When I ask Shino and Ken Mori what the calligraphy hanging in their entry alcove says, it takes some back-and-forth to arrive at the answer—and even then, I suspect, it is only the closest ap-proximation the English language could offer. “‘We don’t have much, but friends are welcome,’” Ken replies. To which Shino adds, “‘This house is empty, that’s why you can get smarter.’” Smarter? “If you don’t have things, you have to think to accomplish things,” Ken explains. “Basically, you don’t have to have much.”
If good fences make good neighbors, then Shino and Ken Mori are the best neighbors ever. They invite us past the charred cedar facade of their Southern California home.
And the Wabi House, which architect Sebastian Mariscal designed for the couple three years ago, is, on its face, not much. In fact, from the perfectly ordinary suburban street on which it sits, it’s little more than a white cube rising from a black rectangle. But just as the calligraphy encourages the home’s residents to find greater meaning within, so too does the Wabi House itself.
“From the list of what Shino and Ken wanted and didn’t want, I could sense that they were sub-consciously requesting an introspective house,” says the bicoastal Mariscal, who has offices in Woodstock, New York, and San Diego, California. “They didn’t want a show-off house; they wanted somewhere they could live forever.” After find-ing out that the property was subject to neither design restrictions nor neighborhood reviews, Mariscal’s San Diego–based design-build team transformed the typical ceramic-shingle-roofed rancher (after completely deconstructing it) into a one-of-a-kind architectural achievement.
But while the Wabi House fits Shino and Ken’s lives like a perfectly tailored suit, the pair didn’t dictate any of the design. “We wanted Sebastian to come up with his own style and ideas,” says Shino. “We tried not to tell him too much—the minimum.” So after an initial series of discussions about what the home should and shouldn’t be, Mariscal (in Ken’s words) went dark. “It was slightly uncomfortable,” Ken chuckles, “but after a few months he pretty much came back with the house you see today.”
“It’s great when you find a client that challenges you to do something more meaningful,” says Mariscal. “They really trusted me.” And so the Wabi House serves as an object lesson in how the most spectacular creative results are accomplished: through the confident patron-age of dedicated, willing clients.
In Tokyo, Shino’s main living area was about the same size as the tatami flooring that serves as a multi-purpose space on the Wabi House’s ground floor. “I only had one table where you would do everything—eat, work, sleep,” says Shino, “so I know that it is possible to live with just one room.” Ken was pleased that the design reflected elements he recalls enjoying from his grandmother’s traditional Tokyo house—such as the large engawa—but also that it was more practically suited to their day-to-day lives. Before, he says, “the house had these rooms you wouldn’t go in for several months,” he says, “so they just ended up as storage space. Here you go through everything every day. It’s all livable space.”
An atypical modern house that translates the language of traditional Japanese building into a Southern California context, the Wabi House is a compelling study in contradictions. “I was playing with an idea of opposites,” Mariscal says. “For instance, from the street you don’t see any windows, but once you go inside, it’s almost all open.” Although the roof deck affords a view of the surrounding area, the lasting impression of the Wabi House is of a building that focuses inward onto the very specific lives of its residents. It may be an average lot on an average street, but when Shino and Ken return home, they have an extraordinary kingdom to themselves.
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