Designed by Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, this house of floating concrete planes and glass walls contrives an ascetic domesticity tempered only by nature
Tokyo is a city of juxtapositions. From Zen temples to temples of Mammon, falling-down timber shacks next to polished glass towers, and tiny pocket gardens near immaculate formal planting. So this four-storey house by Ryue Nishizawa (one half of SANAA) appears to fit right in by definition.The question is whether this is enough.
The structure is articulated as a series of concrete slabs, apparently floating, though on closer inspection there are three differently-shaped concrete columns holding up the structure as well as a spindly corner metal column − Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino frame revisited 99 years on. The ground floor is a caravan-like arrangement of seating, storage, kitchen and dining. A lightweight metal staircase connects all the floors. The first floor accommodates a tiny bedroom (open above and below) and an L-shaped open balcony with an outdoor meeting room.
The house is stacked like a club sandwich between less permeable facades
On the second floor, the stair becomes enclosed, and there is an outdoor space leading to a self-contained bathroom at the rear of the building. Rising up to the third floor there is a second bedroom, a private terrace to the front and a linear stair, again outside at the rear, leading up to the roof terrace. Here a circular cut-out in the roof slab presents a Modernist architectural motif that is visible from the street. It is difficult to ignore the prosaic concerns that arise from minimal railings both on the staircase and the roof terrace, but
Do they really do things so differently over there? What makes this little building extraordinary is the use of planting, mainly in pots, that not only animates the facade but also penetrates deep into the house. The architect’s drawings of the section are cartoons showing no facades, just a series of horizontal shelves inhabited by trees, plants and the odd chair and table. The result in many ways is exactly that − an inhabited diagram.
A further layer of domesticity is added through the use of fine gauze curtains that allows for some form of privacy. They are perhaps a nod to Shigeru Ban’s Curtain House, also in Tokyo, completed in 1995. The difference is in the parti − Ban’s house still differentiates between inside and outside, while here the distinction is far more porous. Indeed the floor finish to some of the exterior spaces is actually earth, and the journey to the bathroom requires you to go outside, perhaps barefoot, taking a few steps before sliding the frosted door to come inside again.
Looking from the outside, at street level, or more significantly from the windows of the flanking buildings that have views right into the house, it is difficult to make sense of the building at an urban level. While we are perhaps used to seeing the Japanese house as something that is inward-looking, this is the opposite − a house for looking into. The project also questions the notion of permanence. Is it a pop-up house, here today and gone tomorrow? What if another owner, less enamoured with gardening, moves in and takes all the greenery away − surely it becomes less lovely and a completely different proposition?
The arrangement of floating concrete slabs recalls Corb’s Dom-Ino frame, reprised and reworked in a very different context nearly a century on
In many ways the contingency of the greenery adds to the fragile nature of the whole construction. The hard concrete is a familiar sight within the fabric of the city, and in parts so are balconies crammed with plants and flowers; but here we have a poetic essay that collides these two worlds into a conceit that is fantastical and yet very domestic.
This provocative project also interrogates the notion of domestic space and how we live. Is it having the detached address that is the luxury, or is it the vertically stacked self-contained world that is bespoke, eccentric and very personal? There are issues of privacy with bedrooms open to the stair, questions of seasonal occupation − after all it still gets cold in Tokyo (down to 2°C in January) − where the use of the outside spaces must be limited. It is disappointing to see that the internal climate control is through standard air-conditioning cassette units mounted to the wall with the requisite chiller on the roof. It would have been wonderful to think that somehow the vegetation had a positive effect on the microclimate of the home − perhaps it does? Less of a machine to live in and more of a living appliance; a propagator for plants and people.
This small study space has an earth floor requiring the inhabitants to wear slippers when entering
This house is of the moment. Like the much larger 1111 Lincoln Road project by Herzog & de Meuron in Miami (AR June 2010), this tiny structure plays with the economy of the concrete slab as an organising device, then inhabits it in an unprecedented manner − playing with conventions of outside and inside, facade and interior, nature and artifice. It represents the uncertain fate of Modernity, while embracing its legacy. Its graphic presence on the street demands scrutiny, while once inside the city dematerialises into a series of views mediated by nature.
The designer finishes and minimal detailing demand a rigorously ascetic lifestyle, at the same time requiring the owner to literally feed and water its organic inhabitants. Although not a model that is likely to be seen as a prototype, it feels like a call for action, challenging how we want to or should be living in cities. For that it is to be applauded. (I am just not sure I would wish to be its custodian.)
Architect: Ryue Nishizawa
Photos: Iwan Baan