Japan is a country with a large population and very limited living space. Due to its mountainous geography, there is a tradition going back centuries for comfortable living in small areas. A classic of Japanese literature is Kamo no Chomei’s “Account of a 10-Foot-Square Hut.” Traditional Japanese homes are built to be convertible, to maximise space with collapsible furniture that can be stored and multipurpose rooms that can have walls removed to create bigger spaces when necessary.
Building on this need and tradition is the current architectural Small House movement, where new homes are built on miniature lots, maximizing the space with a surprising efficiency. There are TV shows and books galore on the topic in Japan, and the ideas are starting to creep over in to the US as well, with book such as “The Very Small Home: Japanese Ideas For Living Well In Limited Space.”
“The Very Small Home” is a showcase for some of these architectural marvels, eighteen of them to be precise. Each building begins with a different problem to be solved; an ancient tree that must be accommodated by law, a tiny lot in Tokyo that needs to fit two houses. My favorite is the family who each inherited a portion of their parents home. One child inherited the driveway, and needed a long, thin house where he could live in on his section of the land. Going for a traditional feel, the architect created one of the most beautiful homes in the book, complete with tiny garden and a luxurious traditional bath. Many of the solutions are quite ingenious, and the photographs of the homes are beautiful to look at.
What the book is not is a guide to better utilizing existing small-space homes. These are definitely architectural solutions, not interior design or decorating solutions. A lot of money went into these houses, and unless you are willing to completely tear down and rebuild your little living space, there won’t be much here for you.
For what it is, however, the books succeeds very well, and those interested in architecture as well as those looking to build a small home of their own will probably be amazed at the creativity and beauty of these buildings. The homes are much more modern than traditional, featuring the sparsity of modern Japanese design. I can’t help but think of a master-crafted piece of sushi, reverently sitting on a pristine white plate. Small, but incredible.