Azby Brown is an architect and design theorist whose in-depth study of Japan provides inspiration for the future of sustainable urban living. Raised in New Orleans, Azby originally studied theater and dance until a series of chance opportunities led him to move to Tokyo and build a life and career devoted to smart design. He has written books profiling the ingenuity of space-constrained Japanese architecture and showcasing the bold solutions from pre-industrial Tokyo to fend off environmental and resource catastrophe. Now serving as the director of a design lab and think tank, Azby connects the cultural, creative, and economic dots that illustrate the rich potential of sustainable design.
Natural Wedge House, designed by Masaki Endoh and Masahiro Ikeda, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown; photograph by Toshihiro Sobajima
Find an expanded interview with Azby Brown in my new book Field Trip: Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my book here.
You originally studied architecture and sculpture, and over time have immersed yourself in the study of Japanese architecture, urban design, and sustainability. How would you describe your current work and where it’s taking you?
I studied architecture and sculpture at Yale, and I came to Japan with this interest in the oldest traditional ways of building — I was really fascinated with that. But like a lot of people, when I got to Japan and actually started living here, contemporary Japan looked more and more interesting. How did it become this way? What are they doing? What are they thinking? And I really became interested in urbanism — specifically, how these people design for these very, very narrow, small spaces. And this incredible ingenuity.
I spent a lot of time studying the areas under railroad viaducts. There are a lot of elevated railways that date back more than 100 years, which became these incredibly lively spaces that after the second World War had black markets. And then people were living there, and now they’re full of these tiny bars where you have to fold up the bar to get in. They’re amazing spaces! So I did some really very intensive academic research on that.
The more I studied different aspects of Japanese life and design, the more these things seemed connected. I’ve written books on Japanese carpentry, small house design, and the sustainable practices of the Edo period. Now I’m the director of the Future Design Institute, a design lab and think tank in Tokyo that is part of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology.
House in Moto-Azabu, designed by Mutsue Hayakusa, Cell Space Architects, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown; photo by Azby Brown
Having grown up in New Orleans, what drew you to such a different culture? Was there anything in your childhood that makes your path make sense?
New Orleans is a great place to grow up. Our neighborhood was built in the 1920s and was in the middle of the city. I’d always assumed it was urban until I went to the east coast and saw what real urban areas were like, but it was a really wonderful neighborhood. Life was pretty much centered around the church and the schools, and I really started to get interested in neighborhoods and houses and buildings, even way back when I was a little kid.
I mean, I never thought about architecture and design per se, but I was fascinated with how buildings were put together, and I would climb on roofs, climb into attics. As kids, our neighborhoods were wonderful for exploring that way. I remember as a kid discovering the way up to the bell tower of our local parish church and being able to climb up and look out over this flat city. And being able to climb into attic spaces where I could look at these incredible beams and trusses. So I was really interested in communities and very fortunate to grow up in that kind of environment.
Meanwhile, my mother was a painter and I was always interested in creative things. In high school, I really was very interested in music and theater more than any other creative thing. When I was looking at college, I thought, ‘Well, Yale has a really good theater department and maybe that would be good for me.’ So I went to college fully expecting to be a theater major. I did a lot of dance back then, a lot of training. But I was a little disappointed at the offerings of the undergraduate program in theater.
I attended a lecture by Vincent Scully, a great architectural historian, who back in the 1940s almost single-handedly directed people’s attention to the vernacular of where people live. He was a remarkable lecturer and very passionate, and that really got me fascinated in architecture. I also took a good sculpture class with a teacher who had spent time in Japan. Meanwhile, one of my roommates had spent time in Japan, so I had a lot of exposure to Japanese design and aesthetics and architectural context back then. So eventually when I was picking a major, I was on the fence between architecture and sculpture, and I picked sculpture. This was the late ’70s, and at the time there was an explosion of new ways to approach sculpture and a lot of artists working in an architectural vocabulary. And my own interest in building at the time was as much about craft as about design and planning. So I majored in sculpture, but I took all of the required architecture design courses.
I had been interested in coming to Japan, applied for some grants and didn’t get them, so I spent a couple of years in New York doing theater. But then I was tapped to go to Japan to participate in an outdoor street performance festival in Tokyo. And that was it, that was all I needed! I hit the ground running. I was paid about $100 a day, they put us up in a hotel, and I saved my per diem and stayed in Japan for a couple of months. I got another job and then got a TV commercial and other things that allowed me to stay about three months.
I went back to the States and applied for a grant — there’s a fabulous grant program that the Japanese government has had for 20 years or more for foreign students, and I applied for that and got the grant. And I’ve been here ever since then. One of the things that I was really most interested in seeing when I came to Japan was traditional wooden architecture, particularly temple carpentry. And it was through a long, round-about series of chance misunderstandings, but I was able to meet a man named Tsunekazu Nishioka, who was considered the last great Japanese temple carpenter. He was very warm and welcoming, and I was able to spend several years studying his work while I had that grant. And that really changed my life. The first book I wrote, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry, came out of that work while I was still finishing my masters thesis.
Have you applied your architectural studies toward designing your own projects, or are you working more on the research and writing end of it?
I do design work, but I don’t have much of a practice. It’s funny, because I’m more of a house and lifestyle doctor. I’ve done a few projects and sort of decided that my interest is not as much in having a design studio as much as in thinking about the issues. So I’m much more of a theorist, but I have a steady stream of projects consulting with people who want advice about how to plan their houses. So I do a lot of planning, which then usually gets handed off to a different designer who will actually realize the project. It’s pretty gratifying.
Small Spaces, by Azby Brown
The Very Small Home, by Azby Brown
In 2005, you published your book The Very Small Home, which showcases some marvels in Japanese residential architecture. What are some of your favorite ideas you discovered?
There’s an incredible store of ingenuity, ideas and experience here, because every designer, every architect certainly, and most homeowners — everyone, for that matter — they grapple with these issues. ‘This is all the space I have — how can I deal with it?’ And the architects learn from each other, and they come up with ways of squeezing bathrooms in narrow corners, making things fold down and convert and move. But I guess the biggest eye-opener for me was that you have to make decisions about what your life is about and how your home is going to accommodate that. In the book, I call this “The Big Idea.” And it really means editing your life.
But, in fact, very few people can do it. And when I give talks about the book, I make sure I show a few photos of how people here actually live. What I’m showing in the book are the best examples, usually photographed shortly after they’re completed. People just accumulate stuff in life, and it’s never quite as neat as it looks in those books. But there is a lot more discipline about life in general here than certainly in the United States. I found that if you understand your life as a flow over time — you’ll spend a certain amount of time in the bedroom, a certain amount of time in other spaces — and let that be reflected in the design of your house, then you’ll realize, “Well, the bedroom really doesn’t need to be much because I’m hardly ever there. And when I’m there, I’m not even conscious!” But it can be comfortable, and storage is absolutely essential. It has to be well designed. That’s a tricky thing. When I talk with clients, they ask, “Is it better to have one big storage area or a lot of little ones?” And I say, “Better to have one big one and a lot of little ones!” Because they should be convenient to where you are so that you’ll use them.
So it’s really about looking at your life dispassionately and also looking at it a bit idealistically. If you aim for a fairly high ideal, you’ll end up with something very realistic. If you aim for something realistic, you’ll end up with something disappointing. So you have to be idealistic about it. But ultimately you have to be very honest about yourself.
The following series of photos shows the ingenious kitchen design and storage solutions by Tomoyuki Utsumi, Milligram Studio; profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown (all photos by Azby Brown):
Kitchen with work surface nested into wall cabinets…
Kitchen with work surface pulled out from wall cabinets.
Raised kitchen floor allows for storage of infrequently used items.
A small but spacious feeling kitchen and living area.
The conditions in Japan in the ’90s that gave rise to this interest in small home design are oddly similar to what’s happened in the U.S. and other places — economic turmoil, political tension, a devastating natural disaster, anxiety about terrorist activities, and a reaction to the excesses of a ‘bubble economy’. How optimistic are you that other cultures might embrace small house design?
I’m very optimistic, especially for urban areas. I participated in a symposium last fall in New York hosted by an organization called the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC). They were founded in the 1930s by an independent citizens’ group to research and advocate for housing issues and to advise and keep an eye on the government. So they looked at what had been happening in New York and what they expect to happen in New York going forward. In particular, a few years back Mayor Bloomberg instituted a 25 year plan for New York that looks at having 1 million more people come into the city, simply because the city has become more attractive. So they asked, “How can we accommodate them?” The CHPC decided to look into this because the city already has a housing shortage, and it’s already very dense.
It turns out the housing policy in New York dates from the mid-twentieth century when there were a lot of nuclear families and the government implicitly encouraged the construction of housing for nuclear families — big apartments with several bedrooms. But, in fact, those families only represent something like 17% of the households in New York now. Whereas 30% of people are single, and you have a lot of adults living together in roommate situations. But it’s against the law in New York to have more than three unrelated people living together, and this dates back to the early twentieth century when you had these horrific conditions with twenty people crammed into a basement room. So regulations were passed to alleviate that, but it’s time to rethink them.
So the CHPC held a symposium and invited me and a Japanese architect, because they’re looking very much at Tokyo and at how flexible and open-minded people are here about how to live. And they’re also looking at how people here adopt new technology. These are ideas that a city like New York really needs to look at for the future. And they’re not alone: almost every major city on the planet will be grappling with density issues. And most of them are welcoming lessons from the Japanese experience.
The Glass Shutter House, with street level restaurant and residence on 2 upper floors. Designed by Shigeru Ban architects, profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown
The following video from the National Geographic Channel shows the Penguin House, one of the architectural projects profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown:
Tell me about your work with the KIT (Kanazawa Institute of Technology) Future Design Institute in Tokyo.
I had written a second book called Small Spaces, which looks at contemporary life and the whole way that Japanese designers accommodate the constraints of working with narrow spaces. Right around the time that book came out and I was finishing up at the university, I was approached by professors in the architecture department at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology who were looking for a design teacher. And they took a chance on me. They said, “Well, he’s a foreigner, but let’s try that.” So I started there in ’95 in the architecture department. Then about six years ago, the university started a media informatics program. They wanted to have design courses, and I was asked to move to that department. It really wasn’t that good a fit in terms of culture — this new department was full of engineers. When we were discussing the curriculum and I was told I had to teach a course in 3D design, which they imagined would be 3D computer graphics, I said sure. And I thought about it, and because these students had never had any background in design, I came up with a syllabus that included 4-6 weeks of making things by hand. My colleagues freaked out. At the meeting they literally gasped, ‘By hand?!?’ But they eventually got it.
In the meantime, I’d put together a proposal to set up the Future Design Institute, this little lab in Tokyo, which would be an open place where we would do design research and do collaborative projects and have exhibitions and do writing. And some people in the university really supported it, and they allowed me to do that. So instead of being in the architecture department, I had this laboratory and until recently was also teaching in this media department. Now I spend all my time here at the lab, and it’s like heaven because now I’m a full-time researcher doing various projects. It’s a think tank. My book Just Enough on the Edo period came out of this work and these shared concerns.
Just Enough, by Azby Brown
In your new book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, you researched the Edo period when Japan was faced with many of the same resource problems we face today and developed a highly sustainable society. What did you find? And do you think there has to be a cultural and political tipping point for people to move as aggressively as what you describe?
The main thing is that Japan has such limited arable land and has always had a large population. It was always a challenge to have enough agricultural production to feed the people. And it was always a challenge because it was a warrior society that experienced centuries of war. They were building castles and had massive defensive building projects that really did a lot to deforest the country. So in the early 1600s, the country was unified and the government wanted to continue these big building projects, they found it was getting very difficult to source timber, and the whole process of transporting the timber was damaging the watershed. They were cutting trees, it was weakening the riverbanks, and there were bad repercussions for the farmers. And the farm production was not keeping pace with the population increases.
So there was this whole cascade of looming disasters. And the government did something very, very smart. They didn’t call a moratorium on forestry, but they did a tree census. They said, “Hold on. Let’s see where all the trees are. Let’s look at what we’re going to have to do to prevent these problems from happening and to increase agricultural production.” So they established forests that were out of bounds. No one could go into them to cut, and they established regenerative forestry — one of the first examples anywhere that we know about. And having to work well with customs and the social structure, they knew there would have to be generations of people on-site taking care of the forests. Part of it was top-down, with a few regulations that were very strictly enforced. I mean, if you entered this forest with an ax — I’m sorry, you were dead. It was very, very draconian, because it was that kind of society and the forests were that important.
But the main thing is that it worked well with the existing values of the people. They were very frugal to begin with, they had been living in these same valleys for centuries and had a very good understanding of the natural flow of how the watersheds worked and how the weather might change and what the various animal species were. So it was a wonderful way to leverage the value system of the people with this overarching goal of creating a sustainable, well-managed environment. It didn’t happen instantly — it took a couple of generations and different features developed at different paces, but eventually they did it. A big issue that we could really learn from has to do with understanding the relationship between urban areas and rural areas and understanding the flow of items and materials that need to go back and forth.
Illustration of natural cooling from Just Enough by Azby Brown
Illustration of tenement courtyard from Just Enough by Azby Brown
One of the big breakthroughs was when they decided to maximize the use of human waste as a fertilizer. This is an example of what I call a ‘multiform solution.’ Here’s the problem: in our situation, our cities as far back as the 19th century were horrifically polluted. Human waste was left in cesspools, and, compared to that, the sewer system and the flush toilet represented a wonderful hygienic advance. But we didn’t really think far enough ahead, and now we’re in the situation where we waste an amazing amount of fresh water. Half of our fresh water is used in toilets and showers, 30% or more of our fresh water is for the toilet alone. We’re using our fresh water for our toilet, and then it’s going into water supply and polluting it. And then we have to use all this energy and effort to purify the water again. This is obviously absolutely insane.
The Japanese realized this stuff works well as fertilizer. Initially the farmers were being paid to take it away, but eventually they had to pay for it. And the people who owned toilets were getting income from that, and it was having a wonderfully mutually beneficial effect on the water system, the lack of pollution, better food production, and health benefits for the city because the latrines were constantly being cleaned out. It was really a great win-win situation. We find this sort of thing all over, in almost every sphere of life in Japan and the way they handled things.
It was rarely one person with a breakthrough or one government ministry saying, “From now on we’re going to use, you know, human power for this.” It’s just that, because of the economic value of things like waste products, these processes evolved. And it’s really remarkable how well integrated it was and how deeply this attitude and these systems penetrated the society.
In the following video of his presentation at TEDxTokyo, Azby Brown discusses some key characteristics of sustainable life in Edo (an area that is now part of modern-day Tokyo):
What are they doing in Tokyo now? Are they still using human waste?
Well, the funny thing is, no. Everyone wants to be hooked up to the sewer system, so in that sense it’s fairly backward. Until recently there were places that did use human waste as fertilizer. And there are still places that are not hooked up to sewer systems, and there are septic tanks and trucks that come around and take it to a treatment plant. But in remote places, as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, they still use human waste as fertilizer.
In your book Just Enough, you describe how urban waterways are a smart component to an overall sustainable city design. How realistic do you think it is to retrofit cities with these urban waterways?
I think it’s very realistic in dense cities. If you have an area that has a lot of pedestrian activity to begin with, I think it’s fairly easy to integrate a water system. The trick is always going to be to separate the vehicular traffic from the pedestrian traffic. If you can make headway with that, then it’s fairly easy to do. In most cities, I think if you had a boat system — and I don’t mean just one kind of boat, but different varieties for moving people, for moving cargo, for different purposes — I think it’s very, very realistic. And most of our cities had these very lively water systems which disappeared because of the rise of trucking and wheeled vehicles. They just killed the canals.
Illustration of Edo village waterways and community from Just Enough by Azby Brown
Amsterdam is certainly one city that comes to mind with a great waterway system…
Amsterdam, but also London, Paris — most of these cities had systems of boats and canals for use quite frequently, especially for cargo and other goods. In London, people were constantly using the river for transportation, though Amsterdam and Venice are special cases. Certainly it’s easier if the place is flat to begin with, and those parts of Tokyo that were criss-crossed with canals were flat. Any city that has enough flat area makes it easy to dig those waterways.
Part of Amsterdam’s waterway system
Is there any interest in Tokyo in bringing this back?
There is. What’s ironic is that Seoul recently revitalized its main urban waterways in a way that Tokyo would love to do! Tokyo made a big mistake back in the late 1950s and early 1960s when they were building for the Tokyo Olympics. They built expressways all around the city and basically built them all over the canals and rivers. That was open land, and they could just build it there quickly and easily. They did the quick and dirty thing and basically killed what was left of those waterways. So there is interest, but when you go to Tokyo now, the streets are very clogged with vehicles. There are a lot of pedestrians, and the train system is so well developed that, for long- and short-distance travel, people take the trains. The government made a conscious decision back in the late 19th century to de-emphasize wheeled vehicles in favor of railroads and boats. And then the boat system died, and the wheeled vehicles came in anyway with inadequate infrastructure.
Restoration of the Cheonggyecheon waterway in Seoul
But I think it’s realistic for a lot of reasons. Waterways are fun, they have a natural appeal, but they are also very useful. I can imagine if we could utilize waterways for cargo traffic, for transporting goods, that would bring quite a few benefits. I don’t see any reason why technically it couldn’t happen.
Political will is probably the bigger challenge.
Political will is a biggie. How do these things happen when they happen? It’s easiest for it to happen when someone is in a position to make a lot of money doing it. We see this constantly. These things need constituencies. And if we look at what’s happened just with simple things like recycling or community gardens, when a local constituency makes its will known, then it can happen.
But industry is a constituency, and as we see playing out now, it really has too much representation. Just like with green energy, until the energy companies are in a position to make a lot of money at it, it’s going to be hard to see it deployed on a large enough scale. Until some underdog comes through and is making a lot of money and everyone wants to be in on it! So it has to be a combination. I look at the Edo Japanese, where the average person saw they would benefit from recycling or selling items, and the government either stayed out of the way or implemented policies that made it easier for that to happen. By and large, the free market works very well once people see a benefit from it. And it could also happen as a result of scarcity, and then the whole ballgame shifts.
Bed loft in Naka-Ikegami house, designed by Tomoyuki Utsumi; profiled in The Very Small Home by Azby Brown, photo by Azby Brown
What do you love about your life and work in Japan?
I like the human interaction here, I like the way people communicate. Which is really surprising to me, coming from New Orleans, because we think of the Japanese as being very, very reserved. But I find that people are considerate and that they think before they talk. And they’re fairly open-minded. I never thought I’d say this, because when I first came to Japan, I was constantly struck by what I thought was people being repressed and enduring all kinds of constraints in daily life in their behavior. But the longer I’ve been here and observe the parallel changes happening in the United States, I’d say Japan is a more liberal society than the U.S. is now. There are not many value judgements on people here. They think a lot about what is appropriate for a particular situation — that’s very important. And to say that people are appearance-conscious, part of that is demonstrating that you care about the other person.
And in terms of political life, there is a much broader spectrum of political viewpoints represented here. There’s still a Communist party, there’s a Socialist party, there are very, very right-wing parties — they’re all represented. But it’s a very middle-of-the-road society overall, so these fringe groups never get a majority. But they do have influence in the way problems are approached and framed. It’s a very liberal and free society compared to the United States in many, many respects.
Plus being a foreigner here who is interested in Japan and who spends the time getting to know the country and learn about it, the society returns that multi-fold. It’s a culture that is very concerned with not being understood or appreciated, so when someone like me who’s spent an entire career getting very deeply into some things that even Japanese people don’t know about, it’s a very good thing for them.
Plus, it’s fascinating. My motor is turning 100% all the time. I have to be very, very engaged just to function in everyday life, and that’s a good way to be. I can’t be complacent, I can’t take things for granted. And Japan remains an amazing place!
In the following video clip of his presentation at a PechaKucha event in Tokyo, Azby Brown goes into more detail about his research of sustainable life in Edo:
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