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Famed architect’s housing complex facilitates community

The Japan News
                                Riken Yamamoto is the 2024 U.S. Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate. “We don’t just design buildings. We also design the way people gather. This is the responsibility of an architect. That is what I tried to do with Hotakubo Housing,” he said.
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The Japan News

Riken Yamamoto is the 2024 U.S. Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate. “We don’t just design buildings. We also design the way people gather. This is the responsibility of an architect. That is what I tried to do with Hotakubo Housing,” he said.

The Japan News 
                                The east wing of Hotakubo Housing, which was designed by Riken Yamamoto in Kumamoto.
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The Japan News

The east wing of Hotakubo Housing, which was designed by Riken Yamamoto in Kumamoto.

The Japan News
                                Riken Yamamoto is the 2024 U.S. Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate. “We don’t just design buildings. We also design the way people gather. This is the responsibility of an architect. That is what I tried to do with Hotakubo Housing,” he said.
The Japan News 
                                The east wing of Hotakubo Housing, which was designed by Riken Yamamoto in Kumamoto.

KUMAMOTO, Japan >> Hotakubo Housing, a 1991 complex in Kumamoto City, was a new concept in housing for Japan that was introduced by Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto. The project offers a glimpse into how Yamamoto, the 2024 U.S. Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, views the social nature of architecture.

Yamamoto, 79, a visiting professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, was named laureate in March. The prize honors a living architect whose work “has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture,” according to the Pritzker Prize website.

Yamamoto’s Hotakubo design features three futuristic five-story buildings with exposed concrete exteriors, domed roofs and stairwells that surround a U-shaped courtyard. The courtyard, faced by terraces of each unit, is a private space for residents that is accessible only from an assembly hall or via the units.

The project was the first housing complex built under Kumamoto prefecture’s Kumamoto Artpolis project. Hotakubo comprises 110 units, of which 89 are currently occupied.

The project includes several floor plans, with one offering the distinctive feature of an entrance separated by an exterior corridor called a “bridge” that links the dining and kitchen areas. Both the dining room and kitchen have glass walls on two sides.

The units include private spaces as well as an indoor-­outdoor space that opens to the housing’s common area. In addition, the complex features communal terraces connected to each unit, which can be accessed from the courtyard.

The unique structure initially sparked criticism.

“Some residents got perplexed as their rooms can be visible from units across the yard or from the common areas,” recalled a neighborhood association chairman, 67, who has lived at Hotakubo since it opened. “We could often see playful children in the courtyard, though.”

Connecting spaces

Postwar housing complexes in Japan often adopted a European style that emphasized privacy. Yamamoto considered these structures an inherent contradiction, as they gathered people together but did not create community. Hotakubo’s distinctive form was his challenge to this contradiction, through design.

“We don’t just design buildings,” Yamamoto said recently. “We also design the way people gather. This is the responsibility of an architect. That is what I tried to do with Hotakubo Housing.”

Yamamoto has designed many housing complexes both in Japan and abroad, while repeatedly devising ways to connect private and public spaces.

His attempts originated from field surveys conducted when he was young on settlements in various parts of the world. Yamamoto realized that all houses exist in a community, not in isolation. This experience led him to think of the relationship between housing and the surrounding community.

Amid Japan’s low birthrate, an aging population and the country’s problem of solitary deaths (older adults dying alone), Yamamoto is an advocate for “local community areas.” These spaces offer people a way to live together and help each other; they go beyond the idea of one family living in one house.

But there have been challenges to incorporating this concept. For instance, Yamamoto proposed creating a vegetable garden in common areas of pubic housing to spur interactions among residents. While the idea was successful in South Korea, it was hampered by management problems in Japan.

“Based on his settlement surveys, Yamamoto has deepened his thinking about families and communities, and has encouraged people’s behavior through spatial design,” said Taro Igarashi, a professor and architecture critic at Tohoku University. “The award is also a recognition of his attitude of believing in the power of architecture to engage society.”

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