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‘Bold, impressive and immense’: Cosmic by UID Architects

Winner of AR House 2016: in an unassuming Osaka suburb, ‘Cosmic’ is an ambitious architectural landscape

Climbing the approach of a narrow local street, you see a series of highly variegated white structures: a system of adjacent rigid-frame ‘gates’ that are at times shifted, compressed, raised and stretched in relation to one another. There is no repetition, and the differing sizes resemble a small primitive cluster of human dwellings. 

However, as you get closer, it becomes evident that this project is anything but unassuming. With its sheer expansiveness and visual contrast to the typical surroundings of traditional Japanese towns, what appeared to be a collective of differentiated masses can be more accurately described as interlocked rather than autonomous. An immense ground-hugging residential project, its territory is vast and open like a public park. Imagine a village for a family under, not one, but many roofs. The patriarch noted, ‘We often gather on the rooftop, or should I say rooftops, to have picnics. My grandchildren jump around the different levels of the flat roofs while grown-ups enjoy the moment.’

Site plan - click to expand

Site plan - click to expand

Site plan - click to expand

Frames seen from the exterior

Frames seen from the exterior

Frames seen from the exterior

Two generations share this ground. Husband and wife live in the southern half, while their son’s family occupies the northern half. They are close family yet fully recognise the need to connect and separate in flux when necessary, appropriate, or desired, and at times serendipitously. The older couple intermingles with old friends and neighbours to sustain relationships that span generations. The younger family, on the other hand, is centred around the children. Each half of the house is generously equipped; large kitchen and dining room to have simultaneous dinner parties if necessary, or breathtaking bathrooms and living rooms: rarities of private residences. One half can always host the other, and vice versa. Furthermore, what is common between these two generations is that they are inexplicably comfortable about being open to the outside world.

You then realise that the frame components were necessary manoeuvres to break up an otherwise overwhelming mass of programme. The spaces are distributed rather than condensed towards the centre as is the case with many compact Japanese homemaker residences. Furthermore, the frames also act as eaves and magnified brise-soleil. As light rays filter through clouds, the interplay of sunlight and shadow changes throughout the day. Described by Keisuke Maeda of UID Architects as the ‘gates for salubrious sun and wind’, the central frame and the agglomeration of smaller frames constitute layers of luminosity, views and hints of the internal daily lives of the occupants. 

‘As you get closer, it becomes evident that this project is anything but unassuming.’

This sense of unpredictable hide-and-seek is evident from even the outside since the project lacks any element to demarcate the property. Slight undulations of landscaping gently create ambiguous boundaries, allowing physical and visual intrusions if compelled to wander in. Surprisingly, the architect did not have to convince the client to do away with fences: ‘We did not want anything to separate us from the outside. This area is safe and close-knit, we look over each other in the rural area. As long as we had the basic level of security and privacy, we felt no need to build a wall, literally.’ So the perimeter is the foremost of many challenges to traditional privacy issues. Another challenge is the inherent qualities of materiality and directionality for using frames. That is to say, the opacity of frames counters the transparency of its voids. Though generous quantity and strategic positioning of curtains sustain the final vestiges of privacy, the glass apertures expose the interiority. In this regard, the project is as unconventional as it is experimental, only allowed to exist in the delicate confluence of trusting clients’ attitude and general self-restraint of regional culture that forbids crossing a phenomenal threshold of another’s territory.

Ground floor plan - click to expand

Ground floor plan - click to expand

Ground floor plan - click to expand

The initial impression of vulnerable exposure is quickly dissipated by the calculated longitudinal overlapping of simple frame elements, that in themselves would leave two sides exposed, but instead act as a graduated enfilade that shields the most sensitive areas of personal domain. There is a reason for frames being arranged unidirectionally. Closed, opaque verticals face the main thoroughfare on one side and the notional rear of the aggregated whole on the other, further accentuated by the raised earth mound. Conversely, the open, transparent sides form a powerful directional axis that allows the panorama of Osaka on one side. On the opposite side fronting a narrower local street, the ‘moon-viewing platform’, a contemporary rendition of the traditionally outdoor pavilion, acts as a visual buffer to its adjacent neighbour. 

First floor plan - click to expand

First floor plan - click to expand

First floor plan - click to expand

The overlapping of differentiated frames also occurs in the transverse direction. The transversal interlock results in two important conditions. Interlocking and shifting in three dimensions creates semi-outside spaces, carefully planned for outdoor programmes and protected by horizontal planes. 

These interstitial spaces encourage the interiority to spill out and blur the inside-outside boundary. The experience, as well as the plan, exposes these semi-outdoor spaces as extensions of interiority, and how the frames meet the ground implies lightness without forcing a break with the environ. Various programmes appropriate a differing number of frames to attain necessary floor areas. For example, the generous kitchen-dining and living rooms occupy multiple frames while more intimate spaces of bedrooms, guest rooms and bathrooms require one or part of a frame.

‘The central frame and the agglomeration of smaller frames constitute layers of luminosity, views and hints of the internal daily lives of the occupants.’

The second effect of interlocking is structural stability. A single frame is weak in longitudinal direction. However, the interlocking of multiple frames at strategic points rigidifies the whole. Considerable bending moment and load are not absorbed by the singular totality of a robust frame but by the networked distribution of interconnected striations, which allow the frames to remain relatively thin. It is a critique of traditional rigid-frame systems that, to this day, predominate the default structural thinking in Japan. Its architectural industry has relied on this structural system to create forms ad infinitum for speed and efficiency, and is consequently facing a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure due to an unquestioned proliferation of a singular modality. 

This monotonous convention is eschewed by the deployment of a simple set of operations – slice, scale, shift, intersect – to achieve a novel permutation that belies its simplistic operational origin. So, through the overlapping of frames, the architect endeavoured to achieve the dual-performance of ‘creating semi-outside spaces and an interlocked structural system, which is allowed to attain thinness and lightness as a summation of these interactions’.

Interior of the house

Interior of the house

Interior of the house

The material palette contributes to lightness and appears limited, such as the white finish over the steel structure, the earthen layer, high clarity glass and nature itself. However, this constrained palette is deployed with sophistication. White finished surfaces are immaculately even and corner conditions are crisply maintained. Non-structural walls and ceiling planes are finished in an earthen material to form a gradient that goes from smooth and supple at ground level towards rough and nuanced upwards. Made by local master craftsmen, the texture was decided and applied on site by the architect in an emergent act of design. The combination of glass and nature was also used in a unique way. In many instances inside the project, stone pebbles used for landscaping were also placed on the interior side of glass. This created spatial layering that blurred the transition from exteriority to interiority: from outside, to an outside-like space sandwiched between glass and a slightly raised floor or wall, into a tempered interior, and then finally, in reverse with the process mirrored on the opposite side.

‘The opacity of frames counters the transparency of its voids.’

The last, but not the least, material used is nature itself. Natural elements, such as the trees, lawns, a trickling stream, rolling mounds and stonework, are carefully orchestrated and treated as fundamental components that inform spatial constitutions. Though the term ‘material’ may connote artificiality and manipulation by hand, natural elements are deployed as equally effective components in producing architectural qualities: shades, thresholds, posts, canopies, circulation, furniture and floors. All the while, these natural elements retain their inherent qualities, playing out their autonomous life cycle, and together, engendering a microcosmic ecosystem. 

The architect has implicitly stated that this large mansion (go-tei in Japanese: go meaning ‘palatial’, tei meaning ‘mansion’) is equally a project about a large garden (also go-tei:tei here meaning ‘garden’). In the design period and throughout construction, the landscape and the architecture constantly adjusted and transformed in relation to one another. As such, it is difficult to strike dialectical poles such as natural and manmade. Nature encroaches thresholds, entering into the interior as pebbles and plants trespass upon solid matters. Architecture extends outwards, and traces of human dwelling colonise the landscape as platforms hover over and the dining table entrenches into the ground. Many oppositions fuse in this project. 

Section AA - click to expand

Section AA - click to expand

Section AA - click to expand

The house is grandiose in size but intimate in articulation. Each locus performs as a backdrop to intimacy and as a repository for personal artefacts. The spaces are all loosely connected yet separated. Ocular connections are provided by transparencies and yet are obscured by the layering of structures qua surfaces. Physical connections are provided by shared circulation and obfuscated by impenetrable material boundaries. Architecture and landscape, therefore, collude to connect inhabitants when appropriate, like amoebas engaged in tête-à-tête; a nuclear family further nuclearised by successive generations.

This project is an investment in a cultural prototype of how to relate to and interact with society. To be at once open and differentiated, highly connected yet individuated, and seamless yet heterogeneous. The open-minded attitude of the architect and client alike permeates the project. It quashes our hubris to reconnect with a sensitivity we are losing; that connection to our family, humanity and nature. Not only is the project opened to the surroundings spatially, it is also opened to the community. Speaking to the older couple, they fondly recalled ‘hundreds of neighbours attending the house-warming ceremony and how the project has become a new landmark’, or better yet a shared landscape for the people of the community. Evidently, the neighbours have unofficially anointed the premises as an emergency gathering place in case of natural disasters. Both instances demonstrate that not only the family, but also the community have become enamoured of the project.

‘In the design period and throughout construction, the landscape and the architecture constantly adjusted and transformed in relation to one another.’

Bold, impressive and immense, the visual impact of its coloration and scale belies the non-didactical relationship to its context: the daylight and wind analyses; excavated contours of the site; breaking up the mass into smaller more sensible scales relating to the surrounding homes; and the meticulous selection of vegetation that blooms to animate through the seasons. It is a perilous task to balance the relationship of context with representing an experimental, innovative prototype. This project demonstrates one possibility in the making of a shared architectural landscape. Contextuality is no longer an appliqué but truly sublimated into a performance of parts that engender a holistic prototype for living.

Cosmic

Architect: UID Architects: Keisuke Maeda
Structural engineer: Konishi Structural Engineers 
Landscape: Toshiya Ogino Environment Design Office 
Photographs: Hiroshi Ueda, courtesy of UID Architects

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