Drawing on tradition, Atelier Bow-Wow's Nora House revives Sendai's suburbs with a fresh approach to family living.
Architects & Firms
Record Houses 2008
To the casual observer, Japan may seem slow in catching on to the current ecofriendly trend that has taken the architectural world by storm. But an awareness and appreciation of the environment has been ingrained in its house construction for centuries—for example, the natural ventilation and illumination that has become so fashionable nowadays has always been practiced in urban and rural Japanese architecture. Faced with a site where single-family homes coexist amiably with small fields of cabbages and carrots, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow unsurprisingly turned to traditional know-how for inspiration.
The goal of the architect and his student collaborators from the Tokyo Institute of Technology was not just a new house but a new house typology tailored to the typical suburban-agricultural site ringing the periphery of many Japanese cities. Situated on the outskirts of Sendai, a city of 1 million located 190 miles north of Tokyo, this 2,500-square-foot property belongs to a residential community that sprouted in the 1960s when the area was mostly farmland. One by one, houses cropped up, but as in many comparable neighborhoods, that growth slowed in recent years as the country’s population dropped, the appeal of suburban living diminished, and young Japanese began migrating to the city center or Tokyo.
Swimming against the current, Tsukamoto’s clients, a couple with a young child, decided not just to move back to the suburbs, but to build on family-owned, cultivated land directly across the street from the wife’s childhood home. Expressive and open to the street, their custom home does not exactly blend with its staid surroundings. Though it looks out toward a large cultivated lot, Nora House stands between pitched-roof residences clad with metal siding or stucco. But it is not entirely out of place, either. Comfortably familiar without being nostalgic, Nora House, or “house in the fields,” shares many features with Japan’s traditional minka farmhouses—a covered porch, fluid interior space, timber construction, and above all, a magnificent roof that hovers protectively over the entire building.
Though modestly scaled in comparison with its historic antecedents (while contemporary urban houses tend to be small, historic minka farmhouses are usually huge), Nora House reads as a single-story, barnlike building. In keeping with this exterior, the interior is essentially one big space. “In Tokyo, we have done a lot of one-room living, but in a more vertical way,” explains Tsukamoto. “Here, we developed the idea horizontally.” Spanning a height differential of 9 feet—the walk-in storage area marks the house’s lowest point, and the daughter’s play area the highest point—the functional zones within this house are spread out over nine distinct levels. Fulfilling the client’s request for a house with continuous interior space without many partitions, short runs of stairs distinguish areas without separating them completely. Three freestanding partitions function as dividers and additional lateral bracing.
Atelier Bow-Wow + Tokyo Institute of Technology Tsukamoto Lab.
Yoshiharu Tsukamoto + Momoyo Kaijima / Atelier Bow-Wow
Architect of record
Yoshiko Iwasaki / Atelier Bow-Wow REGISTERED ARCHITECT
Yoshiharu Kanebako, Kisara Uzunami / Kanebako Structural Engineers
Hashimoto Real Estate