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Japan's homeless architecture draws int'l connoisseurs

many Zen-inspired buildings, Okawara's home is a monument to simplicity. The size of a large tool shed, the wooden building blends seamlessly with the surrounding park. His door

india Updated: Mar 18, 2006 19:39 IST

Like many Zen-inspired buildings, Okawara's home is a monument to simplicity. The size of a large tool shed, the wooden building blends seamlessly with the surrounding park. His door opens to a full view of Tokyo's Tama River.

Okawara is not your typical architect. He is homeless. But the elegant austerity of his home and thousands of others like it has turned Japan's most destitute into unwitting purveyors of an emerging art form that's catching the eye of international connoisseurs.

The homes carefully built, meticulously kept and collapsable for quick movement when the police move in have inspired a rash of art books, and Japanese promoters are discussing them with curators in North American and Europe.

Fans are inspired by the homes' design and functions: elaborate triangular roofs, or intricate networks of metal piping to keep the structure standing. One of the books pointed out a home powered by solar batteries.

Even to the untrained eye, the homes of Japan's homeless are remarkably well-built and cared for. Some are fitted with traditional Japanese tatami mats; others boast extensive gardens with neatly trimmed camellias and bonsai shrubs.

The architects themselves are modest.

Zen homes carefully built, meticulously kept and collapsible for quick movement

"The house wasn't so hard to make, because I kept the structure to a minimum," said Okawara, who wanted only his last name used because of the social stigma associated with homelessness in Japan. He said he had purchased many of the materials at a hardware store like the spotlessly clean floorboards to his bedroom. "It sometimes gets cold, but I like the view of the river," Okawara said.

But experts see in the homes an artistic creation with deep roots in Japan's austere Zen Buddhist tradition.

"These homes embody simplicity, functionality and are at one with their environment, like the tea house of Rikyu Sen," says architect Kyohei Sakaguchi, referring to a 16th-century tea master who preached frugality through the Japanese art of tea ceremony. Sakaguchi published a study of homeless architecture, Zero Yen Houses, in 2004.

"I don't want to idealise the situation homeless people find themselves in," he said. "But in a world where most of us live in mass-produced, concrete boxes, Zero Yen Houses are precious works of art. They deserve to be recognised."

First Published: Mar 18, 2006 16:38 IST