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Small house, Japan by Unemori architects

Highly Commended: A compact house the length of a car becomes an urban paradigm for a poetic existence in the density of Tokyo’s quarters

Even by Japanese standards, this house for a couple and their child in a dense part of Tokyo redefines notions of compactness. With a footprint of 4m × 4m, it is a micro machine for living in.

Japan’s seismic regulations dictate that buildings must be physically separate from each other, giving rise to the often curious spectacle of structures in extremely close proximity, but not actually touching.

In this case, a site area of 34sqm and neighbours on three sides are relentless drivers of the architecture. Yet within this apparently uncompromising urban condition, the house manages to pack in a lower ground floor for sleeping, a double-height living area, a spare room and a terrace.

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Occupying the equivalent of two parking the compact is into dense urban milieu

Rather than occupying the whole site, the building footprint is compressed and extruded upwards, so there is enough room left over for a parking space. In fact, house and car are the same length, as if to emphasise how built form has been drilled down to the absolute functional minimum.

Pulling the building away from the edge of the site also allows light and air to circulate more freely. Floors are connected by a spiral staircase that balletically corkscrews its way through the house.

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A spiral staircase links the ultra thin floorplates

The floorplates of plywood on steel joists are ultra thin − a mere 70mm thick. Everything is pared down to the bone, but there is poetry as well as rigour.

A roof terrace provides a refuge from the blare and distraction of the city. And in places, the taut skin of horizontal boards enveloping the compact tower can be opened up to admit light and views.

The jury was deeply impressed by the ingenuity of the scheme and how it sought to challenge and overcome such an extreme context. By showing what is possible, it suggests a paradigm for an economically and spatially frugal kind of city living that could be emulated elsewhere.

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In places the timber skin flaps open to admit light

Fact File

Architect: Unemori Architects
Photographs: Ken Sasajima

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