual innovation for the time. The kitchen, which is on the northeast, features a modern Western design in its furnishings, window and flow.

The study in the home’s southwest corner, at the end of the entrance corridor, was designed also to accommodate guests, and so comes with a sink in the closet — an unusual solution.

Maekawa’s bedroom is in the southeast corner, across from the study. It’s also done in Western style, with a bed and ample closet space.

The sliding shutters on the south side of the great room can be stowed in a door pocket that pivots 90 degrees, effectively disappearing when the home is open to the elements. Metal was in short supply in 1941, so the door rails were created of hardwood. There is a corresponding set of windows on the north side, as well as a bay window on the loft level, all of which allow light to flood the room. Space flows, unimpeded, through the room and from front to back garden.

When first constructed, there were circular poles on the north and south sides of the home, leading some to suggest that Maekawa was referencing Le Corbusier’s idea of piloti (piers, or columns). But Sakitani implies that, although his boss may have viewed them that way, these pillars were instead influenced by the Ise Grand Shrine, one of the Shinto religion’s holiest sites, which is rebuilt every 20 years. He had visited and been deeply impressed by Ise in 1940, shortly before he started working on the house.

The chief carpenter during the Maekawa house construction had also worked with Tsuchiura, and he erected one Ise- (or piloti-) inspired wooden pole at the center of the south facade of the home, with a shorter one on the north facade. The house made liberal use of cypress and other wood. Since Maekawa didn’t like paint, oil-based stain was used on the exterior surfaces.

In May 1945, Maekawa’s office in Ginza burned down following an air raid. He moved operations to the Kamiosaki house for the next nine years, until 1954. Desks and drafting tables were brought into the living room and the loft study, which could accommodate only four of the tables. The downstairs study was converted for meetings with customers, as well as for the staff to take breaks.

The Maekawas began renovating the home in 1956, reinforcing the foundations, adding X-shaped trusses to the south side, swapping the round pillar on the south with a square one, expanding the kitchen, upgrading the bathroom (and changing the black tile to brown) and building a garage. They may also have brought certain heirlooms out of storage, as the stucco walls of the living room were reportedly adorned with paintings by Miró, Picasso and Shiko Munakata after 1955.

In 1973, the house was disassembled when Maekawa decided to build a larger structure on the property, and its parts were put into storage at his summer home in Karuizawa. They were still in good shape some 20 years later, so were used in 1996 to rebuild the Maekawa house at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. The beautiful structure, a sublime exemplification of the best of Eastern tradition and Western modernism, remains the highlight of any visit to the park. It is open to the public every day except Monday (when a national holiday falls on Monday, it is open Monday and then closed the following Tuesday).