written by:
photos by:
August 4, 2011
Originally published in Japan Style
as
The Hidden Fortress

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. 

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    Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  A gently winding set of exposed aggregate concrete pads leads to the Wabi House’s front door. Mariscal sought to “hide the house behind a dense forest front yard.” As the crape myrtles grow in, they will further filter the home’s facade.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    A gently winding set of exposed aggregate concrete pads leads to the Wabi House’s front door. Mariscal sought to “hide the house behind a dense forest front yard.” As the crape myrtles grow in, they will further filter the home’s facade. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  During construction, Mariscal’s team adjusted the design to accommodate the boughs of an old pine tree in the backyard. The unique detail imbues the home with a spirit of wabi-sabi—or beauty through imperfection.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    During construction, Mariscal’s team adjusted the design to accommodate the boughs of an old pine tree in the backyard. The unique detail imbues the home with a spirit of wabi-sabi—or beauty through imperfection. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  With doors open, Shino and Ken pull an Eames LCW chair for Herman Miller outside to enjoy the space.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    With doors open, Shino and Ken pull an Eames LCW chair for Herman Miller outside to enjoy the space. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  A perpendicular walkway leads right to the garage and laundry areas.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    A perpendicular walkway leads right to the garage and laundry areas. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  After entering through the front door, visitors pass over the large koi pond on a cast-concrete footbridge chiseled to look like stone.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    After entering through the front door, visitors pass over the large koi pond on a cast-concrete footbridge chiseled to look like stone. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  The entrance to the living room includes a seating area where guests can remove their shoes.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    The entrance to the living room includes a seating area where guests can remove their shoes. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  At the client’s request the kitchen contains neither upper cabinets (Shino can’t reach them) nor an oven (they only used the old one once—to reheat a pizza). A modular Roche Bobois Mah Jong sofa adds a decorative flourish to the living area while maintaining as low a profile as the traditional Japanese furniture.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    At the client’s request the kitchen contains neither upper cabinets (Shino can’t reach them) nor an oven (they only used the old one once—to reheat a pizza). A modular Roche Bobois Mah Jong sofa adds a decorative flourish to the living area while maintaining as low a profile as the traditional Japanese furniture. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  Protected by an overhang, and floating above ground level, this tertiary space is known in traditional homes as the "engawa." To sustain a unified look throughout, the floor and ceiling are clad in ipe wood.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    Protected by an overhang, and floating above ground level, this tertiary space is known in traditional homes as the "engawa." To sustain a unified look throughout, the floor and ceiling are clad in ipe wood. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  A custom-tailored mechanism allows six floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to open along the entire width of the living space, creating a seamless transition from indoors to out.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    A custom-tailored mechanism allows six floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to open along the entire width of the living space, creating a seamless transition from indoors to out. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  While most of the ground level is given over to the large open living and dining area, it also includes a small pantry, office, and Japanese bathroom. An integrated Sub-Zero refrigerator is almost unnoticeable behind its charred cedar cladding.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    While most of the ground level is given over to the large open living and dining area, it also includes a small pantry, office, and Japanese bathroom. An integrated Sub-Zero refrigerator is almost unnoticeable behind its charred cedar cladding. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  In the cheerily outfitted office, a Herman Miller Embody chair lets Shino stay comfortable on business calls that can last for hours.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    In the cheerily outfitted office, a Herman Miller Embody chair lets Shino stay comfortable on business calls that can last for hours. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  At the opposite end of the house, the soaking tub gets almost daily use. The bath and shower fixtures are by Dornbracht  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    At the opposite end of the house, the soaking tub gets almost daily use. The bath and shower fixtures are by Dornbracht Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  The limestone-clad volume at the east end of the house extends to the second story, housing Shino and Ken’s master suite, which opens onto the planted roof deck.  Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    The limestone-clad volume at the east end of the house extends to the second story, housing Shino and Ken’s master suite, which opens onto the planted roof deck. Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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  The couple asked for a “no maintenance, not low maintenance” backyard. However, Shino tends to “Carlsbad's largest public bathroom for cats” (otherwise known as their Japanese-style rock garden) about once a month.Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our  FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!   Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
    The couple asked for a “no maintenance, not low maintenance” backyard. However, Shino tends to “Carlsbad's largest public bathroom for cats” (otherwise known as their Japanese-style rock garden) about once a month.

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    Courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
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Modern house with a charred cedar façade in Southern California
Image courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.
Project 
Wabi House

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.”

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. 
 

Cast-concrete footbridge with koi pond
With doors open, Shino and Ken pull an Eames LCW chair for Herman Miller outside to enjoy the space. Image courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.

“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.  
 

Dining room with traditional Japanese furniture
At the client’s request the kitchen contains neither upper cabinets (Shino can’t reach them) nor an oven (they only used the old one once—to reheat a pizza). A modular Roche Bobois Mah Jong sofa adds a decorative flourish to the living area while maintaining as low a profile as the traditional Japanese furniture. Image courtesy of ©2010 DANIEL HENNESSY PHOTOGRAPHY.

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.


For more images of the project, view our slideshow and go behind the scenes of the photo shoot in our video.

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