Japan Notebook: Shinonome and the Face of Public Housing
Shinonome Canal Court Block 2, designed by Toyo Ito. Photo by the author.
Located south of central Tokyo, on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, lies Shinonome Canal Court—a public housing complex that will have 6,000 units when construction is completed in 2012. Developed by national housing agency Codan starting in 2003, Shinonome is an experiment that aims to enhance the lifestyle of low-income inhabitants by elevating the design level beyond that of traditional public housing projects.
Architect Riken Yamamoto led a team of noteworthy architects including Toyo Ito and Kengo Kuma in the design of the housing blocks. The overall impression is strong but severe; the density of the project and relative lack of green space make for a moderately oppressive atmosphere. However, the subtleties of architectural massing and material details redeem the project, giving the buildings an appeal rarely found in low-income housing.
In their designs for the different blocks, the architects decided to riff on a basic theme. The buildings are simple, orthogonal compositions of units arrayed in a grid. This arrangement would lead to monotony if not for the inclusion of larger voids carved out of the building mass, which provide space for communal gatherings above ground level.
It is at this point that each architect begins to improvise, tweaking the massing with different material details. In such a dense society, Japanese people value privacy—and the balance between light and privacy is especially delicate in a development with such direct visual access to interior spaces. In Yamamoto's case, metal grilles are used to obscure these direct views, although the grilles conjure the bars of jail cells. Ito's buildings employ curtains in the units and fencing in the communal spaces. Kuma's project is the most different of the three, and is clad primarily in metal panels perforated with vertical slots. These structures’ communal spaces are highlighted by floor-to-ceiling glass—an appropriate application for a more public use.
The case of Shinonome Canal Court represents an unusual experiment in public housing and its various options of facade treatments. For a program that is deeply scrutinized, design navigates a fine line—creating either a dignified shelter or an oppressive cage. Once different cultural values are included in the mix, this line becomes even more blurred. Shinonome therefore represents an intriguing litmus test in which different design strategies may be tested and compared in the same location.