folding to minimum terms to get the most out of things

(R. Choochuey, S. Mirti, first published on Domus 826, May 2000).


Japanese society has one major rule.

You are supposed to fold your body continously. You meet your friend: you bow. You enter a place (either a house or a public space), you bow. You leave, you bow.

Without folding your body you can’t have a social life. Therefore, just like in origami, there are several ways to fold your body.

How deep, how long, what movement of the head or movement of the body.
The more you fold, the more polite you are.

Chinese culture gave Japan almost everything. They gave them the idea of the State, the bureaucracy system, rational town planning (perfectly mastered in a city like Kyoto), the written language made of ideograms.

What did the Chinese get from Japanese culture? Basically one small thing: the folding fan.
The Japanese received the Chinese fan together with thousands of other precious things. They studied it and then improved it by making it foldable.

The same story applies to the lantern.

The Chinese had the paper lantern, the Japanese transformed it into a foldable object.
It is thanks to these little improvements that our life really changes.
Some people build great walls, great inventions, other make little improvements here and there. The Great Wall of China is astonishing, but to be able to fold my umbrella into my little pocket is even more astonishing.

Question about language

In Japanese “oru” or “ori” means to fold, at the same time it means to bend, to turn down and to give in, all with the same Chinese character. The character is actually composed of two radicals: the hand and the axe. When this character is combined with others, it gives several meanings. For example, the most famous one “origami”: to fold and paper.

To fold and to lay means to kneel down (orishiru).

To fold and to suit means to come to an agreement (oriau).

So when it comes together with the ‘kanji’ of “in the middle” it becomes to compromise, to cross and to blend, or even eclecticism. In a society like Japan, where confrontation is very unlikely, the only way is to compromise, to agree together, to blend, to give up (yours). While you have to show it outwardly by kneeling down, it seems that the key here is to “fold”.
To fold everything from your objects, your body as well as your mind.


Fold your house, run your life

To most of us “Japanese” is often used as a synonym for “compact”, “miniaturized”, “foldable”.
People generally know that the Japanese reduce their objects, but we usually forget the reason why they do so.

If we take a look at some data, we can obtain rather interesting information. On October 1, 1998 there were about 126 million Japanese people. One out of three lived in Tokyo or Osaka. Since their islands have an incredible number of mountains and forests, they have to live cramped together. Their cities are full of people, their land is full of buildings.

Every household has an average income of about 5000 Euro per month.
In terms of industrial design, in order not be immersed by the objects you buy, to miniaturise is essential, to fold is imperative. In order to survive in such a tiny world you need to use a lot of intelligence.

In 1996, 129.937 patents were granted to Japanese applicants in Japan (in the same year in the United States there were 55.700 American patents). Many of these patents dealt with the issue of “compactness”. It is a very traditional issue, Japanese architecture has been always interlaced with this “folding”attitude.

To enter the traditional teahouse you have to fold. If you don’t fold you can’t enter: the entrance is very small precisely in order to oblige the body to fold. We could say that “to fold” is one of the main stripes of the Japanese DNA, it is one of their original characteristics: found in everything from the body to the house to the city. Even now, when you start building a new house, you call the Shinto priest. He comes with his little foldable shrine, a ceremony is quickly organised and the construction of the new house can start.

The house and its interior are a very good starting point for our exploration. If you have 11.24 tatami per person (in 1998), you must be very good at making a reasonable life for yourself (one tatami mat is about 0.90 x 1.80 mt).

Eleven tatami on which you are supposed to eat, sleep, meet your friend, relax, do everything. If you don’t have a folding attitude life, in your house you will not get very far.
The same thing can be said about urban space.

The open space is often too little, therefore you can find several ways to use it in different ways.
At night, Tokyo fills up with “yatai”, little movable and foldable food kiosks. As soon as the sun sets, they appear and stay open until the last train of the subway system. When the last train has gone, when the last client is on his way home, they fold up and disappear again.

Through this folding point of view, we can look at the entire history of Japanese architecture, from the models of tea houses popular at the beginning of the century, all the way to the “folding” tower of Arata Isozaki: a paper origami transformed into a steel landmark at the Mito Art Museum.
But then, if we are talking about contemporary architecture, there is an enormous group of people who are living a folding life 100% of the way.

If we judge people from the money they earn, they might not be the most successful, but if we use the folding parameter, they are our heroes by far.

We are talking about the homeless, the most incredible folders of present-day Japan.
If you believe in an architecture without architects, they might be the real stalkers of possible new ways of living in this new millennium.


Image on top: traditional Japanese folding fan

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