A prototypical house by Kengo Kuma updates an ancient approach to living through the severe winters of Japan’s northernmost island
In practice for over 25 years, Kengo Kuma has long held true to his core mission to humanise the city with natural materials. Before setting up his own studio, he learnt his trade from traditional craftsmen and went on to make his earliest AR appearances with projects such as the Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art (AR October 2001) that modernised and refined a form of visual and physical porosity more commonly associated within traditional agricultural typologies.
From here his work migrated into the city, bringing elements and characteristics of the natural world to complex and tightly hemmed-in sites, culminating in the most recently published Tourist Information Tower in Tokyo that exemplifies this motivation.
So in this lineage, this project is even more curious than these startlingly surreal images first suggest, taking the architect back to the rural outskirts and seeing him perform an apparent about-turn on his most enduring architectural preoccupation. Here, instead of bringing nature into the city, he has created an object that sits in the landscape like a conspicuous city slicker on a weekend retreat, dressing up a highly traditional rural building type in unsoiled, high-performance all-weather apparel.
The 180-degree shift in rationale, however, is conveniently justified by the word ‘experimental’, as this is not the stand-alone farmer’s cottage its solitary figure at first suggests. Instead it is a working prototype and academic guest house, commissioned by an environmental technology research institute called LXIL JS Foundation that runs annual on-site student design and construction competitions to promote sustainable construction, for which Kuma is site architect and chief judge. ‘Our client did not want a technology-led model’, explains Kuma, ‘so we were encouraged to produce a design that took account of the history and specific locality of the site.’
On the client’s former ranch site, in Taikicho, Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, Kuma and team took inspiration from the homes of the indigenous Ainu people, whose simple ‘Chise’ homes combat temperatures that fall as low as -25, with apparent ease. Chise translates as ‘house of the earth’ and ‘house of grass’ in contrast to the traditional domestic typology on Honshu where a private house is principally a ‘house in wood’ or ‘house of earthen wall’.
As such, Chise are not raised above the ground, but are on the earth, with a ground-bearing base of cattail mats arranged around a central fireplace kept lit all year round.
Accordingly, Kuma chose this as his design guide, instead of the less appropriately designed homes that tend to have thick walls and small windows that separate occupants from their surroundings. As the architect explains, ‘In this house, we wanted an environment in which you could feel the nature even from inside, so the wall of this house penetrates light and you can sense the moving of the sun.’
This is Kuma’s interpretation of the ‘house of grass’ component of the Chise, which sees the roof and walls − traditionally covered with sedge or bamboo grass to secure heat-insulating properties − replaced by a synthetic coat. This four-season outfit comprises an external skin of polyester fluorocarbon coating, an interstitial layer of insulation made from recycled PET plastic bottles, and a removable inner lining made from fibreglass fabric which is simply held in place with a magnetic tape very similar in performance to Velcro.
The combined build-up remains translucent, giving the house a tent-like quality that Kuma describes not only as the by-product of ‘a dynamic form of environmental engineering for this time’, but a manifestation of his ‘longing for a life surrounded by natural light, as if wrapped in daylight on the grassland’.
In this regard, without relying on any lighting system, the Memu Meadows house responds to nature’s timescale, where the architect hopes its residents will ‘simply get up when it gets light, and sleep after dark’, continuing with the aspiration that, ‘we expect this membrane house to enable you to lead a life that synchronises with the rhythm of nature’.
A slender larch frame gives the membrane layers structure and form, which is punctuated by a number of boxed-out frames. These apertures extend the experimental capacity of the 80-square-metre house, allowing a variety of window cassettes to be performance-tested over time along with its changeable underwear.
As Kuma recalls, ‘we learned a lot from the wisdom of the Ainu people, and were assured that technology was not the only solution to lead a modern life. Through this, by combining ancestral wisdom with new techniques, we are trying to propose a 21st-century archetype of housing for Hokkaido’.
Architect: Kengo Kuma and Associates
Photographs: Courtesy of the architect
House in Hokkaido, Japan by Kengo Kuma