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Crane House by Atelier Bow-Wow, Karuiza, Nagano, Japan

Atelier Bow-Wow adapt to a rural ridge location with a simple, single-storey ship-like volume. Photography by Edmund Sumner

Tokyo architect Atelier Bow-Wow is perhaps best known for its jousts with the absurdity of the Japanese urban condition, easing eccentric houses into microscopic plots and celebrating the often bizarre hybrids of functions precipitated by the pressure on city land use. For this recent project, however, the firm has decamped to the rural idyll of Karuizawa, a tourist and weekending town popular with urbanites seeking solace from the Tokyo conurbation. Away from it all, the tensions of urban life are dissipated and people and buildings can recover their equilibrium. ‘With the wind and sun tickling our bodies we can’t help having fun,’ says Bow-Wow principal Momoyo Kaijima.

Commissioned to design a weekend house on a wooded hillside site, Kaijima and partner Yoshiharu Tsukamoto have clearly had fun rustling up this snappy little essay in material lightness, spatial fluidity and general architectural brio. The simple, single-storey volume is a diaphanous glass wedge topped by a lightweight, oversailing roof. Delicately perched on top of a ridge, it resembles a stranded ship; specifically, its proportions and form give it the air of an abandoned Venetian vaporetto.

It’s the classic Miesian/Johnsonian pavilion in the landscape, but with a twist. Rather than impose its will on the site by flattening the terrain or floating above it on stilts, the house responds to the subtle but awkward shifts in topography by stepping both down and across the sloping site in a series of linked platforms. Some sense of this can be apprehended from the way in which a stepped concrete brim, abstracting the geometry of the actual floorplate, runs along the base of the walls to mirror the overhang of the roof. The roof itself is also skewed slightly, twisting gently in two directions to reflect the change in levels and tapering plan.

Internal organisation is logical and linear, with the family coming together at the sharp end for concertedly communal activities, such as eating and watching TV, and retreating into cellular sleeping spaces at the flared-out stern. A lounge area spanning the width of the house mediates between the two and provides a place to receive visitors. Floor and ceiling are seamlessly lined with warm, honey-coloured paulownia wood, so it’s a bit like being in a reassuring timber womb, albeit with views of the surrounding forest through the full-height glazed walls.

In a largely open plan, spaces are demarcated by changes in level; from the highest bedroom level to the studio in the prow, there’s a drop of around 1.4m. ‘There are no identical cross-sections in this building,’ says Kaijima. ‘As you move around, you discover the changing aspects of width, depth and roof pitch.’ So unlike the familiar modernist orthogonality, everything here is just slightly off grid, as the tensions of an apparently bucolic site feed through into the built form, just as they do back in Tokyo. But this is all good; Bow-Wow likes having something to kick against. ‘When architecture learns from contradiction and conflict, and transforms itself by assimilating them, you get lively forms and spaces,’ says Kaijima.

Architect Atelier Bow-Wow, Tokyo
Project team Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Momoyo Kaijima

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