Traditional Japanese thinking can be regarded as conceived "on the grid". From the patterns existing in rice paddies and the arrangement of structural components in wooden constructions, to the modular system of tatami mats and the configuration of entire cities, the grid offers a hidden spatial order. In the Kokuu Guesthouse at the Wakayama prefecture in Koyasan, south of Japan, architecture studio Alphaville has introduced the alternative concept of "off the grid" (OTG). OTG refers usually to autonomous operations from public infrastructure and implies a sense of self-sufficiency. As a response to the project's low budget, which was the same as the one required for renovating an existing facility, the new design strategy encompasses the possibility of being "off the grid" by experimenting with the long established tradition of rigid wooden frame structures, alongside an efficient use of energy and the opportunity to maintain the building by their occupants within a modest architecture. Opened in October 2012, after a two-year process from design to completion, the guesthouse is welcoming travellers from Japan and abroad.
In a country where only 1/3 is flatland, the Kii mountains provide an extraordinary location for this guesthouse, located at the boundary of the Koyasan temples, part of the UNESCO World Heritage sacred sites and pilgrimage routes. The landscape in these sacred mountains, set amid natural abundance of forests and water streams, is home to a unique fusion between Shintoism and Buddhism and bears testimony to Japan's religious culture over more than thousand years. The guesthouse's name — Kokuu — and its intended atmosphere are deeply rooted in the concepts of void, space and sky as they appear in the Buddhist conception.
Conceived by Alphaville's Kentaro Takeguchi and Asako Yamamoto, the building is an exemplary paradigm of the subtleness embedded in contemporary Japanese spatial articulation, where dichotomies between sober exterior and light interior end up by rendering a simple yet resounding architectural character. Thus, following the shape of the site, a rectangular volume was defined with slanted roofs and few openings, clad in dark-grey corrugated steel plate. In sharp contrast with the exterior, the inner space unfolds into a white gallery where the thin structural columns create depth and spatial progression.
The structure-exposed interior is a key feature of traditional Japanese architecture. In this case the design took advantage of the 2 x 4 metre wooden structure, which is one of the most common building methods in Japan, making it the main vehicle for spatial production. An arrangement of slight frames along the volume with a 45 cm pitch interval creates a dense, exposed grid in the perimeter. This rhythm in the central columns is eventually taken "off-the grid" by varying pitches of 60 cm, allowing users to pass through the articulated spaces fluidly. While the whole building consists of one main floor, a second level is designed to reinforce the structure, and can eventually be used for rooms.
In plan, the space is organized through three longitudinal stripes, two of them containing the services and one central, public space functioning as a connector. Acknowledging the Japanese culture of compactness, the rooms in this guesthouse are sometimes the same size as those found in capsule hotels, where there is only space for a single bed. There are also wider rooms for couples: here, a wider area features a small triangular surface that can be used as table, while a narrower space can be used for storage. Due to constant nomadism, pilgrims travel light, hence the lack space for storage in closets. According to Alphaville's Kentaro Takeguchi, the design aimed to reduce the private spaces to the minimum, while providing a long public space to connect them. By playing with the ambiguity of something wider than a corridor but not wide enough to be considered as a living room, the space balances the forces between the public and private realm. The central space receives softened light directly from the ceiling, while all the rooms feature long, narrow windows. The lounge area and the bar, which are also articulated in the long public space with slender columns, resemble a western layout, with a long counter and bench facing individual chairs. A certain domestic atmosphere emerges by disposing the fireplace in one, slightly rotated corner, evoking the intimacy achieved around the irori, a sunken hearth in traditional Japanese homes, where the family usually gathers.
While most of travellers will continue staying in temples within the sacred precincts (shukubo), the Kokuu Guesthouse will become a new lodging typology in the existing nomadic culture of Koyasan, responding to the necessity of affordable contemporary accommodation. Alphaville have achieved a coherent design, in sync with the intentions behind the name of their practice, which is "to find a new system of architecture capable to fit in any place in the world (any-ville)". Ultimately, their concept of "off-the grid" is a valuable attempt to continue opening new branches for freedom, right where the nodes of the grid haven't yet controlled the mind of the creator. Rafael A. Balboa, Ilze Paklone
The authors would like to express their sincere thanks to Alphaville's Kentaro Takeguchi for providing the necessary materials and information for this piece.
Alphaville: Kokuu Guesthouse
Location: Koyasan, Wakayama prefecture, Japan
Main use: Backpacker's lodging / Local community center
Structure: 2 x 4 metres wooden frame
Completion date: October 2012