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Family Style

When a Japanese couple asked architects Takaharu and Yui Tezuka to design a small home that would evoke the Italian love of food, informal gatherings, and natural settings, the result was la dolce vita in Tokyo.

Large clerestory windows face the street at the Higashibatas’ house in Tokyo, optimizing both privacy and natural light within.

Hidekazu Higashibata, who travels throughout Europe for his job as a fashion merchandiser, was in Italy several years ago when he discovered something unusual and precious that he wanted to bring back home to Tokyo. It wasn’t a product, but rather a sensibility. An Italian friend had invited Hidekazu to his farmhouse in Biella, west of Milan, where they spent evenings eating at a long outdoor table and later enjoying discussions by the fireplace in a large room lit by candlelight. The experience made a deep impression on Hidekazu. “When I looked for an architect,” he says, “I knew I had to find someone who was capable of understanding that sort of lifestyle.”

The obvious answer presented itself in the work of one particular architect—or rather, two: the husband and wife team of Takaharu and Yui Tezuka. Since founding their practice in 1994, the Tezukas have, to increasing renown, built a science museum, a hospital, commercial and apartment complexes, and a flighat of single-family homes, all characterized by a strong relationship between interior and exterior space. Their residential projects place special emphasis on indoor-outdoor living, with configurations that include rooftop floor plans, glass façades that can open 360 degrees, decks, verandas, and viewscapes. The names of several of their single-family projects—Observatory Room House, Big Window House, A House to Catch the Sky (versions I, II, III, and IV, no less)—reflect the Tazukas’s quite literal environmental awareness.

During a stint in the United Kingdom (where Takaharu worked for Richard Rogers), the couple developed a personal attachment to what they see as hallmarks of a European lifestyle. “People there have more free time, and they know how to enjoy it well,” Takaharu says. “The European influences on our architecture are the lofty spaces and high ceilings, the firmness of the details, and the outward orientation of the interiors.” Yui adds, “And the fireplaces, of course.” Moreover, in contrast to the ongoing popularity of plastics and other synthetic materials in Japanese architecture, they favor a palette of steel, wood, and concrete. And, above all, they think of the home as a gathering place, especially at mealtimes—another cultural depar-ture, since Japanese tend to dine out in groups rather than at someone’s house. Yui, who notes that she and Takaharu both love to cook, says, “We consider the kitchen and a big table crucial for a house.”

Hidekazu Higashibata wanted to recreate the same sort of feeling he’d experienced on trips to Italy—a long table, leisurely meals, and lengthy conversations. The boys discovered the home’s “second story” on top of the cabinetry and, armed with a ladder, like to perch there for better views.

Even before he learned of the couple’s design philosophy, Hidekazu was hooked by a photo of the Tezukas he happened to see in a magazine. “In all the usual photos, architects are dressed in black, gazing with pseudointellectual expressions into the camera,” he says. “But not  the Tezukas. They are always smiling, dressed colorfully, looking relaxed. Plus when I saw that they drive a yellow Deux-Chevaux, I knew for sure they would get my idea.”

When Hidekazu and his wife, Miharu, met with the architects to go over their specific needs and desires, they quickly settled on the essentials: an inviting, open living area, with an open kitchen and a wood-burning stove; traditional building materials; and a good overall environment in which to raise their two sons, then ages seven and ten.

There were other family members in the picture as well—the building site was a long, narrow lot running alongside Miharu’s parents’ house. The Tezukas’s task was to create a visual and thematic connection between the existing house and the new one, with a middle ground for the extended family to share.

The resulting long, one-story house can be completely opened on its interior side, which consists of nine sliding glass panels. Some amazing structural acrobatics are carried out by a single steel beam, which spans the 50-foot façade in its entirety. The same steel-beam trick is used on the opposite side of the house, facing the street, where the upper portion of the wall is dedicated to operable clerestory windows.

The magic wall-disappearing act is accomplished by means of sliding glass panels, which the family tends to leave open almost year-round. Miharu Higashibata says she feels the new home has strengthened the family bond through shared activities like cooking and gardening.

A tall, expansive shelving and closet unit divides the home’s interior into cubicles that serve as bedrooms  and bathrooms, while leaving enough distance from the ceiling so that the interior appears to be one uniform space. In this regard, the house is a modern yet faithful interpretation of traditional Japanese architecture, which often calls for an open floor plan without inner walls.

Another time-honored Japanese design element gave the Higashibatas’ house its name: Engawa. The word describes the wide corridor, protected under eaves, that skirts the perimeters of a traditional house. By way of sliding doors, this intermediary space was historically designed to connect a home’s interior and exterior. Typically, an engawa would be used in mild weather, as one could comfortably be seated under the edge of the roof even in the rain, and also be protected from wind and sun. It was intended as a passageway from the garden into the house but equally as a place to entertain guests. “Most elderly people in Japan share the image of grandma or granddad sitting in the engawa telling stories to children,” says Takaharu.

Miharu’s parents’ house was built in traditional Japanese style, with an engawa, but one that needed some restorative attention—rather than opening onto a garden, it faced a blank wall. The Tezukas knocked down the wall, creating a larger lot. They situated the new house on the length of the lot, alongside a new garden that extends to the parents’ engawa. “Our house doesn’t have a real engawa,” observes Yui, “but our plan makes the house itself act like one.”

With a grass lawn and a goalpost that also functions as the clothesline, the Higashibata boys are probably the only kids in Tokyo who can play soccer in their own backyard. (The kids also discovered that the house really does have a “second story”—something the architects themselves hadn’t considered. It’s right there on top of the shelving unit and now accessible by means of a ladder.) The engawa ethos affords an unusual quality of spaciousness to the house. “Before, we lived in a regular apartment,” says Hidekazu. “I would come home, plop down on the sofa, and just watch TV.” By contrast, Miharu now says, “My husband is constantly taking care of the garden, and in the winter he chops wood there that we’ll burn in the stove in the evenings.”

The family keeps the glass wall open almost year-round. “We take a bath with the doors wide open,” Miharu reports. “It’s wonderful to sit in the hot water, breathing the fresh air and looking at the leaves of the tree.” The new home fosters an environment the Higashibatas all appreciate. “Now, we often cook together with the whole family,” Miharu says. “We have tea or dinner outside with my parents, and on Sundays I have coffee with a lot of the other mothers. We often say it is as if this house came growing out of the earth.” 

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