by Kaz Yoneda and Gregory Serweta, AIA
The end of World War II heralded a shift in how architecture was consumed. The post-war era brought an economic boom and new opportunities to build, with the quintessential typology of cookie-cutter architecture being the standard single-family residential house. In the United States, the return of the GIs from Europe brought an immediate demand to house them, which skyrocketed the US housing industry. Cities, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Francisco – and especially their suburbs – grew tremendously. It was the peak of home order catalogs, which provided numerous choices of housing plans for the consumer to purchase from, ranging in square footage, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, or à la carte additions, such as a sunroom or a library. With programmatic arrangements, details, and materials within a house similar in each model, the standard suburban house transcended the need for an architect, thereby commodifying the basic unit of architecture—the house. The advent of the Levittown model was made possible by New Deal financial instruments, such as 30-year mortgages and amortization, fostering a new consumerist-minded middle class.(1)
War-ravaged Europe and Japan also needed national rebuilding efforts. The above-mentioned American system effectively became one of its lucrative exports, transferring its métier and capital with it. This brand of Pax-Americana or “Americanoiserie” would thrive in those war-torn countries’ reconstruction efforts. One place where this was acutely felt was in Japan, where the GHQ and the American occupation army remolded the host according to the ideals and aspirations of engendering a democratic stronghold in this corner of the world. However, there was a precarious paradox. While they were intent on restructuring another nation into a relative clone of themselves, they were unwilling to invest the capital. According to Akira Koshizawa(2), GHQ’s “Dodge Line” policy enacted austerity measures all the while attempting to reconstruct Japan, likened to the generous Marshall Plan.(3) The superimposition of an American system(4), thus, was unequivocal yet untenable. This ambiguity left room for improvisation, adaptation, and ultimately, reappropriation. Incubated in the petri dish that is Japan, this reappropriation allowed for mutations and variations to run amuck. In the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area, new suburbs, such as Setagaya, Nakano, and Suginami, sprouted from what were originally agrarian landscapes. Satellite cities, such as Tsukuba New Town, were built up with new infrastructure and railways to serve as new bedroom communities within a one hour commute of Tokyo, while existing neighboring cities, such as Yokohama, grew to the point that they physically merged with Tokyo to become a megalopolis. This urban growth came hand-in-hand with a building boom, causing many a house builder to create as many low-cost, low-quality, wood-frame houses as possible.(5,6)
In Japan, the transformation of architecture into a disposable commodity began in the Bubble era. With the infusion of global capital, a new wealth, mixed with the promise of the ever-appreciating property prices, set the stage for a market where land became more valuable than the buildings on it. This constructed notion of Scrap-and-Build in Japan also begat a philosophy of “creative destruction”. The influx of money pushed an artificial demand to create greater value and to build higher and higher on less and less ground.(7) Older housing stock, now considered subpar and not worth the time or money to renovate, was typically demolished and discarded instead of improved.
Houses in Japan depreciate like fish at market: the less fresh, the less it’s worth. As noted by economists, Robert Koo and Masaya Sasaki:
“Houses… last only about 30 years on average, effectively making them a durable consumer good, whereas in Western countries a house is a capital good that will retain its value almost in perpetuity as long as it is properly maintained. The market value of Japanese houses falls even faster than they can be depreciated for tax purposes; after 15 years the typical house is worth nothing.”(8)
Japan, in effect, figuratively and literally trashes about four percent of the annual total GDP on housing.(9) With the aforementioned sprawl of Tokyo’s aging suburbs, many houses become abandoned and the heirs of the properties are either unwilling to live so outside the central city or unable to pay the cost of demolishing the homes. Though the quote, “Tokyo could end up being surrounded by Detroits” by a Japanese real estate expert can sound like hyperbole, in all, there are about 8 million unoccupied homes across all of Japan.(10)
Yet with its shrinking population and having three times fewer people, Japan builds as many new houses as the United States.(11) In Japan, there is a preference for having something brand new, not because a previously-owned house is worthless, but no one wants to live in a “used” home.(12) Instead, if it can be afforded, Japanese tend to hire architects to design them their life-long, brand-new, and often novel-looking dream home. Or at a more competitive rate, there is always the catalog made-to-order, pre-fabricated home. Japan’s own mass-produced residential housing industry also established itself after the war, provided for by companies already part of larger keiretsu or conglomerate-type corporations.(13) Japan, though a nation of universal middle-class values, long ago dropped any pretense that a home is any more than a consumer item—“conventional, convenient, disposable”.(14) The Kyoto-based firm, FOBA, tailored the winning formula to carry more “brand appeal” for a niche market of households desiring something between a generic house-maker’s unit and a boutique architect’s design. Instead of prefabricating the materials or construction, FOBA pre-establishes and consistently applied the spatial and aesthetic concepts that go into each order. “They are like products from a convenient store: there are no surprises in content or price, and everyone else is buying the same thing”.(15) For the ultimate Sears catalog homes on bovine growth hormones, Muji, the Japanese-global minimalist superstore, has for more than a decade been leading the charge in premium ready-made homes, and “has become not only an internationally renowned company, but for many people is a way of life."(16) Or in other words, “Less and less are we buying products (material objects) that we want to own; increasingly we buy life experiences, experiences of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption. ... We are becoming consumers of our own lives”.(17) Within this mentality of consumption, architecture and urbanism that is consumed, used, and digested through and through ultimately becomes excrement to a society that values novelty and newness, while leaving a hunger for history and culture.