By Lucy Birmingham
In the heart of a large Japanese city, a world away from its noise and hectic pace, a remarkable home blends the quiet beauty of nature, ancient Japanese craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology.
The house is architect Kengo Kuma's first for a non-Japanese client in Japan. The client's Western eye and passion for Japanese aesthetics were the perfect match for the award-winning architect, known for fusing natural, locally sourced materials with traditional Japanese and contemporary design.
Just a quick stroll from a major roadway, at the end of a narrow street, the five- story house suddenly appears "like an iceberg," says Kuma. "I wanted a shape that was sharp and geometric yet organic, with the soft, uneven and warm essence of wood," he explains. "We named the house wood/berg, combining those elements."
Large glass windows adorn the upper three floors while the lower two are enveloped in lattice-like panels of thin wood louvers. These louvers are a Kuma signature. "They can create a special light, similar to stained glass," he explains.
A strong advocate of materials such as bamboo, washi, tatami, wood and stone, Kuma admits he is anti concrete. "In the West, buildings are meant to last an eternity and must be solid, a structure that resists nature. So concrete was the popular 20th-centruy material," he says. "But in Japan with its many earthquakes, a building's strength lies in its ability to move and blend with nature."
Kuma's experimental approach to materials is distinctive. In Japan architects who launched their careers in the early 1990s, after the economic bubble of the 1980s burst and sent the country into one of its longest recessions, met the challenges of the era with restrained yet innovative designs. Kuma's work reflects that austerity.
A variety of factors shaped his approach to design. He often mentions his childhood home in Yokohama, a wood house with deep, shadowy interiors. His decision to become an architect, he says, was triggered by seeing the iconic 1964 National Gymnasium by Kenzo Tange. Western architects who influenced Kuma include Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruno Taut, who skillfully blended traditional Japan and modernist elements.
This elegant house, built on a steep site and blessed with spectacular views of the city, employs a series of design strategies: a structure that "disappears" in nature; interior and exterior interfaces such as the engawa, or traditional Japanese veranda; wood louvers that filter and mold light; glass that provides "borrowed landscape" (shakkei); water that reflects light.
Wood/berg blends these features with breathtaking drama. From the street, one enters the house through the first front door and finds an enclosed but lofty space. It is a calming pause between the busy world outside and the sublime interior behind a second front door. To the right is a serene reflecting pool with a small island in the middle, like a miniature Zen garden, planted with seasonal flowers. Sunlight filters through the louvers, creating a meditative light.
Past the second door, a long low-ceilinged corridor unfolds, leading to the dining and living areas. The inviting, open space is topped by an expansive 17-foot-high ceiling. Walk up the stairs to find the narrow second-floor library, and one is enticed farther, to the third floor, where there is a guest room and a bath, lined with fragrant hiba wood. On the fourth floor, a simple yet elegant sitting room has a Japanese-style dining table placed above tatami matting. The secluded fifth floor houses the master bedroom. Outside, a set of stairs leads to the roof terrace where the owner practices yoga. A pool and a gym in the basement level reflect his interest in fitness.
Comfort was a crucial ingredient for the owner, who commissioned London-based designer Tino Zervudachi, of Mlinaric, Henry & Zervidachi, to work his magic throughout the house. "I didn't want it to feel trendy or fashionable per se, but soft, warm and cozy," says Zervudachi.
Most of the fabrics materials and furnishings were created specially for the house by Zervudachi and his team in collaboration with local artisans — washi wallpaper, woven-fabric, lampshades, vases, acrylic low tables embedded with a fine stainless-steel mesh, lacquered-linen headboards and bamboo screens.
"Wood/berg is a big house, but each room feels comfortable because all the elements are based on the size of the wood and human scale," says Kuma.
Original article: Architectural Digest October 2010