I believe that architecture is fundamentally a public space where people can gather and communicate…” -Architect Tadao Ando
To a foreigner, a typical Japanese home appears no more than a rabbit hatch—cramped, tight, plain, and utterly void of adequate storage. Yet, around the 11th century, the aristocrats built elegant homes called “shinden zukkuri,” which were sculpturally encircled by a spacious garden, usually facing a picturesque pond, and consisted of rooms connected to each other by long hallways, so residents can share events and activities together. This prevalent sense of community life has always been a sturdy domino piece in the labyrinth of Japanese social relations.
During the 1950s, the “danchi” (public housing complex, literally meaning ‘group of lands’) was the only type of residential structure that served the Japanese traditional essence of family and community life. During this era, herds of Japanese flocked anxiously to the bustling urban cities to immerse themselves profusely in the Japanese economic boom. With the apparent shortage of dwellings for these people, the Japanese government established the Japan Housing Corporation (JHC), currently known as Urban Renaissance Agency (UR), to construct vast, sprawling, mushroom-like concrete apartment buildings in uniform and stoic architecture, said to resemble the orthodox public housing in Russia during the same era. Soon enough, in the next ten to twenty years, “danchi” sprinkled all over Tokyo and its suburbs, around Yokohama, Kawasaki, Chiba, and the surrounding vicinities.
The “danchi” was, and still is, much less expensive than the ordinary apartment or condominium, avails of regular building maintenance, demands no contract renewal, and is built on vast properties. However, as new and avant-garde architecture swept in, and fed on economic opulence, many young and “modern” Japanese shifted to newly constructed stylish apartments with chic utilities and automatic security systems. The “danchi” gradually lost its spotlight, and many have been demolished to pave way to the more appealing and more sophisticated grandeur of “high living.”
Archi-Mall Corporation is one of the innovative architectural firms in Japan that is currently embarking on the bold renovation of public housing complexes, transforming what used to be cold and character-less structures into modern, stylized designs. In collaboration with the Danchi Saisei Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai (Public Housing Complex Renovation Cooperative Association), Archi-Mall may perhaps, propel the striking rebirth of community life in the urban environment. Yoshihiro Kanamaru, President of Archi-Mall, speaks on this enterprising project and the tremendous challenges that accompany it.
How did you start to embark on this renovation project?
Well, first of all, in Japan, most residences are demolished after thirty years, and replaced with new construction. This has been happening to the “danchi,” which I thought was a complete waste. In the U.S., homes can last more than fifty years; in England, more than seventy years. The same thing should happen to Japan, but the construction industry lacks proper management in conducting regular building inspections, and in providing a better mortgage loan system. Our firm collaborated with other supporters of the “danchi” to preserve its unique structure, and to introduce a new and attractive way of living in public housing.
So, how did you start to develop this concept?
We targeted the Susukino Public Housing Complex because of its residential environment and accessibility to Tokyo. It can be reached only in 30 minutes on the Denentoshi Line (running from Tokyo to Yokohama). The surroundings are quiet and filled with nature. We first bought one unit, just 45sq.m, renovated it to a modern retro design, then, we sold it to an investment corporation. Now, we are maintaining the apartment as a model showroom to introduce a new way of “danchi” life.
Why did you choose the retro look?
I think this design appeals to many young people today. Basically, we want to target the young generation, young couples without children, singles, or people in their 40s, perhaps, who would like this space to be a home office.
But, don’t you think that, generally, young people today look for independency, freedom, privacy, and the perks of modern facilities, like the auto-lock security system, etc.?
That is one breed of residents. But, there are also residents who appreciate a spacious environment, nature, or quiet living. Those are the type of residents we target.
What would be the most attractive features of the “danchi” that you can offer to new residents?
For one thing, the price of the unit is cheap. It may not be so near to the train station, but you cannot find an apartment in the city designed this way for this price. Then, I think the natural surroundings are a big asset. Here, we have lots of green, parks, and a lifestyle that pulls the community together. You no longer find this in today’s modern city apartments. On the architecture side, the “danchi” always uses both the north and the south views. All units face the south sun, with the north side bringing in the wind. You cannot find this architecture in modern downtown apartments, which usually maximizes the tiny property lot, and relies only on one wall of windows. Plenty of sunlight and good ventilation are very attractive factors, I think. Also, we propose to convert the two-bedroom space (2DK) into a one-bedroom living/dining/kitchen area (1LDK) to create bigger space that can be utilized in many ways.
I see that you put down the wall partition to do that, yes?
Yes. We wanted to create a more spacious living area so it can be multi-purpose. The kitchen sink and stove used to be in the center of the room, and we moved them against the wall. Then, we remodeled the area and set up a counter bar for a bit of modern touch. The retro look is just a model style. Certainly, we can adapt to the resident’s needs and demands. The room can have a modern Japanese look, too.
Can you describe this concept of community life more?
If you take a look at the exterior structure of the public housing complex, the buildings are usually low, on average of five stories, and the units are connected by stairwells.
That is like going back to the old, traditional architecture of having long hallways to connect rooms.
Exactly. That same concept of connecting units and people together is the same vision we want to nurture in the “danchi.” With these stairwells, neighbors are familiar with each other, greeting each other as they pass the staircase. The open space outside the building units is used for events, festivals, for children to mingle with other children. In some “danchi,” there are shops—dry cleaning place, grocery, drugstore, shoe repair shop, small bookshop, and more—within the complex. This atmosphere builds a very strong sense of partnership and trust among the residents.
And, you believe young people today are attracted to this way of life?
I think so and hope so… because we need to bring back that important sense of social awareness, of family, of child rearing. Modern city apartments tend to be too individualistic where inter-communication is lost. In the public housing complex, people can support each other and work together.
The Public Housing Complex Renovation Cooperative Association is also trying to encourage small businesses within the complex.
Yes. We also want to propose business strategies for both the young and the elderly. They can buy a unit and use the space to set up a workshop, or small shops; or rent it out. The elderly, especially because they are no longer employed, can run such small businesses, and at the same time, look after the children of working mothers. Unfortunately, Japanese are not quite risk-oriented to run buy-and-sell properties, but hopefully, this may change from now on.
How about the problems of security, or earthquake disaster?
Oh, the “danchi” is very safe. There is no auto-lock security system, but because the units are connected by staircases, it is unlikely that an outsider will attempt to invade the apartments, since they will easily be seen. The architecture is very open. As for earthquake measures, the buildings use thick, concrete wall partitions, instead of posts. This makes the overall structure very sturdy. Plus, the buildings are relatively low, compared, let’s say, to high-rise city apartments. Japanese may have an image that the “danchi” is old, dilapidated or outdated. That is because these buildings have existed since thirty years ago. But, with modern technology and equipment, building maintenance is no longer a liability. Thus, renovation is possible. To destroy structures like these would be abolishing the intimacy of community and family relationships, which are so important especially in today’s over-aged population. The Susukino Public Housing Complex is over forty years old, but I am sure it can last for another fifty years!
While resting on the vintage leather couch facing a rustic, wooden console table, and sipping a wonderful cup of mint tea, one feels the restful wind breezing in from the north, and embracing the soft sunlight from the south. In urban Japan, a wide-ranged view of the universal sky from one’s window is almost a rare luxury. But, with the reform of public housing units, this luxury can easily be a delightful daily routine, and one that certainly changes our perception of what home living is really about.
For more information:
Danchi Saisei Jigyo Kyodo Kumiai
Public Housing Complex Renovation Cooperative Association