Designing Architecture Without Walls

Exploring Shigeru Ban's Wall-less Houses

open white interior, no walls, open to the exterior woods, a toilet and bathtub in the far corner
Interior of Shigeru Ban-Designed Wall-Less House, 1997, in Nagano, Japan. Hiroyuki Hirai, Shigeru Ban Architects courtesy

In a house without walls, vocabulary must change. There is no bath-room, no bed-room, and no living-room. The wall-less design informs the room-less language.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban created this private home in Nagano, Japan, a year before the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. Look closely. Way down there at the end of the...hallway? Is that a bathroom? There's a toilet and bathtub, so it must be a bathroom — but there is no room. It's the last open space to the right. Where's the bathroom in a wall-less house? Right out in the open. No door, no hallway, no walls.

Although it appears to have no walls, noticeable grooves on the floor and ceiling indicate the tracks for moveable dividers, panels that can slide into place to create walls — especially, it seems, around the bathroom area. Living and working in open spaces are design choices that we make and are made for us. Let's find out why.

Wall-less House in Nagano, 1997

Exterior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan
Exterior of Shigeru Ban-designed Wall-Less House, 1997, Nagano, Japan. Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai, Shigeru Ban Architects courtesy, modified by cropping

This Shigeru Ban-designed house in Japan not only has an open interior floor plan, but it also has a limited number of exterior walls. You may think how dirty the floors must get, but if you can afford a custom-designed house by a Pritzker Laureate, you also can afford a regular housekeeping staff.

Shigeru Ban began experimenting with interior spaces for wealthy Japanese clients in the 1990s. Ban's unique residential architecture — managing space with dividers and using nontraditional, industrial products — is even found in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. The Metal Shutter House building is located near Frank Gehry's IAC building and Jean Nouvel's 100 11th Avenue in what has become the Pritzker Laureate area of Chelsea. Like Gehry and Nouvel before him, Shigeru Ban won architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2014.

Architect's Statement

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban describes the design for his 1997 wall-less house in Nagano, Japan:

"The house is built on a sloping site, and in order to minimize the excavation work the rear half of the house is dug into the ground, the excavated earth being used as fill for the front half, creating a level floor. The floor surface at the embedded rear part of the house curls up to meet the roof, naturally absorbing the imposed load of the earth. The roof is flat and is fixed rigidly to the upturned slab freeing the 3 columns at the front from any horizontal loads. As a result of bearing only vertical loads these columns could be reduced to a minimum 55 mm in diameter. In order to express the structural concept as purely as possible all the walls and mullions have been purged leaving only sliding panels. Spatially, the house consists of a 'universal floor' on which the kitchen, bathroom and toilet are all placed without enclosure, but which can be flexibly partitioned by the sliding doors."

Nine-Square Grid House, 1997

looking inside a modern home, one wall missing, stone surfaces
Nine-Square Grid House, 1997, Kanagawa, Japan. Hiroyuki Hirai, Shigeru Ban Architects courtesy (cropped)

The year that the young Japanese architect was finishing the Wall-Less House in Nagano, the future Pritzker Laureate was experimenting with similar concepts one hundred miles away in Kanagawa. Not surprisingly, the Nine-Square Grid House has a square floor plan, about 34 feet on each side. The floor and ceiling are divided into 9 squares, like a tic-tac-toe game board, with grooved tracks for sliding partitions — a type of make-your-own-room-whenever-you-want power for this homeowner.

Three Good Reasons for a House Without Walls

If your home's location is all about the view, why separate living areas from the surrounding environment? Sliding glass wall products such as NanaWall Systems make permanent exterior walls obsolete in most cases. Why else would you want to build a home without walls?

Designing For Dementia: Exterior walls may be necessary for houses with children and people with memory loss. However, interior walls often confuse people who are dealing with progressive dementia.

Space Clearing: Feng Shui suggests that space clearing is necessary when energy accumulates to unhealthy levels. "In feng shui," says Feng Shui expert Rodika Tchi, "the right location of walls can promote a good flow of energy and enhance the positive feelings in a home."

Cost Savings: Interior walls may add to construction costs and certainly add to interior decorating costs. Depending on the design, engineering, and materials, a home without interior walls may be less expensive than conventional design.

Historic Open Floor Plans

oval desks arranged in an open space, well-lit, with space-age looking columns topped with thin mushroom-like capitals
The Great Workroom, 1939, at the Johnson Wax Building, Racine, Wisconsin. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

Open floor plans are nothing new. Today's most common use of the open floor plan is in office buildings. Open spaces can enhance a team approach to projects, most notably in professions such as architecture. The rise of the cubicle, however, has created prefabricated rooms within the larger "office farm" space.

One of the most famous open floor office plans is the 1939 workroom designed at the Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Wright became known for designing spaces with open floor plans. His designs of interior space are derived from the open-nature of the Prairie.

The "open school" model of school architecture in the 1960s and 1970s theorized that the one-room schoolhouse had a lot going for it. The theory of open learning seemed like a good idea, but the wall-less architecture created an unstructured environment in larger rooms; folding walls, half walls, and strategically placed furniture returned open spaces to classroom-like spaces.

In Europe, the Rietveld Schröder House, built in the Netherlands in 1924, is an iconic example of De Stijl Style architecture. Dutch building codes forced architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld to create rooms on the first floor, but the second floor is open, with sliding panels like Shigeru Ban's house in Nagano.

Design Psychology

close-up of three 2-story residential units with retractable glass and metal shutter front walls
Metal Shutter House by Shigeru Ban, NYC. Jackie Craven

So, why do we build open areas only to compartmentalize the interior space, creating walls and rooms in which to live? Sociologists may explain the phenomenon as part of human evolution — walking away from the cave to explore open areas, but returning to the safety of the enclosed space. Psychotherapists may suggest it's arrested development — the unconscious desire to return to the womb. Social scientists might say that categorizing space is similar to the roots of prejudice, that we form stereotypes and compartmentalize to organize information and make sense of the world around us.

Dr. Toby Israel would say it's all about Design Psychology.

As environmental psychologist Toby Israel explains it, design psychology is "The practice of architecture, planning and interior design in which psychology is the principal design tool." Why do some people prefer an open floor plan, but for others the design creates anxiety? Dr. Israel might suggest that it has something to do with your past memories, and it's better to be self-aware before you begin to live in a place. She claims that "we have this past history of place, and it unconsciously effects us."

Dr. Israel has developed a "Design Psychology Toolbox," a series of nine exercises that examine a person's (or couple's) past, present, and future. One of the exercises is to construct an "environmental family tree" of the spaces we've lived. Your environmental autobiography may determine how comfortable you feel with certain interior designs. She says:

" When I work with healthcare places to help them design the hall waiting room or space, I get them to think about what's the personal space, what's the private space, what's the semi-private space, what's the group space so families can meet and that kind of thing. Really the human factors that go into the space."

The organization of space is not only a personal preference, but also a cultural and societal learned behavior. An open floor plan — even a wall-less bathroom — may be more acceptable if you're sharing the space with the one you love. Better yet, if you're living alone, an open space becomes like a loft apartment, a studio, or a dormitory room. For many of us, walls of separation suggest a socio-economic move up the affluence ladder from one-room spaces. This doesn't stop architects like Shigeru Ban, who continue to experiment with living space and construction materials.

Ban's Metal Shutter House, a small 11-story building on West 19th Street in New York City, has only 8 units, but each unit can be completely opened to the outside. Built in 2011, the two-story units can be completely open to the Chelsea streets below — both the industrial window and perforated metal shutter can completely roll up, breaking the barrier between the outside and the inside, and perpetuating Ban's experimentation with wall-lessness.


  • Israel, Toby. Design Psychology. Toby Israel Consulting, Inc.
  • Shigeru Ban Architects/ WALL-LESS HOUSE - Nagano, Japan, 1997, WORKS.
  • Tchi, Rodika. Open Up Blocking Walls with Feng Shui. The Spruce.
  • West, Judith. Interview with Toby Israel. Getting Your Money's Worth.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Designing Architecture Without Walls." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 28). Designing Architecture Without Walls. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Designing Architecture Without Walls." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).