We've gotten some insights before into some of the fascinating cultural and economic reasons why Japanese houses are so weird. In cities like Tokyo, many of homes are small and sited on irregular-shaped lots, owing to high taxes on land that's inherited, with the land often getting divided further into smaller lots and sold.
Fair Companies brings us on a tour of one of these oddly shaped homes in Tokyo, designed by architects Masahiro and Mao Harada of Mount Fuji Architects Studio for a middle-aged couple. The home is divided into two portions due to the site's variable configuration: a skinny "gatehouse" that's only 2 metres (6.5 feet) wide at the entrance, and a slightly larger, yet still human-scaled main house at the rear of the lot. Take a look:
Dubbed the Near House, the home's name comes from the architects' interpretation of 'small' as 'near'. The narrow gatehouse at the mouth of the site acts as an entrance, and as a mini-gallery and studio space for the wife, an artist. Upstairs, past the metal ladder, is the library and office of the husband, a creative director who makes commercials. Everything -- shelves, books, paints, trinkets -- are within reach, giving a sense of 'nearness', or what the architects call a "peach skin" approach: everything is so close in this small space that you can't help but notice the finer details.
Going through a tiny courtyard one approaches the lower level of the main house, which is slightly set into the ground, owing to Japan's strict regulations on building height. No matter: to compensate for the this lowered and darkened floor, intimate spaces like the bedroom and bathroom are placed here. With the large windows and generous placement of greenery, the architects say that these spaces feel like you are sleeping and bathing in nature. The lady of house says that the bedroom feels like a "bear's den".
On the second level above, the space enlarges into an open-plan kitchen and living room. Dominating the space is an "archway" of fins spaced closely together, which not only tie the areas together spatially and provide storage, but also act as structural elements that hold up the roof. Inexpensive, relatively lightweight yet strong materials like MDF (medium-density fiberboard) panelling were used, so that materials could be carried and worked on by hand, and no heavy machinery was needed for construction. The material is also reminiscent of the paper screens that's traditionally found in Japanese homes.
The material choices for the home also reflect the fickle nature of the home-building industry in Japan: homes are often rebuilt due to a "disposable-home culture", as the land is considered to have more value that the building that sits upon it, and the fact that the government updates building codes every decade or so for seismic safety. The end result is a lot of construction waste, but it can be mitigated, explains architect Masahiro:
Here we use paper and wooden materials and everything can return to the earth, so the time scale is near, or small. We are always thinking about scale. Scale isn’t just big or small. Scale is also time. This building has a permanent quality, but it also feels ephemeral. This house lives with people, and dies with people, and that’s a good thing.