A House to Look from and One to Be Looked at

Two houses that can be almost the same otherwise.

Sora Villa (upper) vs. Ishibashi House (lower)
Mark Twain sitting on a porch, smoking cigar.
Mark Twain (left) and an old man porch sitting in Dublin and Beijing respectively.

Traditionally, the porch is an indicator of the front of the house. As a universal phenomenon across cultures and time periods, a porch is where the inhabitant idly sits and looks outward. From Mark Twain to Robert Venturi’s mother, porch sitting is an iconic posture in the context of home. Door, the entry of a house, is always associated with the outward gaze, as if the outward facing posture of the porch sitter frames a relationship between the house and its inhabitant. The house is the most intimate shelter of a soul, as intimate as a piece of clothing, and the aperture serves as an opening to the outside world just as a neck hole is to a shirt.

Venturi’s mother sitting in front of the Mother’s House, 1964.

That the aperture of a house is a outward looking point is illustrated in Jacques Tati’s film Mon Oncle. Among his exquisite metaphorical lexicon is the positioning of people looking outward from apertures of the house. In this suburban luxury house with two persons gazing from the house outward, Tati framed two scenes that demonstrates different relational dynamics between people and the house.

Alice in Wonderland, when Alice drinks a potion and becomes giant, she looks out of the body-sized house from the window.

A scene in Alice in Wonderland best illustrates the point: a house to look out from is essentially akin to a human-scale container — a piece of clothing.

Jacques Tati, screenshots from film “Mon Oncle”, 1958.

In the upper image, a scene shot from inside the house, the Arpel couple sit by the curtain wall, gazing into a view outside the house. The shot adds subjective value of luxury to the house as it represents a vehicle from which the owner frames the nature, like a picture frame of leisure and idleness and therefore a subtle hint of class separation. The lower image is a scene shot from outside the House of the Arpels, where the two round windows not only serve as a looking hole but also exactly matches the image of eyes. This scene extends the metaphor to a greater extent that the luxury house can be a private, guarded piece of architecture that closely imitates the body. It is an iconic scene where the audience gets the humor that the house and its inhabitants are one and equal.

Sora Villa living room.
A bathroom with a view-framing curtain wall.

Such employment of architectural framing is never unique or original. In many luxury houses, large curtain walls frame the scenery for the inhabitant in a diverse repertoire of room types. This Japanese vacation hotel, Sora Villa, is an example of picture framing in the living room, serving explicitly as a vehicle of looking outward. The master of this room is supposed to sit or lie facing nature. This body orientation is already implied in the design of the house.

The stone bench in Ishibashi’s courtyard, semi-enclosed by the house on two sides and walls on the other two sides.

However, there is one house that reverts the gaze. That makes this house so special that it is almost magical. Among the six experimental house redesigns on Naoshima Island, Japan, the Ishibashi House is a 100-year-old private house dating from the Meiji Period. It was redesigned by artist Hiroshi Senju. A bench-shaped stone is placed in the courtyard against the wall. It makes the person who sit on it face the house, opposite of the purpose of a porch, a curtain wall, or similar outward-looking structures. The fusama (interior screens) of the old house, though, is completely repainted as a landscape painting. The wooden shoji, divider bars on the wall, indicates frames by drawing boundaries to the painting.

Ishibashi House, interior fusama (partition screens)and shoji (wooden dividers on the screen).

Ishibashi House and the Sora Villa are both traditional Japanese houses whose features are roughly identical. That makes the comparison even sharper than one between Ishibashi House and the Arpels’ house. Though still retaining the engawa, which is a traditional element of Japanese houses that is on the border of interior and exterior, Ishibashi House no longer uses those engawa as a place to sit and look out from. Although the landscape looks unreal and the artist obviously wants no misconception of the screens as window substitutes, the stone’s intriguing position and orientation are sufficient evidence of the house’s identity. It is a house to look at, not to look from. Ishibashi House is turned into a landscape, a scenery, a piece of nature, and the courtyard with closed walls and a stone seat completely turned the user into a spectator of the house.

Other rooms in Ishibashi House are also painted with abstract landscapes.

Detection X Reflection | Blog of an architect who would have been a comparative anthropologist in a parallel world