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Passage House by TNA, Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

[COMMENDATION AR HOUSE 2010] TNA enhance their reputation for inventive one-off dwellings with a circular house, looped around a central void. Photography by Daici Ano

Delighting in its worldly views while seemingly defying gravity, this project seems to channel the spirit of Pierre Koenig’s or John Lautner’s seminal domestic work completed half a century ago, half the world away, on the US west coast. And yet here we are in the mountainous terrain of Karuizawa, Japan, a favoured summer getaway for city-dwellers.

Designed as a weekend retreat, Passage House is more aptly named than externally perceived. Although the building appears to be a C-shape in tenuous communication with a steep slope, its plan is a continuous circulatory loop, obscured and secured within the earth. Young Tokyo-based TNA has cemented its reputation for inventive one-off residences whose simple names - Stage House, Plaster House, Ring House (AR December 2007) - convey something of their architecture’s rich reduction.

This project has truly stunning moments: the framing of nature; the trees streaking through the void; and the hillside steps’ finale, a magically folding-floor-cum-front-door. But their adherence to a diagram so abstracted from domesticity presents challenges. The programme’s unspooling round the circuit creates unusual adjacencies; for instance the bathroom, connecting kitchen and bedroom, has curious clear-glazed partitions. Furthermore, is the ‘free space’ between the bedroom and the guest room a loathsome lack of privacy or an invitation to intimacy?

London’s literary Bloomsbury Group were wittily said to move in circles, live in squares and love in triangles. This house’s unique plan perhaps confers on its ménage a thrilling confection of all three.

Architect TNA, Tokyo, Japan
Project team Makoto Takei, Chie Nabeshima
Structural engineer Akira Suzuki/ASA

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