A good thirty minute ride on the Den-en-toshi Line westwards from Tokyo’s centre is Aobadai, a typical “bedroom community” for nearby Yokohama and Tokyo proper. Another twenty minute stroll up the road and you find two seminal housing developments from the late 60s and early 70s. Welcome to Sakuradai!
According to Housing Prototypes (which contains some good information on the projects) the whole area’s development was overseen by famous Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake, co-founder of the Metabolist movement. A junior architect and working for Kikutake at the time, Shozo Uchii designed both Sakuradai Village (1969) and Sakuradai Court Village (1970), both situated on the slopes of a gentle hill next to a road leading towards the station.
Initially both developments were supposed to consist of single houses, but rising demand in the area led to the decision to realise both as apartment buildings. In a city full of relatively dull residential blocks, both Village and Court Village stand out as very pleasant complexes with generous flats and a great mix of communal and private space.
Despite their modernist looks, the two apartment complexes were built like most others before and after them in this area: a private railway company that had bought up the land along its new railroad lines financed the apartments’ construction to increase ridership and drive up the value of its land. A tried and tested “method” of modern Tokyo’s urbanisation.
Sakuradai Village is situated right next to the relatively busy road leading towards Aobadai Station. It consists of two parallel 5-storey buildings. The front row facing the street features retail space on the first floor. Staircases and large communal spaces between the two rows give the development a pleasant atmosphere.
The 124 units range in size from 66 to 85 square meters, a typical unit sporting two six-tatami mat rooms as well as a living room plus dining-kitchen. Each flat has a balcony. You can find some nice interior shots here.
Admittedly by some stretch of my imagination, it reminded me of my hometown Berlin and its many modernist social housing projects from before the second world war. Their genesis shared some roots with projects such as the Sakuradai Village: increased representation of workers, be it politically or economically, led to better standards of accommodation, mainly in new developments in the suburbs.
Here, space wasn’t so much of a problem (yet), allowing for larger, more generous floor plans. The comforts of modern housing were thus made available to wider parts of the population, often at the cost of increasing commuting time to people’s workplaces.
With the years, many of these apartment blocks became dilapidated and simply outdated. The danchi housing estates are often today’s social hotspots. Yet some are being redeveloped and modernised, offering comparatively cheap real estate to first-time buyers.
Sakuradai Village also got a facelift very recently. In fact, the scaffolding was just being removed when I visited.
Sakuradai Court Village was designed earlier than Sakuradai Village but construction was delayed. One has to walk off the main road for a little while to reach it. I personally liked it more due to its secluded character and the somewhat steeper slope it was built on. The little alleyways between the flats give the place a quiet aura. Most residents grow plenty of plants on their terraces and by the entrances.
There are also two rows of buildings built in zigzag form. The complex has only 40 units ranging from 90 to 122 square meters, i.e. bigger than flats in Sakuradai Village and probably also pricier in rent / price back then already.
The shape of the separate rows allows little terraces for each individual flat. They create privacy but also invite interaction with the neighbours. This communal spirit was something visible in both developments’ designs. Alas it is something largely absent from the more standardised apartment blocks in Tokyo’s suburbia.
Community can exist in the danchi, too, as evident from this great photo set. Yet many social ills of modern Japan, e.g. increasing isolation, depression and high suicide rates often used to find their epicentre in the ageing social housing complexes in Tokyo’s suburbs.
It is against this context that Sakuradai Village and Sakuradai Court Village possess a very unique charm.
Update: here is a nice introduction to Japanese apartments.