Let There Be Light

Cover, Fig.1. House N, Oita, Japan [2008]. Architecture: Sou Fujimoto Architects. Photography: Iwan Baan.


This text is replicated from The Impact of Threshold on Phenomenological Architecture [2015] by Angus Mortimer, for This is Architecture.



People, Place, Belonging

For many the assumption of the architect is to perform aesthetic miracles in the representation of their work, to create form to suit a function, but emphasise the visual demonstration of its image. This identity of the architectural profession is becoming difficult to oppose with the influx of modern buildings failing to represent their origin in a meaningful manner. 

A successful architect must design for the senses, for the human experience and create spaces that engage in conversation with the inhabitant rather than simply performing a function or revealing a facade. A building should reflect the social, cultural, political and physical influence of its context not only in its form and materiality but also in the design of its interaction with the public. 

Powerful architecture has the ability to influence and provoke the emotions and feelings of its beholder in its representation and spatial interaction. This connection must allow for an honest understanding of the function and atmosphere of the building, therefore to send an authentic message, a building must embody the context of its site not only on its surface but must be present in its genesis and final realisation.


The Impact of Threshold on Phenomenological Architecture


The residential dwelling of today is typically defined by an outdated structure of spatial zoning which separates dwelling from its immediate local context. The treatment of the divided Victorian relationship of conflicting interior spaces and their connection to the exterior is born from the social values security and comfort and the balance of exposure and seclusion. 

House N, designed by architect Sou Fujimoto, dissects the typical domestic housing typology, to explore and celebrate the intricate relationship between city and house through manipulation and transformation of the edge condition that exists between. House N is an example of the defragmentation of structure in the private home, the façade barrier from the exterior, and the segmented internal living space behind. 

This essay explores in detail how Fujimoto has extended the threshold of solitude of dwelling to the public realm, fusing house with the physical atmospheric qualities of the garden, street and city. This case study sets precedent for an honest means of living, defining house as a place that belongs to its context as opposed to tolerating it. This essay will explore the heightened sensory spatial experience of a dwelling more engaged with its environment and demonstrate that letting in the outside world can intensify the intimacy of private place, contrary to the ideology that defines the strategy of modern residential living. 

Through a phenomenological study of the application of thresholds and in-between spaces of House N, this essay will reveal to what extent Sou Fujimoto has succeeded in his undertaking of a holistic approach to dwelling in balance of retreat and exposure by blurring the lines of the interior and exterior in a residential setting.

Note 1
Literally, phenomenology is the study of 'phenomena': appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience ... Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity; David Woodruff Smith [2018]. Phenomenology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 


'The residential dwelling of today is typically defined by an outdated structure of spatial zoning which separates dwelling from its immediate local context. The treatment of the divided Victorian relationship of conflicting interior spaces and their connection to the exterior is born from the social values of security and comfort and the balance of exposure and seclusion.'


The Defragmentation of the Body and the Ambiguity of Space

If we are to understand the rationality of the building’s form in its relationship to human scale, we should observe the building not as a succession of boxes, but instead as a series of shells. By treating these layers as shells, the connection between human and house is easily understood as a phenomenological experience through an exploration of man’s primal values of shelter. 

The first layer of shell establishes the most immediate threshold between private and public life. If we were to explore the metaphor of shells to the neighbouring buildings, their structure would be reduced to a single shell. This single layer of boundary is akin to that of the Victorian house, where the front door closes it off from the outside world, muting its relationship with the space past this threshold. The door leaves a powerful impression of the difficulty of passage of transitioning from the exterior through to its ornate interior. This implementation of boundary from the outside is of course to provide security, comfort and seclusion but at what cost?

This tactic defines the separated spaces, the understood and the mysterious, the tangible and the implied, but could a more flexible tactic of boundary be employed in the dimensions of a dwelling, to achieve a comfortable privacy without completely shutting itself away from the world? Sou Fujimoto seeks to blur this boundary with the structure of House N.


'The door leaves a powerful impression of the difficulty of passage of transitioning from the exterior through to its ornate interior. This implementation of boundary from the outside is of course to provide security, comfort and seclusion but at what cost?'


The building is formed of 3 shells, varying in scale and nested inside one another. The outer most layer is exposed, open to the elements, it allows in direct light, rain, snow and the views and acoustics of the street, but more importantly it sets the scene for the programme of the dwelling. 

The second shell begins to establish ‘interior’ space, where in the outer layer, there were open rectangular extractions from wall to roof, the second layer elaborates. It too has these extractions but they are sealed from the atmosphere of outside by glazed windows. The inner most layer is the most intimate and frames the living and dining room as the heart of the dwelling. It offers a form of seclusion, of withdrawal and reveals the private primal tendencies of man. As Bachelard notes: man enjoys '[retreating] to his corner, and that it gives him great physical pleasure to do so'. 

The dwelling allows this mechanic of retreat to occur on a spectrum, Fujimoto believes that to erect a wall is to disturb a space, to bisect it to 1 and 0 with 1 representing complete removal from the exterior realm and 0 representing absolute exposure. The occupant may exist in the tranquillity of the courtyard, hide away to the bedroom or inhabit the porous wall in-between. This tactic of vagueness is the drive behind House N’s design, just as human relationship cannot have depth or complexity in its quality if it is defined in black and white. It aims to evoke a meaningful experience of security and exposure, and thus the dwelling must have rich graduations amid 1 and 0.

This condition of layering creates a unique dimension for the human experience of the house to exist within, as infinite spatial interactions are realised. With each transition through space, a transformed view of the building is offered with new scenery appearing as the inhabitant exposes or withdraws themselves.  To identify House N’s relationship of interior and exterior it is useful to use the Heidegger model of understanding space. 

When delineating the boundaries of space Heidegger would attempt to find the edges of spaces, which were likely to be precise if these edges corresponded with physical thresholds. However, it is more appropriate to measure the dimensions of the dwelling’s exterior realm through Heidegger’s example of horizons. He refers to the sort of edges that are impossible to place on a drawing with a single point. A horizon is the meeting of earth and sky but one can never reach the horizon, it cannot be recorded but remains in man’s identification of space.

This lack of an edge condition is the extraordinary nature of House N, the inhabitant can sense the tactile physicality of their environment, and they may experience union with the street and therefore city, through the many thresholds of their dwelling but may not ever define a place as truly interior nor exterior, and thus the sensory ambiguity of the perception of space is realised.


The Sensory Atmosphere of the Intermediary Zone

In contrast to the transitional ideology that inspires it, the approach to House N delineates the boundary of its site absolutely. Neighbouring houses which form the streetscape, enforce a strip of weathered concrete addressing the pathway through the precinct. The continuality of this strip is broken by a moat of gravel, announcing the footprint and perimeter of House N. This segregation of material; weathered concrete meets organised gravel, is capsulated not only in the aesthetic, visual difference but also in the change in acoustics and depth, recognised in the transition from the concrete into the parcel of gravel engulfing the pure form of House N’s outermost shell.


'Fujimoto has designed with gravel to engage the senses of its occupants: it marks the territorial conquest of space by using sound to establish the property as other dwellings would with a fence ... By creating a union with the gravel outside its walls, House N lightly marks a final passage of transition from the interior of the dwelling.'


Fujimoto has designed with gravel to engage with the senses of its occupants, it marks the territorial conquest of space by using sound to establish the property as other dwellings would with a fence. The perimeter of gravel joins the exterior footpath with the courtyard beyond the outer shell of the building. By creating a union with the gravel outside its walls, House N lightly marks a final passage of transition from the interior of the dwelling. This passage is a modern take on the Japanese cultural transition of genkan which accounts for their needs of ambiguity in social interactions. Kurokawa Kisho argues that eastern culture requires an intermediary zone, where the public and private lives of people can exist in symbiosis, that an obvious definition of exterior and interior should not exist.

The genkan is a grey area which allows for a comfortable social interaction of parties without actually entering the threshold of private life, providing intimacy and distance, strange and familiar. Fujimoto’s exposed genkan shares a similarity with the Australian example of the verandah, which Chris Brisbin describes as an 'extension of the ‘safe’ codes of moral behaviour sanctioned by the interior … simultaneously sharing a spatial immediacy with everyday life of the street'. 

The materiality of House N’s intermediary zone should be examined by its aural qualities to truly appreciate Fujimoto’s intent. Juhani Pallasmaa believes that a space can be understood by its echo just as it can through its visual form. The gravel which engulfs the courtyard and site boundary, is heard during transition, its sound signature reverberates through the thresholds of the building whenever there is a permanence of coming or going, it exists when the inhabitants leave the house and when they return. Thus the gravel is given an emotional charge and engages us in a direct interaction with the space, highlighting the focus of intimacy in experience of crossing the blurred thresholds of House N.


Light and Shadow as a Dynamic Influence of Human Experience

A study of Sou Fujimoto’s intertwined relationship of light and shadow in House N exposes the significance of its many thresholds. Japanese architecture is famously conscious of play between shadow, sunlight, moonlight and their passage of time. The courtyard  of gravel and the trees in the outermost layer of House N is bathed with light in day and shrouded in darkness at night, due to the many cavities in the roof above. This is a space of tranquility and reflection, a place of 'encountering the light or darkness that dominates' which Juhani Pallasmaa believes to be a primary sensation that should be produced by architecture. 

Light and shadow are not bound by the same physical dimensions that walls are made of, they may pass any boundary if given the opportunity. Fujimoto does not restrict light in its transition of the layers of his building, and this phenomena is made apparent to the inhabitants as sun and shade, cast by openings of the wall’s surface, link the transitional spaces between each layer, treating these mathematically dissimilar spaces as a conceptual whole.

Pallasmaa treats the eye that delineates shadow and light as an organ of seperation, and declares touch as the sense of intimacy. Pallasmaa suggests that we must close off the distancing sense of vision to heighten emotional experience, giving the example of dreaming and kissing as benefitted by reducing the sharpness of vision. House N’s tactile use of deep shadows which protrude through its spaces, leave depth and distance ambigious and therefore grant the senses of nearness and intimacy to play a greater role in the experience of dwelling. 

When the sun shines it is filtered into every space establishing an tangible union of interior and exterior space. Similarly the building is dimmed by the glow of the moon, the atmosphere of its interior is entirely dependant on the dynamic light qualities of the day. This transperancy of external threshold means that one can experience the prescense of stars and moon through the skylight at night, just as easily as if watching from the street. The perception of  affinity with the interplay of light welcomes the sensation of close-ness with the dynamics of the sky. This dependancy allows light to destroy the barriers that prevent an intimate connection between the interior and exterior and allow the body of the beholder to be in tune with the atmosphere of the world beyond their immediate context.


To Embrace the Exterior is to Embrace the Sky

Bachelard believes that the dialects of the residential dwelling and its universe are too simplistic in regard to the phenomena  of snow in particular, defining its ability to reduce the exterior world to nothing, to a single colour, marking the loss of its expression. It is the separation of the identity of snow and the identity of the dwelling that frustrates Bachelard, but what would he have to say about Fujimoto’s House N and its dialect with its surrounding environment?

The permeable surface of House N’s outermost layer is more a distinction of intimacy than it is of building. The physical elements of Japan’s environment are permitted influence into the lives of House N’s inhabitants. While sitting on the timber deck or walking amongst the trees of the courtyard garden, one can experience the presence of sunlight, wind rain or snow. Through transition from the courtyard to the kitchen in the second layer of the building, the sense of the elements outside is felt through the transparency of the buildings first real physical dimension balancing inside and out. 

This phenomena of the transiency of man and world was of paramount importance to Fujimoto who declared that architecture cannot be defined by exteriority nor interiority, but rather that architecture exists in the connection of the exterior and interior. The liminality of the threshold promotes what Heidegger calls a fourfold, the beckoning nature of snow or rainfall brings man under the sky, where he is united as sky, earth, mortals and divinities. The hypocrisy of this foci of connection with nature is of course the logistics of comfortability. 

Of course rain nor snow should be physically permitted inside the building, Fujimoto defends the inner shell of the building with glazed skylights, revealing the caught tree leaves, snow or rain and perhaps diminishing the exposed romantic relationship of human and sky. Despite this unfortunate reality, House N allows these physical weather conditions to interplay with its occupants to the upmost extent possible, by highlighting their transition through its layers, into the world of their home. However not all exterior boundaries reflect negative experience, as Bachelard reveals man’s primal pleasure in the identity of the warmth of interior dwelling while the snow caresses the outside.
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