Tokyo (1923- 1930) Changes in communal housing after the Great Kanto Earthquake
More than 3 million people were displaced in the Great Kanto Earthquake. Besides temporary housing, the Japanese government also began building public housing as a work of relief after the catastrophe for victims that lost their home. The Dojunkai Corporation was founded in 1924 to develop 16 housing projects in various districts in Tokyo and Yokohama.
Following the disastrous events of the earthquake, tenements traditionally characterized by freestanding wooden buildings were no longer safe to live in. Building design began taking in more foreign references to build stable and earthquake resistant structures. The Dojunkai project was of no exception. Modeled after their middle-class German and Viennese counterparts, the new apartments differed significantly from traditional Japanese residential housing in terms of construction methods, materials and arrangement. With reinforced concrete as the main material and built to the best Western standards of the time, the Dojunkai apartments features units varying in layout and size to accommodate both singles and families. Even new technologies were introduced; such as garbage chutes and some of the first flush toilets and gas lines in Japan.
Although influences from the West were obvious, the Dojunkai apartments were designed to suit Japanese conditions. The core design of Dojunkai was site specific, aimed to fit in with the urban scale and characteristics of Japan. For linear sites, buildings were aligned along the main street, whereas an enclosed form was adopted for rectangular or irregular sites. 60% of the Dojunkai apartment building forms were either fully or semi-enclosed. (Figure 1) Even though the degree of enclosure varied in each apartment, buildings were arranged so that a courtyard space in the middle was available for collective use by residents. In addition to this central public space, buildings were designed to have irregular facades so that recesses created form a semi-public space. While the larger spaces were used for cooking, washing and recreation of the community, smaller semi-public spaces could be reserved for private use of residents of that particular building.
Figure 1: Courtyard spaces enclosed by residential buildings
Source: Shilpi Tewari & David Beynon, Tokyo’s Dojunkai experiment: courtyard apartment blocks 1926–1932, Planning Perspectives, 31:3, 469-483
Even before the Great Kanto Earthquake, communal spaces were of great importance in the Japanese urban structure. Municipalities are divides into machi, where residential blocks were grouped around courtyards with street as boundaries.(Figure 2) These courtyard spaces were used for collective daily activities, communal gatherings, and even festivals. The layout and arrangement of Dojunkai apartments was heavily based on the Japanese’ value and consideration for community and social relations.
Figure 2: Edomachi showing machiya with central courtyards
Source: Figure collection of Japan Urban History
Furthermore, the interior of the Dojunkai apartments also abided by traditional standards. Hardwood flooring and tatami paved the units, and wood was used in the doors and windows. As the Japanese were comparatively short, the doors and fixtures were built low. Even though it looked Western from the outside, residents would be welcomed with a traditional Japanese home when they walk into a unit.
Figure 3: Exterior and interior photos of various Dojunkai apartments
Source: Tokyo Stream
The Dojunkai project, with their basis in Western models, were leading examples in concrete construction that were also innovative in space and building organisation ideas. As one of the first fire and quake resistant apartments, they served as a model for further development of well-planned and secure communal housing. In fact, the Uenoshita apartments were able to withstand not only the fire bombings of World War II but also the tremendous shaking of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Today, influences of the Dojunkai apartments in the conception and construction of urban residences can still be seen.
Sorensen André, The Making of Urban Japan, Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty First Century. London: Routledge, 2006
Shilpi Tewari & David Beynon (2016) , Tokyo’s Dojunkai experiment: courtyard apartment blocks 1926–1932, Planning Perspectives, 31:3