Takefumi Aida – from the blocks to the houses

This is my first article written in English so, please, be tolerant. Sooner or later it would be happen because I received several requests form people that can not read portuguese language. I choose this specific article because its main subject is about a Japanese architect called Takefumi Aida. This architect was himself extremely helpful in my architectural toys investigations and I thought that it was my obligation to make an effort to turn the article comprehensible for him.
In the past I had already wrote about this architect in a post about the “Architectural design” review that published the results of a dolls house competition held in 1983. In fact Takefumi Aida was the second prize winner with a very interesting proposal of a dolls house made by elementary volumes like cubes, cylinders and pyramids. At that time I discovered that Aida designed a group of houses called “Toy Blocks Houses” where he adopted an architectural language based on the toy blocks in a larger size. So I thought that it would be interesting to know more about these houses and periodically I was searching more information in the internet without great results. In October I decided to try to write a mail directly to architect Aida; to my surprise he replied me soon and sent me several publications about the houses. So, here I am.

Until now, in the other posts, I used to talk about the influences that the architectural culture had in the childhood word. For me was important to observe and analyze the way that architects looked to the children and to the childhood along history.
In this specific case we face the opposite way process: the Aida’s houses show how the childhood culture (that is influenced by architectural culture) can, in its turn, influence an architectural design process. It is not the unique example (I remember the UNI-SET Corporation and its TV set design or the relation between the kites and the houses in the Charles Eames’s architecture, among others) but maybe this is the more obvious and clear of all them.

In a very interesting book that architect Aida wrote and send to me, he explains the narrative behind a quite extensive series of toy blocks project that include toys, dolls-houses and real houses. It was a mix between the revolutionary environment that he found in Paris in 1968 and a will to rescue the pleasure in architecture as an “important and integral part of human nature”. For Aida the japanese architecture of that period was empty of meaning and “too often simply an economic production”.
So, like most of the architects, he look for an intellectual and formal substructure that could feed his own design experience. He finds this substructure in the toy blocks because, as he said “architecture is produced within the framework of restrictions and conditions characteristics of an era, just as toy blocks are played within the framework of certain given condition”.
In the same text, further, Aida talk about the importance of the possibility that toy blocks have in the creative process and in the education. The reference to Roland Barthes is direct especially when we remember that the French philosopher wrote: “The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies very different learning of the world: then the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name, the actions he performs are not those of a user, but those of demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property: objects now act by themselves, they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand” (Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. 52.). Blocks as a complete free thinking tool and not as parts of a pre-built object or artifact.

Since 1974 Takefumi Aida designed a series of nine toy block houses, a dolls house and a wood toy, all based on the same geometrical roles derived from the toy blocks system. All the houses are based on elementary solids like cubes, cylinders prisms and parallelepipeds joined together avoiding penetrations or overlapping between them. The results are building that look like huge toys constructions.

Toy Blocks House I
During 15 years the design process became more and more sophisticated and complex. In the first house, the Toy Blocks House I, the scale of the blocks corresponds with the main parts of the building. The roof is clearly a simple triangle prism and the two volumes of the house are two parallelepipeds joined by cubes and more elementary solids. Also the forms are elementary and they remember the typical house archetype, something very simple like a child drawing or a generic house image idea.

Toy Blocks House III
In the successive houses Aida start to reduce the dimension and the scale of the parts. For example, in the Toy Blocks House III of 1981, except for the roof, the blocks no more correspond to the principal volumes of the house and the building looks more like an addition of small pieces. Moreover the blocks are painted with different colors to increase the perception of an amount and losing the perception of a unique solid. Windows and other technical elements like ventilation grids or chimney are inserted respecting the main geometrical role and improving the “blocks language”. The challenger go very far, the architect comes to put a rotated volume on the edge of the corner, that has no apparent utility, to empathize the perception of the blocks division and to reduce the scale of the building.

Toy Blocks House IV
In 1982, in the Toy Blocks House IV, Aida insert one more new element symbolized by a ruined concrete wall that look like a preexistence in the plot. It is like if the blocks had been placed in a box that, at a certain moment, was broken leaving his edges damaged and letting out several blocks. This trick also allows the creation of an exterior space that is, formally, an interior space and work as a patio for the house.

Toy Blocks HouseV
For designing the Toy Blocks House V and VI Takefumi Aida invented another challenge based on the Aida Blocks, a blocks toy set “intended to be an aid of understanding and composing architectural spaces”. So, in this case, the intention “was to explore the variations in houses that could be archived with these pieces”. As in all the other houses, also in these two exist a strong correspondence between the geometrical accuracy present in the exterior and in the interior of the building. All the spaces and the interior architectural elements like columns, pillars, windows, doors or walls meet the exterior rules. So, when you are inside the building, you fill as you would be in the interior of a blocks construction.

Toy Blocks HouseVII
In the design of the Toy Blocks House VII “the main theme (...) was to employ all the pieces of a toy block set to create architecture”. So the architect started from a very simple solid and, with a succession of cutting, slicing, sliding, moving and subtracting operations, he arrived to the final design. The resulted building contains the signs of the process visible in the different colors of the darker parts that symbolize the original box and the clearer parts that symbolize the blocks.

Toy Blocks HouseVIII
For the Toy Blocks House VIII the method is similar: starting from a cube and acting on it with a succession of geometrical operations, in this case including rotations, result a complex building with two apartments for two families. A cylindrical solid helps to organize the exterior space and makes the counterpoint with the right angles present in the main building. In this project the architect is also concerned with the large plot around the house and turns it in a meaningful part of the composition thought the separation of the main volume in a series of smaller volumes that surround the house and organize all the environment.
The Toy Blocks House IX is not a real house, it is the doll’s house about which I have already spoken in my other article. It would be easily a scale model to help the creation of a Toy Blocks House. The unique aspect that leaves me curious is the way the architect painted the blocks because it is very different from the white and gray tone used in the houses. Maybe the transferring process from the toys to architecture changed direction and he tried to represent the plaster’s surface in a small scale….

Toy Blocks House X
Finally, in 1984, Takefumi Aida designs the last Toy Blocks House, the tenth. Maybe the most complex among all the houses, the Toy Blocks House X contains parts with several different scales and geometries. The building is totally fragmented in several small and big cubes, prisms, cylinders and, in this case, also spheres. The result is a group of volumes that looks really as built by toy blocks because, apparently, there are no composition rules or fixed planes. Where one block is missed there is a window and the same volumetric game exists in the interior that is richly painted with strong colors and colored carpets.

I think that the Aida’s Toy Blocks Houses are a clear example about the possibility to see each building, or each architecture, as a sum of parts, as an union of several shapes. In his houses Aida turn this relation very evident and explicit building some pedagogical values. What is more interesting maybe is not the finally result but the methodological process that leads to the result. This is the main pedagogical value: to show how the building is created and designed, to show that exists a method, despite the quality of the method.

Aida, Takefumi. 1984. Tsumiki no ie. Tōkyō: Maruzen.
Aida, Takefumi. 1986. Space and concept. Contemporary 1. Architecture in Drawing. Nakagyoku Kyoto: Dohosha Publishing Co Ltd. 



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    1. Sorry for the delay.
      I did not understand how can I help you...