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Roku Museum by Hiroshi Nakamura & Nap Architects, Oyama City, Japan

Surrounded by a grid of mature trees, the Roku Museum appears to be set in a natural grove. Photography by Hiroshi Nakamura & Nap Architects

A unique trait of contemporary Japanese architecture is its ambiguous relationship with context. As formal and programmatic systems clash in Japan’s dense urban centres, startling juxtapositions baffle and excite visitors, who discover temples, love-hotels, wedding chapels, furniture showrooms, kindergartens and mechanised parking lots sitting cheek-by-jowl.

In print it is all too easy to deceive observers who don’t get out there and walk the streets. All that it takes is for a few choice images that edit out neighbouring properties and for projects to be re-rendered in perfect isolation. Tadao Ando’s publicists have mastered this form of presentation and many others adopt the same tactic, ignoring the opportunity to celebrate the so-called imperfections that make the reality of the Japanese city so very surreal.

This building by 37-year-old architect Hiroshi Nakamura also conjures a beguiling image. Designed to house paintings collected by the owner’s late father, Roku Tsukada, it creates the illusion of a remote isolated building in rural woodland. Yet in fact, the building stands on a busy street in Oyama city in Tochigi prefecture, in a man-made landscape that extends the Japanese tradition of the ornamental garden.

Nakamura describes the building process: ‘We planted a grove of trees to create a tranquil environment in the city, suitable for the appreciation of paintings. We planted three rows of six trees each in a grid so as to allow sunlight to reach each tree.’

Evergreen trees planted on the northern boundary block out the cold north wind in the winter, whereas deciduous trees on the south side offer protection from the sunlight in the summer and allow in light during the winter. As the building navigates its site, the 100m² volume twists and turns in plan and rises up in phototropic form toward the light.

As Nakamura continues, ‘Three-dimensional measurements of the lowest branches on the trees to be planted were taken, and a digital process was used to allow the shape of the building to be fine-tuned. We did this so that the building would not interfere with the tree branches, trunks or roots, and to enable the swaying of the branches in strong winds to be taken into consideration.’

The interiors are also defined by the architect’s desire to reflect the shapes of the trees with soft curves in the ceiling and walls. It was intended that visitors would feel the presence of the trees without actually seeing them, giving the spaces a different character to the white cube gallery. There is also a salon-like café, where people can drop in anytime.

Ceiling heights and floor levels shift in key places, such as the entrance, with an average height of only 1.7m. ‘This was due to the fact that branches and leaves are close to the roof in this area,’ says Nakamura. The café ceiling falls to a low point, where you are forced to sit on a bench surrounded by the walls and ceiling, creating an experience that Nakamura likens to sitting down against a tree and taking a rest.

A timber frame was designed to ease construction of the complicated shapes sheathed in plywood to create a monocoque. This was then clad in asphalt shingles that follow the curves to create a continuous surface, reflecting the trees’ shifting shadow dance. As the architect hopes, the building brings nature and people one step closer together.

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