There are two subjects central in Japan’s national agenda that will tranform its society in the coming years: aging population and the decline of rural cities.
Despite the efforts of regional and local governments to bring sustainable strategies into action, the general scene today is a Japanese suburbia which has lost its strenghth to retain their younger generation who continue migrating to larger urban centers hoping for different life standards. Only the metropolitan area in Tokyo accounts for the 26% of the total population of all the country.
Nonetheless, there are also people doing the other way around, willing to take the risk of moving from large metropolises to abandoned suburbia. Events as 3/11 Earthquake and dropping down wages in some cities have pushed this portion of people to reconsider a new start in smaller towns relying on their own creative skills. In the same attitude, some architects in Japan dealing with projects in suburban locations have learnt through their practice that there is high acceptance of mixed land use in the smaller scale, above from abstract regional planning policies. One exemplar story that recounts such innovative practices is Skyhole, a house located in a typical Japanese suburban context in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, designed by Japanese architectural firm based in Kyoto Alphaville Architects.
Hikone city is what Japanese refer as jōka‑machi (lit. “town below castle”) typically organized around the castle, however the site of Skyhole project has no explicit relationship with it since this suburban area has previously been rice paddies outside the town. Kentaro Takeguchi, head of Alphaville Architects along with Asako Yamamoto, calls this ubiquitous Japanese suburban scenery something similar to Koolhaas generic city, a place without a distinctive identity.
Their design for this project combines domestic with commercial functions, a tradition already existing in typical wooden townhouses know as machiya, which used to incorporate spaces for working and living together. Moreover, their proposal is mainly driven by taking into account climate and environmental aspects to determine the principal geometry of the house.
Takeguchi tell us the story behind the project, a young couple who had decided to return to the area, where the roots of the husband’s family are. As the wife is an accessory designer and the husband an artist who also gives lessons in Japanese painting, one of the challenges for the design was seamless fusion between private and public programs of the house. The concept of the house is themed around the need of the entire space to be simultaneously secluded in its residential part and open for social events at its studio part. Opening up the house for the neighbours or special events could be seen as another aspect of reinventing the prototypical shared space as Japanese houses are traditionally considered as rather private realms for close members of the family, he argues.
Simple yet carefully thought, the multidimensional volume of the house is encompassed of two overlaid basic geometries. The orientation of the parallelogram‑shaped plan responds to the most favourable lighting conditions in the harsh climate along North‑South axis. The Atelier, opening to the North, is lit with the diffused light and the residence at the South side receives the favoured warm light favoured for living.
The form of the roof comprises the second of the basic geometries. Descending ridge of the roof is positioned along the diagonal of the parallelogram and thus also emphasizes the North‑South directionality of the house. As the house needed to incorporate two distinct atmospheres and spatial scales into a singular volume, the ridge of the roof, positioned along the North‑South axis of the house, was designed as ascending from relatively low ceiling at the residential area to the spacious room for the atelier with high ceiling. Consequently the house subtly fuses sheltered character of the living space and austere atmosphere of the studio.
The architect admits that in his opinion a human being adapts very easy to spaces and cannot be easily surprised, therefore the geometric changes of Skyhole house were intended to produce rich spatial experience for residents and enigmatic visual impact for people passing by, as it is never really clear what happens inside the volume. For the owners, both being artists, the intriguing effect of the house serves as an external public manifestation of intentions behind their life and work. Takeguchi concludes that instead of designing a static and uniform space, he rather intended variations of the spaces into a singular volume as this gradation best embodies the coexistence of the functions.
Rather than an issue, the decline of suburban areas in Japan should be seen as the contemporary challenge for architects in the country as much as the stage for new design opportunities. Looking back in time, each region in Japan had the strength to keep a vivid local culture and economy since Edo Period. As this figure has transformed through time, projects as Skyhole invites us to further reconsider the smallest scale, where clues to revitalize lifestyle in Japanese suburbia might be embedded.
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Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, Japan
Design and site supervision: Alphaville Architects
Programme: atelier and residence
Design team: Tomohisa Koike
Consultants: Takashi Manda (structures); Pivot (frame and furniture)
Client: Ryo Takahashi, artist
Site area: 367,97 sqm
Total floor area: 77,35 sqm
Structural system: wood frames 2 x 4, 2 x 6 m
Materials: corrugated galvanized sheet, aluminium windows, concrete, wood, plaster board
Realisation phase: 2012-2014