Ask an Architect: Concrete Facades

Concrete Uchihanashi

Tokyo may be the ultimate embodiment of “concrete jungle” — not just because of the incomprehensible sprawl, but also the large number of trendy homes, offices, and stores conspicuously using unadorned concrete exteriors. After seeing thousands of these buildings around town (especially in wealthy residential areas), we had a lot of questions: Does this conspicuous use of building material as a design motif serve a functional need? Is it merely a faux-functional design idea? Is it a trend from the 1990s? Is unadorned concrete the only alternative to those atrocious tiles?

We went to our neighborhood architect Keiji Ashizawa to get answers on the origins of these unadorned concrete buildings (コンクリート打ち放し) in Japan.

A gallery of concrete houses is available here. Photographs by Sean Wood.

Is there a specific term for the unadorned concrete facade style in Japanese?

If you just leave the exterior in concrete (without adding tiling or bricks, etc.), it’s called “concrete uchihanashi/uchippanashi.”

When did these uchihanashi houses start to be built in Japan?

They have a long history. In 1923, Antonin Raymond built his own house in Azabu using concrete exteriors. This is said to be one of the earliest concrete exterior buildings.

Le Corbusier and Louis Isadore Kahn used this style a lot too. (see the Salk Institute and Chandigarh) They were superstars among Japanese architects in the past and still continue to be inspirational.

Azuma Takamitsu‘s “Tou no Ie” (「塔の家」, The Tower House) is famous in architectural circles, known as a perfect, urban concrete house. But the house has no insulation and no covering.

Ando Tadao is a follower of Le Corbusier. His work “Sumiyoshi no Nagaya” (「住吉の長屋」) had a huge impact on many Japanese architects. At first, he was building these concrete uchihanashi houses because they are cheap. In 1973, a house he built was rumored to have bad leaks in the roof. So Mr. Ando bought the house from the owner, and it’s currently the Tadao Ando Office.

Why are there so many of these houses and buildings now?

There are a cheap and easy choice for architects.

So it’s cheaper to make buildings with unadorned concrete exteriors?

Yes, it’s cheap, but if the interior is also concrete, it can get very cold…

Can concrete houses be built with insulation?

If the exterior is only concrete, most people will put insulation inside the building. But as you can imagine, lots of architects want to do both the exterior and interior as concrete uchihanashi. This creates an extremely strong spatial feeling, and at the same time, lets you assemble the building with simple details, making it easy to express the spatial intention. (For example, the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church.)

But, concrete-only residential houses are well-known to very cold in winter and very hot in summer. That causes a lot of trouble, and the architect’s plans and the clients’ plans often clash.

However, concrete uchihanashi is often done for the interior and exterior for reasons of budgets. Also, the law requires houses built in urban areas to use a non-wooden building method, so there are times when you are forced to build in concrete for residences.

If you leave both the exteriors and interiors as concrete, it may be much cheaper, but the living environment suffers. Lately, construction methods where the exterior gets insulated (外断熱) have become more widely used. If you do that, you can use the concrete as heat storage.

Why does the concrete always have those circle ○ marks?

This link and link illustrate the process of pouring concrete. The circles are the byproducts of “separators” — parts used to secure the mold. But if you lay out the holes properly, you can get very beautiful concrete uchihanashi like Ando Tadao.

Have concrete uchihanashi houses become less popular in recent years?

Yes, you might say they are starting to be a bit “out.” Uchihanashi houses do not stand out much anymore. They are still cheap to make, but architects and clients are now looking for other materials because unadorned concrete is too popular.

What about other options for building exteriors besides unadorned concrete?

There are lots, like tiling and stucco.

Why do most developers/owners choose tiling?

The amount of money for a mortgage depends on the property value of the building. Developers of “mansion” apartments like to use tile exteriors so that the buyers can take out a big loan. Tiled exteriors signal a high property asset value to Japanese banks, more than unadorned concrete or even paint. So because of that, lots of apartments use tiled exteriors.

Do construction companies put pressure on architects to use concrete because it’s cheaper?

No. Rather, architects put pressure on the builders to leave the exterior in clean concrete. Actually, it’s pretty difficult to do this, so there has been lots of development in techniques for repair recently.

For example, there’s something called the Yoshida Method. The company mostly consists of painters, and they repair rough concrete to make it look like a nice concrete uchihanashi exterior. They employ art school students as part-time workers. If you use their technique, you can make any wall look like concrete uchihanashi.

You can also buy concrete uchihanashi wallpaper for normal interiors. It’s kind of dumb, but very Japanese.

Most normal buildings use tiles or plaster/stucco or paint the concrete exterior. Just leaving the concrete as is, it should be cheap, but lately, you need to either put a clear coating material (to keep the concrete clean) or repair it through things like the Yoshida Method. So it’s actually not as cheap as you think.

Jean SNOW
December 13, 2007

Jean Snow lives and breathes design and pop culture in Tokyo — sustained by an unhealthy addiction to magazines and frequent visits to his favorites cafes. His personal website is located at jeansnow.net.

17 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    My apartment when I lived in Japan had fake concrete wallpaper. I thought it was retarded. Little did I know it was trendy!

  2. Craig Says:

    Great Q&A.

    Some other Qs I’ve always had about these structures:

    I would like to know about the quality grades of concrete — some uchipanashi houses look better than others. When done well, the surface has a glossy sheen to it and there is very little variation in texture. When done poorly, the surface vecomes scraggly and seems to wear more quickly. Is this is a result of cheaper concrete? Badly mixed concrete? Sloppy pouring? A combination of these?

    How much maintenance does uchipanashi require? Does it have to be cleaned regularly?

    And finally, what is called when the concrete is poured in long thin slabs, with no visible circles from the pouring? The end result being sort of a layer cake of concrete, often with a lot of nice texture. One example is the house (?) across the street from the Prada shop in Omotesando.

    Thanks and thanks.

  3. Gen Kanai Says:

    Wonderful Q&A.

    “uchihanashi” should be “uchipanashi”, no?

    If you are interested one of these days I’ll take you to a Raymond-designed residence (one of the few that is left in Tokyo) that doesn’t have much concrete (it has some though.)

  4. Matt Says:

    Great stuff. I actually rent in a totally concrete uchipanashi apartment building, and can attest both to the “spatial dimension” and the fact that it’s damned cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It feels like living in a mixture of an internet start-up and a bunker on the Maginot Line.

    It’s hard to overstate the sheer ubiquitousness of concrete uchipanashi structures in Tokyo. It really struck me when I first moved out there five years ago, but now the total lack of them in the USA when I return strikes me even more.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I think there’s still a deeper narrative we could not get our hands on. Would make a great master’s thesis or long article for Fiona Wilson.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    “uchihanashi” should be “uchipanashi”, no?

    Both “uchihanashi” and “uchippanashi” are technically accurate says Wikipedia, but Ashizawa-san advised us to use uchihanashi. The double-p (as in yahari/yappari) is always the more casual option.

  7. M-Bone Says:

    Found an interesting clip of some relevance to this discussion –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azcJCLrwU74

    I’d really like to go for a walk around this version of Tokyo.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    It’s good they trashed Wright’s Imperial Hotel instead of just repairing it. I would hate to see such elegance mess up the otherwise expediency-as-aesthetic unity of Tokyo today.

  9. Durf Says:

    Yes, my concrete box might be cold in winter and hot in summer, but at least it has no windows to interrupt the smoove Berliner Mauer aesthetic.

  10. Japan blog mini-reviews: part 1 » 世論 What Japan Thinks Says:

    […] I just can’t quite see it. However, there’s one great article on the front page about concrete facades that you see everywhere in Japan, and which I dislike intensely, so it was interesting to learn how […]

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    In response to that link, there is no “inside joke” to this site, but I am intrigued on what makes one think there would be.

  12. An Architect Says:

    First off, uchipanashi concrete ain’t cheap. To do it right, you have at least seven layers of paint and varnish on the forms, each sanded smooth – yields the nice shiny even Craig noted. Takes effort, creates high labor costs.

    Secondly – HOW CAN YOU RUN A WHOLE THING ON NAKED MATERIALS AND NOT MENTION THIS IS A KEY ASPECT OF MODERNISM??? (Yes, I know I was yelling. Sorry – I will be calm now.) The concept is simple: honesty of materials. This is a weird divergence of architecture and construction. Architecture went with monolithic purity (e.g., all concrete, all the way through) and construction went with these nice, scientific layers: one for insulation, one as a durable finish, one for waterproofing, etc.

    Ask an architect.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    Re: Naked materials and modernism

    Yes, we never stated this explicitly. Thanks for reminding people.

    Interesting though that these buildings peaked in Japan during the 1990s – a time which has been noted as specifically post-modern. My amateur reading on the whole thing is that usage in Japan has taken this modernist functional/material-driven approach and re-appropriated it “superficially” as a trendy style, i.e., postmodernist play on modernism. Tokyo’s richer neighborhoods have so many of these houses, and you wonder why they suddenly decided to all worship materials after such a rush of wealth in the 80s.

  14. Keiji Ashizawa Says:

    Some uchihanashi takes a lot of money, it is put maybe seven layers.
    But I feel, it’s too much as Uchihanashi.
    As you kindly mentioned between modernism and naked material,
    I would like to make the face of the concrete natural.
    When I built low budget concrete house, I don’t put seven layers, just two layers.
    Actually it’s enough. If you do seven layers, it isn’t Uchihanashi.
    Then, it will be cheap and it will be spread in Tokyo.

    Probably Tadao Ando’s house doesn’t put any paint at first.
    Good concrete is water proof to start.

    But it is easy to get dirty and there are people who don’t like that.

    Also we have plywood model for only uchihanashi.
    And some builder make very good concrete.
    At that time, we don’t need to be sanded.

    Re.modernism,

    Uchihanashi in Tokyo is more complicated. As architect,I would like to talk more about modernism and simple.
    But such a philosophy is easily becoming just surface here and become other culture. That’s why,we have uchihanashi wall paper.

    Probably I don’t answer your quetion and my English will make you misunderstand what I want to write.
    But if you have further questions, don’t hesitate contacting me or write your opinion.

  15. Nathan Says:

    I’m a big fan of the uchihanashi. Perhaps it’s my love for Ando’s architecture in general. I’d love to build a house one day in that style, but the only thing that worries me is the issue of graffiti. Surely by putting up great big plain concrete walls, you’re inviting someone to come and scribble on it. And then what becomes of removing it? If you paint the wall to begin with, you can just paint a new coat over the offending mark, but what to do with plain concrete?

  16. Keiji Ashizawa Says:

    Actually I am a uchihanashi fan as well.
    Re.graffiti
    It’s big topic.
    I will recommend my client to ask professional person to remove them.

    I found a few solutions on the web.

    1:repaint.

    2:remove,ask some company.
    http://www.mk-house.jp/wall/index.html
    http://www.alcon-artsprotec.com/6.html
    3:remove by yourself.
    http://www.sys-con.jp/scremover21/
    http://www.rakuten.co.jp/nonaka/436141/438830/916457/

  17. Grey Says:

    I love concrete in architecture, but in europe there aren’t good works, except Tadao Ando works.

    great blog… and great post!