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相田武文 – Blocks of Beauty


The architect’s gift to contemporary life is to provide a moment of silence in a tumultuous world.

The impact of Post-modernism (PoMo) hasn’t been so vast in the west as it has been in Japan. Takashi Murakami and his superflat ‘Kaikai’ contemporaries still dominate galleries and auction houses world-wide. PoMo architecture, however, is not as revered – making up that tiny blip between Niemeyer’s futuristic Brasilia and the ‘form follows function’ skyscraper madness that prevails today. There are, however, a few PoMo architects whose designs still astonish those who come across them. None more so, in my opinion, than Takefumi Aida.

A founder-member of the counter-Metabolist group ArchiteXt (1971), Takefumi Aida questioned the tenets of the Modernists relating to form and function. In his Artist’s House, Kunitachi, Tokyo (1967), the various elements of the building have curious relationships to each other, and the ‘encounters’ of different parts of buildings, textures, and forms were further exploited in the Nirvana House, Fujisawa (1972), the Annihilation House, Mutsuura (1972), and PL Institute Kindergarten, Osaka (1974).

Nirvana House

Nirvana House

I was first introduced to Aida when I happened to stumble upon Englemann’s modernist Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna. On that day the Bulgarian embassy had asked a local interior designer to furnish one of the rooms and the result was a interesting use of large 3-dimensional shapes for furniture. I couldn’t help but exclaim because the idea seemed deceptively simple and turned a modernist vintage from 1928 into a PoMo marvel. My friend then turned to me and explained that if I thought this was amazing, I should check out the work of a curiously ‘unknown’ self-effacing Japanese architect who made whole houses from giant cubes, pyramids and spheres.

Three years later I would be standing in front of a dentist’s clinic in Tomo, Yamaguchi looking at Toy Block House I (c. 1979). Over the next few months I’d find the other nine Toy Block Houses and be struck by the minimalist beauty of Aida’s other designs; my favourites of which are Annihilation House and Mobius.

Toy Block House I

Toy Block House I

A graduate of the prestigious Waseda university and currently a professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo born (1937) Takefumi Aida always knew he’d be an architect. From a young age he took it upon himself to re-design buildings he thought needed improvement and by 1972 he had five completed designs under his belt. In 1983 Aida entered a competition for a doll’s house design and was the second prize winner with a very interesting proposal of a doll’s house made using elementary volumes like cubes, cylinders and pyramids. At that time Aida had already begun work on his Toy Block houses where he adopted an architectural language based on children’s toy blocks but, obviously, on a grander scale.

Aida’s houses were also interesting because they showed how a child’s perspective can influence the architectural design process. It is not a unique example: remember the UNI-SET Corporation and its TV set design or the relationship between kites and houses in the Eames’ architecture? However, what is clear is that Aida’s designs were, visually, more clear than any others of their design heritage.

Eames House

Eames House

Arts & Architecture Case Study #8:

In a very interesting book Aida wrote, he explains the narrative behind the quite extensive toy block series and the influence that toys, dolls-houses and real houses had on him. It was a mix of the revolutionary environment that he found in Paris in 1968 (Mai ’68) and a will to rescue the pleasure in architecture as an ‘important and integral part of human nature’. For Aida, Japanese architecture of that period was devoid of meaning and ‘too often simply an economic production’.

So, like most architects, Aida looked for an intellectual and formal substructure that could feed his own design experience. He found this substructure in toy blocks because, as he says ‘architecture is produced within the framework of restrictions and conditional characteristics of an era, just as toy blocks are played with within the framework of certain given condition’.

Aida also discussed the possible importance that toy blocks have in the creative process and in the education. The reference to Barthes is direct, especially when we remember that the French philosopher once wrote (Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. 52.):-

The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies very different learning of the world: then the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name, the actions he performs are not those of a user, but those of demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property: objects now act by themselves, they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand. 

Blocks are a complete tool for free thinking tool and do not form part of a pre-built object or artefact. Since 1974  Aida designed a series of nine toy block houses, a dolls house and a wood toy, all based on the same geometrical roles derived from the toy block system. All the houses are based on elementary solids like cubes, cylinders prisms and parallelepipeds joined together – avoiding penetrations or overlapping between them. The results are building that look like huge toys constructions.

During the 15 years it took to build all ten houses, the design process became more sophisticated and complex. In Toy Blocks House I (above) the scale of the blocks correspond with the main parts of the building. The roof is clearly a simple triangle prism and the two volumes of the house are two parallelepipeds joined by cubes and more elementary solids. Also the forms are elementary and they resemble the typical house archetype – something simple like a child’s drawing or a generic image of a house (a triangle on top of a square).

In the successive houses Aida begun to reduce the dimension and scale of the ‘parts’. For example, in Toy Block House III (1981), except for the roof, the blocks no longer correspond with the principal volumes of the house and the building looks more like an amalgam of small pieces. Moreover, the blocks are painted with different colours to increase the perception of many and not see the structure as a unified solid. Windows and other technical elements like ventilation grids or a chimney are inserted whilst respecting geometrical roles and improving ‘block language’. Aida goes as far as putting a rotated volume on the edge of corners that have no apparent utility, so that he can to emphasise the perception of division and to reduce the scale of the building.

In Toy Block House IV (1982), Aida introduced another new element – a ruined concrete wall that looked like it pre-existed on the plot. It gave the effect that the building’s blocks had been placed in a box that, over time, broke leaving his edges damaged and letting out several blocks. This visual trick also allows the creation of an exterior space that is, formally, an interior space that works as a patio for the house.

For the designs of  Toy Block Houses V and VI, Aida invented another challenge based on his block aesthetic: a block toy set ‘intended to be an aid of understanding and composing architectural spaces’. So, in this case, the intention ‘was to explore the variations in houses that could be archived with these pieces’. As in all the other houses, in these two exist a strong correspondence between the geometrical accuracy present in the exterior and in the interior of the building. All the spaces and interior architectural elements like columns, pillars, windows, doors or walls meet the exterior rules. So, when you are inside the building, you feel as you would be in the interior of a block’s construction.

In the design of Toy Block House VII ‘the main theme (…) was to employ all the pieces of a toy block set to create architecture’. So Aida started from a very simple solid and, with a succession of cutting, slicing, sliding, moving and subtracting operations, he arrived to the final design. The result was a building that contained the signs of this process – visible in the different colours – whereby the darker parts symbolised the original box and the lighter parts symbolised the blocks.

For Toy Block House VIII the method is similar: starting from a cube and acting on it with a succession of geometrical operations, in this case the inclusion of rotations, results in a complex building with two apartments for two families. A cylindrical solid helps to organise the exterior space and makes it counterpoint with the right angles present in the main building. In this project Aida is also concerned with the large plot around the house and turns it in a meaningful part of the composition through the separation of the main volume into a series of smaller volumes that surround the house and organise the environment.

Toy Block House IX - Doll's House

Toy Block House IX – Doll’s House

Toy Block House IX is not a real house, but instead a doll’s house which already mentioned earlier in this article. It could easily be confused for a scale model of a Toy Block House project. A curious and unique aspect of this particular design is that Aida painted the blocks in different colours instead of using the same white and grey tones he used for the houses. Maybe the transfer in process from toys to architecture changed his aesthetic direction.

Finally, in 1984, Aida designed the last Toy Block House,  no. ten. It is probably the most complex of the houses. Toy Block House X contains parts with several different scales and geometries. The building is totally fragmented in several small and big cubes, prisms, cylinders and, in this case, also spheres. The result is a group of volumes that looks like it really had been built buy a giant’s child and their toy blocks and, apparently, there are no compositional rules or fixed planes. Where one block is missed there is a window and the same volumetric game exists in the interior that is richly painted with strong colours and coloured carpets.

Toy Block House X

Toy Block House X

I think that Aida’s Toy Block Houses are a clear example about how architects should see their designs as a sum of parts, a union of several shapes. In his houses Aida instilled, quite explicitly, pedagogical value to his designs. What is more interesting, maybe, is not the final result but the methodology behind them.

P.S: If you’d like to read more Aida or check out his other works then visit his website here:

you can also check out this awesome article on Annihilation House, here:

Annihilation House

Annihilation House

Other interesting designs are the Mobius (Mebius) museum – basically a giant cottage made of wood and a waveform structure (below) – and the PL Institute Kindergarten which is a school built into the environment (like a Hobbit’s home in the shire).


Mobius (c. 1993) – Shizuoka


From → Architecture

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