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House-T, Japan by Tsukano Architect Office

AR House 2013 Joint Winner: Allusions to ritual and a spirit of sensuality inform this hermetic house in Japan

House-T, joint winner of this year’s AR House Awards, is a powerfully pure statement of dwelling in the 21st century. The house’s blank white walls stand as a steadfastly silent and self-contained riposte to the banality of the surrounding apartments, ordinary suburban dwellings and roar of traffic in downtown Miyazaki in southern Japan.

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‘Does such whiteness and plainness conjure up images of tofu?’

At first glance, House-T might appear to be a paradigm of Platonic form. Yet through its abstraction it raises the question of how to empathise with such a volume. Does its Euclidean geometry imply the universality of Modernism? Or in this particular cultural context, does such whiteness and plainness conjure up images of tofu?

Is such a seemingly simple form timeless, or rather incumbent upon time, through the cycles of day and night and seasons, to bring it to life?

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The pristine cube is an enigmatic presence in an ordinary milieu

As Michiya Tsukano’s first built work, House-T has launched the architect’s career into almost instant stardom as an early masterwork. Since its first appearance six months ago, the house has captured the imagination of the architectural cyber world. Its minimal form exudes both youthful energy and mature restraint − a tension similarly embodied in the landmark works of Tadao Ando’s early Row House at Sumiyoshi, with its blank exposed-concrete front facade perforated by a single central door, and Toyo Ito’s U-House at Nakano Honcho, with its monolithic, curved concrete wall.

Each is a work by an architect in his thirties that reconsiders the fundamentals of living through the pure statement of an inward-looking, minimal dwelling, and each became signature works of their respective careers.

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Like his predecessors, Tsukano’s design turns its back on the chaos of the city to enclose a microcosmic world brought to life by an internal courtyard. All House-T’s rooms face into the narrow courtyard on its east side, capturing morning light reflected off white gravel. Two stacked floors maintain the same basic plan configuration with living above dining, bedroom above the kitchen, and bathroom above the study.

Notably, the internal ground plane lies around a metre below the courtyard, giving intensified low views of the gravel from the dining ledge and kitchen counter. Even without verdant vegetation, the courtyard animates the living spaces with the primal natural forces of light and wind, reflected and refracted within.

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The courtyard channels light into the sunken ground floor

Such an internal world evokes multiple readings. The house’s material expression is a composition of contrasting planes: at ground level, a smooth concrete floor with a timber wall and ceiling, and textured concrete core. The upper level reverses this relationship with a wooden floor and white plaster walls and ceilings.

These spatial compositions appear timeless, yet can also be seen to evoke the work of Japanese Modernist pioneer Sutemi Horiguchi, especially in his Okada House (1933), or of Tsukano’s translation of Le Corbusier’s roof terraces into the Japanese context, a theme of his ongoing research.

Moreover, the internal spaces could be seen to be a modern version of a traditional tea house, inspired by the 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu.

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Like entering a tea house, the house’s entry sequence is ritualistic, through a dark corridor and down some steps to bring you below ground level, decompressing from the distracting blare of the outside world to a tranquil, internalised environment. Just as the tea ceremony provides solace from chaos, so the interior maintains a sense of calm and intimacy as the basis to perfect everyday life.

The pristine whiteness of Tsukano’s House-T also raises the question of how the dwelling will age over time. And will such radical architecture enhance or constrict the lives of its occupants? The freshness of the timber walls might be seen to resonate with the storehouses of the famous Ise Shrine that are rebuilt every 20 years.

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Timber-clad walls recall the Ise Shrine

For a brief moment before being torn down, the Ise Shrine’s new iteration is juxtaposed side by side with its predecessor from 20 years earlier, embodying the immemorial cycles of time, growth and decay in a tradition that has continued since the seventh century. House-T, in its current and imagined future states, can also be seen to be timeless and incumbent upon time.

Situated between microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds, House-T thus connects with both the past and future through the rigour of minimal dwelling in all its experienced and imagined multiplicities.

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Fact File

Architect: Tsukano Architect Office

Photographs: Kenichi Asano

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