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Bird's Nest Atami and Sayama Forest Chapel in Japan by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

AR_EA 2015 Highly Commended

The term ‘Lost Generation’ is widely associated with American writers after the First World War, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But in Japan, it refers to a different generation: those who graduated during ‘The Lost Decade’ - the 10 years following Japan’s economic meltdown. Those born between 1972 and 1982 were cast into the world during a national employment ice age, at a time whenglobalisation and neoliberalism were gaining momentum. This drastically affected the number of opportunities for architects, with the decline in public works and competitions.

Kengo Kuma, born in 1954, had his debut in time to benefit from the full backing of the bubble economy, and his M2 project (1991) with its enormous Ionic column - a bold attempt at American Postmodernism - has become symbolic of the Japanese economic boom.

Interior of chapel

Source: Nacasa & Partners

Interior of Sayama Forest Chapel

In contrast Hiroshi Nakamura, born in 1974, is of the lost generation. Setting up his own practice in 2002, Nakamura gradually achieved fame with commercial and private projects, but much like Junya Ishigami (who was also born in 1974), regardless of talent, he faced difficulties stepping up to larger public projects. Nakamura’s breakout work, the Lanvin Boutique Ginza store (2003), was a storefront made of steel plate featuring roughly 3,000 punched holes embedded with acrylic cylinders. The CEO of Lanvin hired Nakamura because he liked Kuma’s Plastic House (2002), a photographer’s home for which Nakamura was project architect. Nakamura is the only architect to have won the most coveted interior design honour inJapan three times: the grand prize at the JCD International Design Awards.

The Lotus Beauty Salon (2006) in Mie Prefecture was premiated for its ceiling, perforated with roughly 50,000 holes with a diameter of 9 to 13mm each. Depending on your perspective, a lotus leaf emerges; get closer, and the image gradually presents itself, disappearing as you move further away. The holes also function as a scattered skylight, permeating the salon with light. Nakamura received the sameaward for the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku (2012) and for the double-helix Ribbon Chapel in Onomichi (2013). He excels in sensorial designs, using finite expressions to create unique phenomenological spaces.

Exterior of chapel

Source: Nacasa & Partners

Exterior of chapel


Plan of the Sayama Forest Chapel

In Nakamura’s book Microscopic Designing Methodology (INAX Publishing 2010), he writes, ‘I want to create richness beyond words, born from the dynamic relationship between architecture and body.’ Adding, ‘I do not want to place architecture on an academic pedestal, but design as such so it becomes something just over the skin or clothes.’ It was only after the jury had selected the finalists for this year’s AR Emerging Architecture Awards that it was revealed that two of the final 15 projects - Sayama Forest Chapel and Bird’s Nest Atami - were actually by the same architect, Nakamura and his practice NAP.

‘Although a chapel by name, it is a non-religious contemplative space, not pertaining to any particular religion’

Sayama Forest Chapel (2014) is located in a cemetery 40 minutes from central Tokyo by train, and a 10-minute walk from the station. Nakamura won the design competition to replace the former chapel, launched in celebration of the Sayama Lakeside Cemetery’s 40th anniversary. Although a chapel by name, it is a non-religious contemplative space, not pertaining to any particular religion (Christians only make up one per cent of the Japanese population in a country dominated by Buddhists). That said, its appearance suggests otherwise, with its sharp triangle openings, complex three-dimensional geometry, and almost Gothic verticality. But the chapel also resembles a contemporary interpretation of a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. In Japan, the Gassho structure is when two pillars meet to support each other, creating an inverted V-shape. The word ‘Gassho’ refers to the shape of the hands when placed together in prayer in front of either your face or chest, as in Buddhist devotion.


Section through Bird’s nest


Plan of Bird’s Nest

What impresses on arrival is the tremendous technical construction skill. The roof is composed of 21,000 tiny sheets of cast aluminium applied by craftspeople. In  order to cover the complex curvature of the roof and have the pliability to be bent by hand, the thickness of the aluminium was restricted to 4mm. Nakamura’s acute sensibility shows in his judicious selection of materials. The curvilinear roof is constructed of 251 laminated larch beams. With a tolerance of only 1mm, the chapel demanded a high degree of construction precision. Inside, the laminated beams form an undulating ribbed structure, and the voluptuous wooden space gently wraps the body. The floor slopes slightly towards the altar. Under the supervision of the architect, this small 110-square-metre space was also of highly detailed and accurate construction.

‘The small teahouse over the terrace, with minimal straight lines, seems as if it could have come straight out of the pages of a fairy tale’

At the entrance to the cemetery, the Sayama Lakeside Cemetery Park Community Hall (2013), designed by Nakamura too, welcomes arriving guests. The project was a competition for young architects under the age of 40, which Nakamura won. With a doughnut-shaped plan surrounding the tree, the roof slopes downward from the centre to the perimeter. This becomes the eaves over the water surface, overseeing the surrounding scenery. The water gently shimmers in the breeze with the play of reflected light. This work was well received by the client and led to the commission of the Sayama Forest Chapel.


Source: Nacasa & Partners


Source: Nacasa & Partners

Nakamura’s other project selected by the judges, Bird’s Nest Atami, is in the Risonare Atami athletics zone. In this teahouse, he nurtures architecture’s relationship with nature, as previously seen in the housing complex Dancing Trees, Singing Birds (2007), where residents live among the trees, integrating with nature.

The Bird’s Nest Atami was commissioned by a treehouse builder, Takashi Kobayashi. Essentially, this is not a treehouse, as the hut doesn’t nestle directly in the towering 300-year-old camphor tree. Instead, the hut is totally independent of it, perching on a steel trellis threaded through the branches without harming the tree or hindering its growth. The construction was inherently extremely difficult with the steeply sloping site preventing deployment of large construction equipment. As a result of this, the treehouse is built with a combination of several metal members small enough to be handled by one person. This is similar to how birds assemble their nests using collected twigs. The effect is not only visually related, but the construction process itself is very bird-nest-like.

The small teahouse over the terrace, with minimal straight lines, seems as if it could have come straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. The design is reminiscent of the unique Takasugi-an Tea House in Chino (2004) by Japanese architectural historian, Terunobu Fujimori. However, whereas the Takasugi-an, which sits on a column, lacks structural innovation, with the Bird’s Nest, Nakamura has presented a new direction in both structural and construction process. In that regard, it is truly architectural.

Birds Nest Atami and Forest Chapel

Architect: Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

Photographs: Nacasa & Partners

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