Neven Fuchs: When you're young, you never know what your interest actually is. Then, one day it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. I liked Mies, Oscar Niemeyer, and Aldo van Eyck. But when Shinohara appeared it was different. His simultaneous command of both an extremely strong personal logic and emotional poetry was something that struck me from the very first moment I saw his drawings. In the beginning I just understood that it was mysterious and that appealed to me very much. Slowly, I learned a lot from these buildings, which at the time, were rare examples of an architecture that worked consciously with the issue of space.
I cannot really say that it informed my path, because I went to Scandinavia to make architecture and teach together with Sverre Fehn, who didn't like Shinohara at all. However, it always remained very present in my thinking.
I visited the Sea Stairway House three or four years ago and met the original owner, a painter, who still lives there. We spent the whole morning in the building. He spoke about how Shinohara drew the house, how he was changing it all the time, again and again, never satisfied with the result. He wanted to do a box because a studio is just a box, a kind of a warehouse of paintings. On the other hand, it is obvious that the complexity of this building required time to conceive. Eventually, he finished the construction of a second project, a summer house for the painter before the first house was ready.
DID YOU EVER MEET SHINOHARA IN PERSON?
Yes, I did. He came to give a lecture in Oslo, and we had dinner together with some other professors. At the time, I was probably the youngest. He spoke about his machine-like spaces, urban architecture, from his last projects. He was very much a gentleman, nicely dressed. We were extremely impressed. I always remember his cool personality, extremely calm and superior. The questions were floating around, and he was answering, but he was also never too involved.
YOU ARE ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE THAT MANAGED TO VISIT SEA STAIRWAY HOUSE. WHAT DO YOU EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU ENTER?
I chose to speak about this house today, because the question of how to make an intelligent domestic space has interested me for many years.
The house, in spite of all its simplicity, still manages to surprise. There are almost no windows. The entrance is dark, but from the very moment you enter you see a delicate light sliding down the stairs. Climbing up, you start to see the small garden on the left side. Continuing up you realize that the room is becoming bigger and bigger. Finally, you arrive to a high, generous space with two levels. You immediately understand that there have to be some other adjacent spaces, hidden somewhere.
The way in which the big space is cleaned and divided by the small spaces can also be seen in other Shinohara houses of that period. For example, in Cubic Forest, the rooms on either side of the living room define its shape. In Sea Stairway House, however, he wanted to keep the big space as pure, simple, and contained as possible, and because of the nature of the site, moving all the small spaces towards the front and the back of the plot was probably the most natural thing to do to achieve it. It always fascinated me, how they are both present and absent. You don’t experience them at first, but they define the inner facades of the main space. The first facade has just one door, leading to the storage on a slightly higher level than the studio. The fact that you must climb three steps to reach it is quite unusual. However, it gives you a notion that the space continues. It is not a pragmatic decision, but a precise spatial intention. On the other side there are two openings, one to the kitchen and another one to the bedroom. Behind the wall, these two rooms are connected with a short and narrow corridor. I have to admit that the functionality is quite peculiar in this building, it is definitely not functionalist, but spatial.
The main room has a similar basic concept to the Loos’ Moller house in Vienna, where you have a kind of playroom or a piano room, that also present themselves as performative stages in other rooms. In Sea Stairway House you are on the ‘studio stage’ whilst being in the living room. I imagine having parties and discussions with many people there, on the stage, or entering the stage, and find the notion of being in something big and comfortable, where the horizon of a space is constantly changing, extremely interesting.
It’s quite rare to experience a convincing adjustment of horizon in a space, as normally you would need relatively big rooms to make it successful. At the same time, it is a house that doesn’t try to be fashionable or spectacular. It has something in common with good examples of vernacular architecture.
Not so long ago I visited Suzhou Gardens in China. The buildings are extremely generic. However, the qualities of the gardens elevate them to something very specific. It belongs to what I would call, the third category, coming after the purely contextual and non-contextual project, and is where you start doing something very generic, for all possible locations, but because of the attention to the site or an accent on a topic, the design is elevated to something much more interesting. In other words, vernacular can be „just” vernacular. However, sometimes you realize that the builder who erected it, was cleverer, and the building became a masterpiece despite its roots being in a standard typology. I recognize the same quality in Sea Stairway house. Not showing off, anonymous, but, on the other hand, extremely engaged with the universal topics of architecture, in the strongest possible way.
YOU MENTIONED THAT SVERRE FEHN DIDN'T LIKE SHINOHARA'S BUILDINGS. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS WAS?
At that time, I held a lecture, and showed the main room of the House in a Curved Road. Fehn really didn't like it, not even the columns, which are so beautiful. He said he would be afraid of being in this space. I’ve never fully understood that.
It was probably too intellectual for Fehn. He liked architectural ideas, their strong sculptural presence, but he didn't like the absence of life in these buildings. They're somehow distant and photographed in a very special way, very carefully, in order to put you in a mood of imagining how it would be with life. No people, no dogs, no kids, nothing. Just pure space. Fehn’s buildings were usually also photographed empty, but somewhere in these pictures there was always the presence of life in some strange, and often very interesting way.
TO US, SHINOHARA WAS THINKING A LOT ABOUT THE IDEA OF BRINGING VERY DIFFERENT FEATURES, REALMS, AND CHARACTERISTICS OF A BUILDING TOWARDS A COMMON GROUND. FOR INSTANCE, THE STAIRWAY CONNECTS THE PUBLIC STREET DIRECTLY TO THE PRIVATE DOORS OF THE BEDROOM. WITH A VERY STRAIGHT LINE, YOU HAVE TWO OPPOSITES - THE MOST INTIMATE AND THE MOST PUBLIC. DO YOU THINK THERE ARE OTHER SITUATIONS WHERE SHINOHARA RECONCILES THE OPPOSITES PRESENT?
Well, the opposites are probably more convoluted in this house. I'm thinking about the storage spaces. Why did the storage spaces get such prominent positions towards the street? One could also say that the service rooms should be on the level of the of the working space, but here the storage is three steps higher. I think it’s because it has another function, which I spoke about before. These spaces balance the directness of the entrance into the living room and the bedroom, by offering a more labyrinthian alternative. It’s this kind of reconciliation, between the clear and the complicated, which makes the building much richer. Usually, you want one or the other, here they are somehow mixed together.
The clash of opposites also occurs between inside and outside. The small garden can be read as an inner space because of the way in which it is attached to and acts together with the interior. Having a very small exterior and a very big interior is something quite particular. It also has to do with the Japanese urban condition that I like anyway. This is especially true of the northern part of Tokyo, which was very densely built after the Second World War. They had no money and no space. The only reasonable solution was to make something very nice inside. In Europe you think that a house is small, and the garden is big. This is how it usually works. Sea Stairway House is done the other way around.
IN THE LIVING ROOM, YOU HAVE TWO CORRESPONDING WINDOWS. DO THEY ALSO SUGGEST A MORE EXTERIOR CHARACTER?
It’s true that the windows correspond exactly, and in effect create a stage between two exterior spaces. However, when you are there, you don’t read them clearly as outside spaces, you just see light that comes from somewhere. The courtyard appears more as an artificial light source. In reality, the court is just very narrow, which prevents light from entering deep into the house and instead creates gentle gradients of shadow.
The window on the other side of the stage has a different, darker kind of glass, which also slightly changes how the light looks. I had the impression that the way in which the openings are positioned and how they let the light in, rendered the room paradoxically more interior. However, they give an idea that an outside space exists.
There are also three rectangular skylights on the North side of the space, which cast a very beautiful light from above. It is always very well-lit in a punctual way. One part of the space is darker, another part is bright. This renders the space mysterious and fascinating. I am sure Shinohara was also thinking about the nuances of weather, of things that could be brought into this space with time, things you don't experience immediately.
It all creates a feeling that you are not completely cut off, you are somehow always gently reminded about the outside world you left upon entering the house.
THE NAME OF THE HOUSE IS SEA STAIRWAY. THE STAIRWAY IS QUITE CLEAR. BUT WHAT IS THERE ABOUT THE SEA?
This is a thing about Shinohara which I have always liked. His buildings have names like any individual would. It was just a kind of image that came to his mind when the building was finished. This meta language of Shinohara’s architecture is extremely important because it always brings projects further. A project gets a name, and it brings another meaning, which in turn makes it much richer. In the end, a kind of conscious but subtle body of thinking is established around each work.