"Yokokawa Gochome Metropolitan Council Housing" - a housing complex showing us its utmost splendour!

Ken Oyama: From Housing Complexes with Love

In Japan, housing complexes are ubiquitous but most of them are nondescript and stand there for decades unappreciated. However, there are some wonderful people out there who uncover the special charms of such buildings. Today, PingMag had a passionate chat with Ken Oyama, a photographer and the director-general of the housing complex lovers’ website Housing and Urban Development Corporation, who showed us his just published Danchi no Kenkyu (An Assessment of the Housing Complexes) photo book. A housing complex guide for beginners!

Written by Chiemi
Translated by Natsumi Yamane

Ken, what exactly made you become interested in housing complexes?

Nothing in particular but I used to study urban development at university and I did an extensive research on certain towns. At one point, it occurred to me that no one paid attention to the town itself. Especially, apartment blocks were the prime examples of this. They are so big and yet they are never appreciated by anybody. At times, housing complexes had an appealing image but nowadays, it leaves a kind of gloomy impression. However, there are so many diverse forms and shapes…

Symmetric elegance! An apartment block for beginners, “Toshima Gochome Housing Complex.”

The photos in your book were all taken from directly in the front, is that to neglect unnecessary details?

Yes, as soon as you look up or do anything special, a housing complex starts telling a story of people’s lives. But if you arrange the photos from the front like a catalogue, then there is a moment when you see its shape and nothing else. I’d say that that’s also the appeal of the photography.

There are many diverse types of apartment buildings, which one appeals to you most?

An ordinary apartment complex would have four or so stories but my favourites are the multistoried ones. Compared to low-rise ones, multistoried apartments are designed by various architects and therefore have a wider variety. It’s so big and yet it’s the high-rise buildings that plainly indicate the oddness in itself.

The “Takashimadaira Housing Complex,” a masterpiece of the multistoried apartment complexes.

However, apartment blocks seem to have a much more inorganic, cold atmosphere compared to condominiums. Why is that so?

Housing complexes are a part of the infrastructure. Condominiums belong to architecture but apartment blocks are a kind of a border line between architecture and civil engineering. It doesn’t have much to do with market value and so on. It’s more of an infrastructure for living, and because it is an infrastructure, it lacks flair of any kind.

Oh, I see… Then with what should housing complex beginners start with?

Housing complexes have similar appearances and it’s hard to tell their individual attractions, but that is the best bit of housing complexes too. So you can perhaps start with taking pictures of around twenty or more blocks. I’m sure it’s the same with studying architecture but it’s never fun to start with its history or meaning. Instead, you can begin with its forms and shape, like “this is the similarity between this and that” or “this one’s got a ledge here.” Then after a while, you’ll start questioning all sorts of things…

Which one do you recommend from your photo book?

Maybe the Ukita Second Apartment Block. This blotch in the middle is great!! (laughs)

“Ukita Secong Apartment Block’s” subdued tone of colours, form and size makes it one of the greatest housing complexes. Only, what is this ledge right in the middle doing there?

You referred to these obscure ledges as “blotches” in your book. What is their purpose?

It doesn’t matter what they are for!! Blotches are just blotches!!

OK, sorry….

To be honest, this is the mid-level tank to adjust the water pressure for upper and lower stories. With the condominiums, you would normally draw out the overall shape first and then come up with a space for the mid-level water tank to fit into it, but here, water tank is placed here simply because it’s necessary. That’s great, isn’t it….

Then you don’t really like this sort of thing?

A unique underlying colouring: the “Murakami Housing Complex 3-14″ in Chiba.

Well, I’m not really sure about it…. I mean, there’s definitely something wrong here. But it is kind of touching…. Multistoried condominiums are pretty, it’s sometimes even sheathed in marble, and it’s like Ebi-chan (Yuri Ebihara) if I compare it with women. But this one is like a middle school kid who wore lipstick while her mum’s out….

Yes, I can see what you mean…. I personally like this one, what do you think?

Ken thinks that the “Oyada Icchome Housing Complex, Second Block” has a wonderful texture. Do you like its patterned structure?

This one has a great rugged texture that almost resembles a food grater. There are very few housing complexes of this size that has this kind of features. It’s the result of a brilliant access system!

Can you walk on the spaces next to its balconies?

That’s the ceiling of the corridor underneath and it’s called a skip floor that is placed on every other floors. The fact that they are trying to soften its rugged texture with the design of the staircases is favourable….

I’m starting to get the knack of how to appreciate the housing complexes! We’re so looking forward to your Great Housing Complex Exhibition at Ikejiri Institute of Design’s IID Gallery that goes with the launch of the photo collection! What can we see there?

This exhibition is assuming the format of an ordinary exhibition by laying out each photos next to boards with its details but if you read them carefully, it has things that’ll make you think “What the hell is this?” So please come in and have a laugh!

Ken, thank you for an interesting conversation today!
Ken Oyama’s “Great Housing Complex Exhibition” starts from May 17th, 2008. Don’t miss that one!

Cover of the new “Danchi no Kenkyu” photo collection, now on sale from Tokyo Shoseki.

Inside, look at this beautiful spread with detailed info about each complex.


Great Housing Complex Exhibition
Date: Saturday, May 17th – Sunday, May 25th, 2008. Open from noon until 7 p.m.
Venue: IID Gallery at the Ikejiri Institute of Design.
Address: 2-4-5 Ikeiri, Setagaya, Tokyo. Map.
Admission: Free

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    Reminds me of Soviet gulags. They are very sad, gloomy dwellings. Are we to celebrate Japanese suicidal despair?

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    One block house complex that fascinates me though is one next to Meiji-dori close to Daikanyama. On the groundlevel there’s a huge bus-garage/wash, it should be seen from the back-side and at night for the maxiumum effect. A scary thing is a metal grid that I presume is to protect the buses from falling items, or eh… jumpers.

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  • giacomo

    wonderful! beautiful! kawai! kowai!
    it is quite an appealing work.
    but when will we stop judging housing buildings from a mere visual point of view? it is a really dangerous approach. This article does not underline that behind a “nice pattern” or a “symmetric” shape there are way too small boxes where people live.
    architecture and photography should stay more separated.

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    He should come to Singapore we have buildings like that everywhere we call them HDB flats :)

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    @grace: my thoughts exactly!

  • Pingback: PingMag - The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things” » Archive » Ken Oyama: From Housing Complexes with Love at WEMAKECHANGES

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