It was a morning at the end of spring and the beginning of summer, when I knocked the door of Ire Satoshi's studio open.
Ire is gentle and polite, always wearing a warm smile. He reminds me of his hometown, Okinawa, an island with an agreeable climate throughout the year.
For Ire, Okinawa is mixed with a myriad of smells. It is both mysterious and amiable. He has been living in Tokyo for decades, but any topic related to his hometown would make him talk volubly; and the influence of Okinawa on him goes far beyond: it is everywhere in his architecture.
Ire Satoshi is a Japanese residential architect, for whom “house” equals “home”. He can always fill his works with emotions, and a bit of reminiscence of his hometown: he incorporated the elements of traditional Okinawan houses into the House of Moriya; when building the lakeside house, he kept the rocks unearthed and built a small garden screen with them—the unassuming texture reminds people of the exteriors of Okinawan houses made of corals. “Sometimes my clients say I’m from the School of Okinawa,” he said with a smile, pushing up his glasses.
Unlike many architects, who are fans of abstract and obscure terms, Ire's architecture seems overly lucid. Take a look at his houses, and you will instantly know they must have been built by a pair of warm and modest hands. It was those hands that hold a drawing pen, figuring out more invisible storage solutions, easier movement in the kitchen, and how to give everyone some privacy when sharing the house with the rest of the family. This is the war that every architect fight, and any extra room within the small space, even if it is only 1 centimeter wider, would be considered as a victory.
Isn’t it another form of philosophy, one that originates from daily life?
对话 The Dialogue
Hu = 胡佳林，Ire = 伊礼智
Hu Let us start with Okinawa.
Ire Winter is a freezing season for most places in Japan, except Okinawa. We generally have very strict requirements for thermal insulation materials, and we build houses in a precise manner to avoid any gap.
Only Okinawa is an exception. Because of the humid and warm climate (local temperature never fells below 10 degrees) there, insulation properties are usually not the top concern when building a house; quite on the contrary, the house will have many openings. The indoor-outdoor blending creates very comfortable space, which I find profoundly attractive, and my designs are thought to really put premium on this kind of connection.
Hu People always describe your design as 'Okinawa Style', and I found this regional tag an interesting one.
Ire Yes, Okinawan architecture shares a common characteristic of being open. The boundaries between the interior and exterior are blurred, which is a spatial tradition in Okinawa. I spent my childhood in a space like this; although it was pretty small in size, the way in which the indoor and outdoor blends together gave me a great deal of happy memories. In my own works, I would intentionally integrate the Okinawan openness into my design while making full use of local materials.
Hu This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Ire’s works. Residential architecture is usually introverted, and this is especially the case in Japan, where most houses stand quite close to the roads and streets, thus are very introverted and enclosed for privacy concerns. However, a sense of openness has been a prominent feature of Ire’s works, which is very rarely seen in Japanese architecture, and we can see it in the example of the House of Lake Biwa.
Ire The base of the House of Lake Biwa is very well located on the northern bank of the lake. My design concept is a home that blends with the landscape. The room facing Lake Biwa has a large window. The landscaper put a lot of efforts into designing the garden view of the northern courtyard. He planted Korean pine in the courtyard and all the way to the lake shore, making the house part of the lake landscape, or maybe the other way round. The northern side of the base was originally planted with cherry trees, and we planted more of them in the rest parts of the base. In the spring, the host would hold tea parties in the tea room on the second floor. Towards this end, I designed a column-free space and lowered the height of the window so that the view is flush with cherry blossoms. The window has three layers, from shoji to louver to clear glass, which can be opened layer by layer, and the moment of full opening is always full of drama. It has become a fixed program for the host to entertain guests in the cherry blossom season.
Hu The House of Moriya, one of the most well-known works of Ire, was also based upon this idea.
Ire Exactly. That house pays a lot of attention to the design of indoor-outdoor space. As I mentioned, I grew up in a very small house, but the indoor and outdoor space were well connected—for me, both the interior and exterior area constitute my living space. The eaves of my home extended far outwards, and that semi-outdoor space under the eaves is the most interesting space in the house. If handled properly, even a tiny area can be a pleasant place.
Hu Compared to the neighboring houses made by developers, the House of Moriya is very small in volume.
Ire Larger houses require more land and building materials, and consume more energy when the heating is on. My teacher often tells me that sufficient is on point, while extra is burdensome. The Moriya is just a family of three, so they don't really need much space. Moreover, Mr. Moriya, though president of a civil engineering company at present, comes from humble origins and has had many rough times. For him, a sufficient space is already good enough.
The house of Moriya is not only small in size, but also low in floor height. We Japanese believe that in terms of architecture, being good means being low, especially those houses with low roofs and deep space, very elegant. The surrounding houses are all made by famous house makers. They are sold as a commodity, so people just make bigger volumes, higher ceilings and wider windows. The external walls of those houses seem to be made with bricks, while in fact it was ceramic decorative materials. For us, we hope to build a home for long-term dwelling, with a small but sufficient size and real materials.
Hu What do you mean by real materials?
Ire Wood and clay. We build the structure of the house in real wood rather than laminated wood. Good materials can breathe. The wall materials we used in the house of Moriya could absorb the smell and then dissolve it.
Hu Do you use the clay sold in the market for the clay walls?
Ire Yes, I do. In the past, we used local clay to build clay walls, but nowadays there are some Japanese companies selling commercial clay as building materials, and it is completely natural.
Hu We already have this kind of clay in sale at that time?
Ire I developed it together with the producer.
Hu Can you share with us a case of small space design that impressed you?
Ire There is a very famous ryokan (inn) in Japan, called Tawaraya. I believe it is the best inn in the country and the epitome of Kyoto culture. It has a history of nearly 300 years, and the teacher of my teacher, Mr. Junzō Yoshimura, designed the new building for it 50 years ago. During my stay there, I noticed many small spaces, they are just the size of two tatami mats, but very adorable.
Hu It seems that Japanese people know how to see big things in small ones.
Ire That’s correct. Japanese seem to be very good at compressing everything into a very small size. For example, we invented the Walkman by compressing an enormous stereo to a small player on the go. The same is true for Japanese tsuboniwa (pot gardens), which includes a wildly rich landscape in a courtyard just the size of one to two square meters. This culture, or awareness, can be found not only in me, but in most Japanese people.
Hu But it's extremely difficult to walk a fine line in small space design.
Ire Good experience is our top priority. Take the tea room design as an example, the Japanese tea room is usually very small, sometimes only the size of two tatami mats, but when you are actually sitting in it, even a small space creates a rich variety of experiences. Now if we take a closer loot at it, some tea rooms have interesting tea gardens in front, some have carefully designed windows to introduce light into the room. When it comes to windows, being bigger does not necessarily mean being better; small openings let in beautiful beams of light, and it is precisely through the refinement of details that tea rooms are built.
Ire said, when he finished his first residential project, which was a house of nine rooms, his teacher told him, “if you start your career with small space design, you will never be able to design for big houses.”
The media applaud Ire as “the God of Tiny Houses”, but I think the resident in this old gentleman's heart is not a god, instead, it is tens of thousands of common folks.