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House N by Sou Fujimoto Architects, Oita City, Oita, Japan

Sou Fujimoto’s series of boxes in boxes stands out in this typical Japanese residential district. Photography by Edmund Sumner

In this typical Japanese district of Oita City on the island of Kyūshū - an area dominated by two-storey pitched-roof timber detached homes - lies House N. Glimpsing through apertures, luminous interiors and trees, it appears bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But who lives here? An equally bright young couple? Friends and peers of the architect himself, perhaps?

The startlingly brilliant 37-year-old Sou Fujimoto is highly prolific, with five projects featured in the AR Awards for Emerging Architecture, before appearing last year on the jury (a tactic to stop him winning the main prize for the second time). House N extends his portfolio of houses in a new direction, creating what he calls a ‘box-in-box-in-box prototype for collective housing’.

While, in Fujimoto’s words, ‘the house looks young’, the client is a retired couple who knew his work and cold-called him. They gave him no thematic brief, instead asking him to re-imagine their home in a simpler way, having lived on the site in a more conventional house for over 30 years. Fujimoto seized the opportunity to extend his research into the potential of primitive forms to create complex responses to contemporary needs. In the past, this was achieved with pitched-roof hut-like forms, but here he adopted a stripped-down aesthetic, more closely aligned with the work of his friend Ryue Nishizawa.

Beyond aesthetics, House N also plays a similar propositional role to Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (AR August 2007). Set within the known architectural context of the Japanese detached house, while Nishizawa distributes spaces on an open site, House N does the inverse to create a different prototype.

Dealing innovatively with Japan’s strict plot ratio regulations, Fujimoto has avoided the conventions of creating a courtyard or of setting a house as an isolated object within the site boundary. Instead it is a hybrid; a series of boxes in boxes that define domestic realm, enclosure and interior.

The outer box fills the site, and rises to two storeys. It has apertures, but has no glazed windows. As such, the typical plot ratio calculation did not apply to the overall footprint. Instead, the area of the solid body of the roof plan was measured to ensure that the 75 per cent maximum was not exceeded. Within this, the intermediate box forms the house proper, in rendered concrete and with glazed apertures. Within this, the third box contains dining and living spaces as the core of the domestic experience, this time built in timber, but rendered in the same spray-on rough material.

While the scale of the house surprised local residents during construction, Fujimoto is happy to report that the clients have not alienated any of their long-standing neighbours. Instead, on completion, the visual porosity of the box breaks down the perception of scale, while commanding the entire plot and presenting a ‘scaleable proposal for a wide variety of different contexts and programmes’. With this, we look forward to his forthcoming library at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, currently on site and due to complete in spring 2010.

Architect Sou Fujimoto Architects, Tokyo, Japan
Structural consultant Jun Sato Structural Engineers
Project team Yumiko Nogiri

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