Yoshino Cedar House by Airbnb and Go Hasegawa

Joe Gebbia Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer, on the Yoshino Cedar House

‘I was on a trip in Tokyo in 2015 and we had a meeting with Kenya Hara. I was a huge fan of his in design school and he told us about the exhibition, and I realised that it was at the intersection of something we were already thinking about — what’s the future of the home, and more specifically what’s the future of the shared home?

Looking into the ‘sunset bedroom’ from the outsideLooking into the ‘sunset bedroom’ from the outside

It was meant to beg the question, ‘If architecture was intentional about sharing what would it look like?’ A decade ago people would never have imagined the rate at which people are sharing their homes now and they weren’t designed for it — so what if they were? What would they look like? So it was kind of a no-brainer for us; we said we’re in and we were paired with Japanese architect Go Hasegawa, which was a genius move on Kenya’s part. Go understands the home like nobody else and we gave him the brief, ‘How does architecture engender a connection between guest and host?’

The Cedar House soon after it was installed in the autumn of 2016The Cedar House soon after it was installed in the autumn of 2016

While he was in his design process we started doing some data gathering and we heard about this crazy story where a host in Japan, who lived in a very small village, decided she wanted to spruce up her home and rent out some rooms on our site and she got villagers to help her out. Then she started getting all these visitors and the village was amazed that all these people wanted to come to rural Japan. But people do, it’s just very hard to get there and find a place to stay. So she started employing people in the village with things like helping her to cook meals for guests, airport picks-ups and experiences like hikes in the forest. We got inspired by this and thought, what if we build on that idea?

So Go came back with his three concepts — called the Spoon, Fork and Knife — which while they were all brilliant, weren’t quite there. I remember at the end of the meeting I asked him to take them away and merge them and come up with the chopstick concept. We wanted something that was a community centre — which is an integral part of any rural village in Japan, where different generations can be together.

Two late models of the Cedar House, which were used to help the community to better understand the buildingTwo late models of the Cedar House, which were used to help the community to better understand the building

People in Japan don’t tend to meet in their homes as much as in third spaces. ‘Community centre’ here means something quite different from in the West. Here it is the heartbeat of the village. It is where people come together to share stories, to be together right across the generations. It is a critical component of successful village life.

We also decided that we didn’t want this to be just for the exhibition, we wanted it to be useful afterwards. It wasn’t meant to be an ephemeral exercise, we wanted it to actually help people.

Two late models of the Cedar House, which were used to help the community to better understand the buildingTwo late models of the Cedar House, which were used to help the community to better understand the building

So the brief to Go was to take an ingredient out of each one to make a new dish altogether. For instance there is the notion of an engawa, a small ledge in traditional homes going back to the 1700–1800s. Any time you saw this ledge, it was an invitation to share that space, like a park bench, and that is what we have at the front of the Cedar House. Japanese people understand that it’s OK to sit on that even though it’s not their house.

Various drawings envisioning the building in use, from the invitational seating outside the building to the communal table and shared bedroomsVarious drawings envisioning the building in use, from the invitational seating outside the building to the communal table and shared bedrooms

Also around the 18th century homes off the street were divided into thirds. The front was like a store where people could walk in and out. The middle third was a craft space where things were made and the back third was for the home, which was very private and off-limits. So there was this gradation from public to private.

This table is very symbolic of Japanese homes of the Forties and Fifties where the family used to gather. People live in micro-homes now and never bring people back to their home, so the third space is very important. The idea of sharing your home is very radical.

Another idea Go had was a performance space for the community with an Airbnb space below. It was a cube cut diagonally in half, so the rake of the seating down to the stage was the roof of the Airbnb space below. And there was this really interesting idea that if there was a performance while the guest was there, then they became a host to those attending the performance, so turning the whole role upside down. We have that here, as you can be staying here and then people drop into the community centre so you become the host in effect. Suddenly you’re hosting the village!

Various drawings envisioning the building in use, from the invitational seating outside the building to the communal table and shared bedroomsVarious drawings envisioning the building in use, from the invitational seating outside the building to the communal table and shared bedrooms

The third idea was an Airbnb that backed on to a paddy field. So part of the experience of staying there was to go into the field with the farmer and learn how to farm rice. Your stay would benefit the farmer and you had this whole experience. The project was also about rethinking the nature of our business, turning it from guest stays with host to guest stays with community as host. So there wouldn’t be an individual host anymore. It was not something that we’d ever done — this idea that funds would flow to a community group, rather than an individual, turned a lot of heads in the company.

We started to look for a place for the house. The prefecture of Nara, that Yoshino is in, happened to be a sponsor of House Vision, so we decided to start there. They gave us a list and Yoshino stood out, particularly the one fact about six generation of woodworkers having lived there.

We came down and met the city council and mayor and some other officials and started to present our idea. At first they did not understand it, but Go was a wonderful cultural bridge. The second time we came we brought a foamcore model and they got it, and they also understood what Airbnb was by that point.

They gave us a shortlist of sites in the village: the first one was a parking lot — not so good… the second was too far out of town, the third one was this site on the river. We looked left, we looked right and we were sold.

The Yoshino Cedar House in use in the evening as the sun setsThe Yoshino Cedar House in use in the evening as the sun sets

Then we were able to work with the site for the architecture. We were also constrained by the footprint in the show in Tokyo, plus there were the constraints of the trucks we used to bring it here. It was designed to break into four pieces, and the width is basically as big as you can get on a truck in Japan without having to close the highways. It was a very strange constraint.

Engaging with the community was a critical part of the process. I said to the guys, we cannot be a company that comes in, drops this alien spaceship and then leaves. We need to figure out how to get them involved right from the very beginning.

It’s been a really nice collaboration, but I don’t think we want to be in the business of making these over and over again — it’s more like a case of open sourcing the model to anyone who wants to make use of it. We’ll do our part by bringing the distribution channel of our global network of travellers and the promotion within our community. And this model can work elsewhere as well, not just in Japan.

We’ve known for many years that there are eight million empty homes in Japan — Yoshino has around 500 or so. So why do you need new construction if there is all this existing space? So we don’t want to spend our time creating new things, but rather use this as a touch point for this village to learn what it means to host as a community. So maybe they can then use the same people who worked on this to refurbish the existing homes. And then we take this case study to other villages and that’s what’s exciting to us — that idea is scalable.

The money from guests staying here goes into a fund picked by the community. They decided who in the village would benefit most from the money. They put together a cooperative of craftsmen and artisans from different age groups who are basically the hosts for this, and so the funds go back to them and they decide how they want to spend that.

I grew up thinking I was going to be an architect — that was my goal — and I feel that has been partially realised with this project, funnelled through Go; I really learned a lot from him. I really enjoyed it. It’s been great. To not only make something that is real, tangible, but to also do it in a way that has all these imbued benefits — the intention is really to help these people and this place — makes it even better for me. I think companies have a responsibility, if they have achieved some level of status or success, to employ their strengths to do good in the world. And I don’t think that’s just writing cheques. For us this has been pretty special.'

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