An island nation where the cool and the ordinary flourish together.

Flexibility has long been a guiding principle of Japanese architecture. Consider Japan’s ongoing use of sliding doors or screens to shape fluid interiorspace. These four very different books about Japanese architecture since the 1980s reveal new twists in that heritage of design, many brought about by surprising fusions of vernacular materials and new technology. All of them balance accounts of quintessential Japanese architectural developments—a house with a Shintoshrine at its heart, for example—with an array of ideas applicable globally.

Click the image above for details about each book mentioned in this review.

21st Century Tokyo: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture presents a concise yet provocative overview of flexible thinking. Carefully researched, finely detailed, and affectionate toward its subject, its authors are two architecteducators and a photographer, all transplants from other countries.

The book is unusual among architecture guidebooks, because Worrall and Solomon “have let our eyes rest not just on theimpressive and beautiful, but also on the ordinary and the typical.” So a reader can careen from commentary on Kenzo Tange’ssci-fi-futuristic Fuji Television Headquarters to Toyo Ito’s newest Ginza glam store to Masayuki Irie’s generic budget hotel. In spite of single-page descriptions and black-and-white-only photography, this guide engages by bringing insight to quirky projects like the fish-shaped Ariake incinerator and the mind-boggling Reverse Destiny Lofts, an apartment complex for elders offering playful sensory stimulation rather than bland quietude.

New Architecture in Japan offers a far more sweeping and richly produced overview than the Tokyo guide, while noting some of the same projects by starchitects Ito, Tadao Ando, and Fumihiko Maki. Edmund Sumner’s color photographs do justice to the forms of Japanese whimsy and wit and clarify the rationale behind Jun Igarashi’s Rectangle of Light, a small house clad in thin horizontal bands of softwood, offering textural variations in grain that you might encounter in a lumberyard or in a child’s ice-cream-stick model. Yuki Sumner and record international correspondent Naomi Pollock are seasoned observers of Japanese culture as well as of architecture, and shine a penetrating light on how architects today balance traditional vernacular architecture with contemporary design, and meditative designs with those promoting manic consumerism. Like the creators of the Tokyo guide, the authors revel in the idiosyncratic yet apt. Big Window House by Tezuka Architects, for example, is a two-story box, one story of which dissolves into a public space when the giant second-story window is opened downward, temporarily erasing half of the front facade. It dramatizes Japanese flexible thinking when it comes to shuffling between private and public realms. Another Tezuka gem is the Fuji Kindergarten, a circular design where students can safely play on the school’s tree-lined roof, blurring distinctions between playground and classroom.

Oddball contemporary Japanese designs are rarely the result of mere caprice. Japan’s cities today are crazy-quilts of narrow, bizarrely shaped building lots. Extraordinary flexibility is demanded for an architect to work sensibly and imaginatively within such limitations. Atelier Bow-Wow, founded by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, has been preeminent in its dedication to fresh style and functionality. Their book Behaviorology is an exquisitely produced catalog of their work to date. It includes thoughtful essays by Tsukamoto and various critics. The title refers to the firm’s belief that architecture behaves, either harmoniously or discordantly, with nature and its inhabitants, and that its creation must entail thinking about a number of behaviors simultaneously. The result of their method is a dazzling display of compact homes with ingenious solutions for living small. There are townhouse stairs that double as seating for socializing, and there is the appropriately named Sway House, whose walls sway away from the street as the house rises toward the sky, creating a sense of spaciousness within a Lilliputian residence.

Japan has had to develop flexible thinking because of its limited range of local building materials, and its aesthetic predilection for timber. Dana Buntrock has written a valuable and long-needed overview of the historic, aesthetic, and spiritual meanings attached to Japanese building materials. By taking this approach, she reveals, for instance, Fumihiko Maki’s feel for traditional vernacular materials like cedar, demonstrating that much of contemporary Japanese architecture judiciously juggles past and present. “Natural materials are garrulous,” architect Hiroshi Naito tells the author. Buntrock offers insights into how the most ancient and “talky” materials catalyze flexible thinking in the most modern of Japan’s architects.