Winner of 2014’s Emerging Architecture awards, this modest addition experiments with ideas of physical and perceptual transformation
Shingo Masuda and Katsuhisa Otsubo first came to public attention when they achieved an honourable mention in the SD Review Award of 2008. Initiated in 1982 by Fumihiko Maki, the award has positioned itself as a lively conduit for upcoming Japanese architects. Born in the 1980s, Masuda and Otsubo are possibly the award’s youngest recipients, capping a quick and impressive trajectory of graduating from college in 2007 and immediately establishing their own firm. In Japan, with a tradition of serving time with an older architectural master and a clear lineage of apprenticeships traceable through several generations, this pattern is unusual.
In their work to date, Masuda + Otsubo appear to sustain Japan’s current vogue for artful minimalism. Their delicate line drawings for an earlier project ‘Little Hilltop with Wind View’ recall the kawaii (cute) presentations of SANAA and Junya Ishigami. The finished project (highly commended in the 2011 AR Awards) is no less whimsical. When the wind blows, the building faintly vibrates as if it is breathing: it is, in effect, a fragile architectural mechanism that effectively senses and visualises natural phenomena through a marriage of tectonics based on careful structural calculations.
Boundary Window, Masuda + Otsubo’s winning project for 2014’s Emerging Architecture Awards, is a different but no less inventive proposition in the face of changed circumstances for young Japanese architects. Compared with the era in which Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito began their careers with a series of radical house designs, Japan now faces the challenges of a declining birthrate, an ageing society and a moribund economy. Young architects have fewer opportunities to test their ideas and abilities on new projects, so increasingly embrace renovation and interior design briefs, as Masuda + Otsubo do here.
The most conspicuous element is a steel window frame larger than the building itself. Typically, windows are either encased in the opening of a wall or housed in a building frame, but this does neither, initiating a new relationship between window and building. A large glass curtain covers the entire building facade, so it could, quite literally, be described as a curtain wall. But this custom-designed curtain penetrates the floors, disrupting any sense of scale, and challenging the established notion of window. To begin with, the height of the window is already out of alignment. When the lower section of the window is opened, not only does the window on the first floor open, but also the lower half of the second floor under the handrail. When someone in the garden catches a person inside opening the window, this misalignment is enhanced, creating an unexpected viewpoint. The plane of the window also extends vertically over the roof, enclosing and defining a terrace.
The site is a residential suburb of Tokyo. The client was a film cameraman looking for a young architectural practice with new ideas. On discovering Masuda + Otsubo he asked them to convert an unremarkable two-storey house into a photographic studio. From his professional life, the client had a clear sense of the importance of image and the kind of interior treatment he favoured. Rough, unfinished walls and floors, antique furniture and details that mimic Classical moulding reflect his taste. The combination of Masuda + Otsubo’s unorthodox contemporary design and the more conventional sensibility of the client enhances the spatial and visual Unheimlichkeit. Since the building was to be used as a photographic studio, partition walls on both floors were removed to create large fluid spaces. Based on the programme, Masuda + Otsubo alighted on the window as their ‘site’, employing a single architectural element to redefine the entire space.
The three facades of the existing building are subject to different treatments. For the garden side, the old aluminium frame is removed and the new glass screen and membrane-like curtain is clamped to the exterior, presenting overlapping elements. The new structure not only exhibits variation in time, but the openable windows also stimulate experiential variety. Constant rippling shadows and reflections create compelling effects inside and out. By contrast, the windows on the sides of the building are simple conventional fixed elements with steel frames. On the wall facing the road, the facade alludes to a past existence, with grey painted walls and the frames of previous openings. Yet in the suburban context, the transformation of the facades still feels delightfully unsettling.
One example of a building with an overshooting glass facade is Jean Nouvel’s 1994 Cartier Foundation in Paris. But unlike Nouvel’s project, Boundary Window is not a facade separated from the structure, and its misaligning relationship with the floor is its critical feature. By setting the steel window-frame grid at the height of the second floor handrail, a deliberate disjunction is created.
Transparency and large steel window frames have Modernist origins, but here the relationship with the existing structure is more Postmodern in its complexity and contradiction. From this early provocative experiment, it cannot be long before Masuda + Otsubo have the chance to design a more substantial building. And it will be fascinating to see how their brilliant methodology unfolds.
Architect: Shingo Masuda + Katsuhisa Otsubo
Photographs: Courtesy of the architect