“Every Home has a Story”: Takashi Yanai on Residential Design and California Modernism
Residential design is the most personal architecture. Whether reflecting the lifestyle or character of those who live there, or accommodating space for guests and gathering, homes reflect who we are. This holds especially true for Takashi Yanai, a Partner at Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects that has led the Residential Studio since 2004. With ties to landscape design and a “California Modernist” ethos, Takashi’s work also reinterprets Japanese elements and explores what residential design means today.
In 2017, Takashi was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in recognition of his residential work, which articulates how architecture can “connect man and nature through masterful siting and exceptional craft.” In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Takashi touches on his inspirations and current projects, as well as key considerations for residences and homes into the future.
Why did you choose to study literature and architecture?
I started my undergrad journey in architecture school at Berkeley, studying under Professor Lars-Lerup who had a broad and interesting perspective on architecture. He regularly held court at Strada, a local cafe where all the architecture students hung out. One day at Strada, he told a group of students, myself included- that none of us at the moment were ready to be architects and that we should all drop out and study something else or travel and come back to architecture once we were a little more well-rounded. This was a time when being in architecture school meant full immersion and long hours. I realized that I wasn’t taking advantage of all the resources Berkeley offered and took his words to heart. I dropped out of the architecture department and took classes in other fields that interested me: studio art, art history, philosophy, history, and literature classes. I enjoyed the detour, and eventually landed in the literature department, knowing that I’d always go back to architecture in the end.
Can you tell us about EYRC and your role, and how your work has evolved over time?
In a nutshell, EYRC creates architecture in the modern idiom that responds to culture and the environment. We specialize in California Modernism across a broad range of building types, and are curious about trying new things. However, we have always been well known for our residential work, and this continues to this day. I am a partner at EYRC Architects (the Y in EYRC) and I am also the Residential Studio Director. That doesn’t mean all of our residential projects come from my hand, but that I guide the various teams and make sure we are maintaining a certain level of quality and executing design that is consistent with our core values and design ethos. I enjoy the collaborative nature of design within the studio.
Three years ago, I spearheaded the opening of EYRC’s San Francisco location and I often travel back and forth between the two cities. Our San Francisco office is smaller than our LA office and operates as an extension of our Culver City office. Opening the San Francisco office also made us realize that our work is a regional practice not specific to Los Angeles, it’s a vernacular rooted in the broader legacy of modernism in California.
You were previously a design journalist and editor at GA Houses in Tokyo. How has this shaped your current practice?
I traveled to Tokyo after I graduated from Berkeley with a BA in Literature. It was a bit of an existential journey, I was born in Tokyo and I was returning at an interesting transition period between college and graduate school. Working as a design journalist at GA seemed like the perfect fit with my background in literature and my interest in architecture. It also provided me with unbelievable access and insight into the greatest work in the world. GA’s office in Tokyo had a gallery and anyone who was coming to Tokyo would always stop by. And since I was the only fluent English speaker on staff I’d often be in the room with people like Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, etc. Being immersed in this world showed me what it took to operate at the highest level, and it gave me great exposure to perspectives from around the world. It also helped me develop an editorial approach to architecture, and to this day all of our projects have a story. I am always conscious of how the work relates to and expands the narrative.
What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?
One project that takes me out of a purely residential space and into the art world, is the redesign of a community-oriented artist residency space in Sausalito, California. The project is located in a historic part of the Richardson Bay houseboat enclaves which was built by artist squatters after WWII, and Sausalito as a town is known for its maritime culture and creative artistic roots.
I’m also working on new residential projects in Aspen, El Paso, Texas, and Japan– bringing California modernism to other regions is always a fun challenge. The dialog between California and Japan has been particularly interesting and rewarding for me.
A larger, full-time project I am always working on is the studio and the practice which is constantly evolving. Architects in the past were primarily more concerned with form, materials, and urban context, now it’s part of our responsibilities as architects of the built environment to examine our role in addressing larger issues such as societal inequities and climate change.
With changes to climate, technology, and construction, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to change the profession?
We are at a crossroads right now where we realize development and previous building and construction techniques have rendered harm to the environment- we can choose a different path and work to remedy these issues within architecture with our access to new technology. In essence, architecture calls for the extraction of raw materials and creates buildings on raw land- we have a responsibility as architects to act as shepherds for the environment to create responsibly. Adaptive reuse is a reaction to the extractive nature of architecture and it’s a very integral part of our practice. There is a wealth of existing built structures, we have to use this to our advantage and redesign our existing structures using technology to create new circumstances for change. EYRC’s commercial studio is working on several projects like this currently. Being a part of this turning tide is one of the most exciting and optimistic aspects of our practice.
You’ve built up a body of residential work. What are some major takeaways from designing homes?
As an architect I’ve realized that being a good architect is about many things other than the architecture itself. I don’t mean that the architecture can be overlooked, but that good design is just really a base line. When I was starting out, I was almost exclusively concerned with forms and the materials that make up a building. As I’ve matured, it has become more about the spaces, and the site. You realize what you’re really creating are stages or vessels that allow people to be their best selves. A large part of this is realizing how spaces relate to non-architecture, to landscapes and other elements. For example, when we consider the design of a window, we are not just looking the shape of the window, or the type of glass it’s made of, we’re re-examining what the window gives you access to- a portal to your world, a view, or depending on the time of day, a beam of light.
As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
It’s not enough to create beautiful things, there is a social responsibility aspect to being a good architect. We have to strive towards creating a positive impact on humanity as our projects often outlive us. We have to think about its environmental footprint and its impact on people and the community. How do we bring joy into the lives of our clients? How do we create projects that have a positive impact on our communities? We have to connect our work with the bigger picture.