written by:
photos by:
April 14, 2009
Originally published in Beyond Green

A modern eccentric with an architectural sensibility drawn from ancient Japanese traditions, Terunobu Fujimori designs projects that are exercises in playful experimentation and sophisticated craft.

Terunobu Fujimori's Charred Cedar House, completed in 2007. As the name implies, the entire home is clad in charred cedar boards, which have been treated with an ancient Japanese technique that seals the wood against rain and rot.
Photo by 
1 / 23
The 1991 Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum, Fujimori’s first commissioned building, signaled the themes that continue to drive his work: design in harmony with nature; raw, natural materials (wood, mud-and-mortar walls); and a Neolithic-inspired architec
The 1991 Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum, Fujimori’s first commissioned building, signaled the themes that continue to drive his work: design in harmony with nature; raw, natural materials (wood, mud-and-mortar walls); and a Neolithic-inspired architectural style.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
2 / 23
Fujimori's sketch for his next project after the Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum, Tanpopo House, introduced another obsession: houses with plants growing out of them.
Fujimori's sketch for his next project after the Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum, Tanpopo House, introduced another obsession: houses with plants growing out of them.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Terunobu Fujimori
3 / 23
Fujimori designed his own residence, the Tanpopo House, in 1995, with volcanic rock siding and grass and dandelions on the roof and walls; he is pleased by its “bushy-haired expression.”
Fujimori designed his own residence, the Tanpopo House, in 1995, with volcanic rock siding and grass and dandelions on the roof and walls; he is pleased by its “bushy-haired expression.”
Photo by 
4 / 23
The Tanpopo House's family tearoom is an updated take on Japan’s traditional flexible, open-plan tatami-mat room. Here, the charcoal fire pit for the teapot is an electric coil embedded in the floor, and the flooring is a durable rattan from Indonesia. Pl
The Tanpopo House's family tearoom is an updated take on Japan’s traditional flexible, open-plan tatami-mat room. Here, the charcoal fire pit for the teapot is an electric coil embedded in the floor, and the flooring is a durable rattan from Indonesia. Plaster oozing in between oak planks gives the room a warm, rough-hewn feel—a Fujimori signature.
Photo by 
5 / 23
In the summertime, grass and dandelions blooming add a new hue to the roof of Fujimori's family home.
In the summertime, grass and dandelions blooming add a new hue to the roof of Fujimori's family home.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
6 / 23
Inside the tiny tearoom, with its low ceiling, is like an adult clubhouse, designed for intimate conversation over hot drinks.
Inside the tiny tearoom, with its low ceiling, is like an adult clubhouse, designed for intimate conversation over hot drinks.
Photo by 
7 / 23
The climb to the Coal House tea room is purposely precarious. Fujimori wants visitors to “be a little afraid” on their way up; it’s “a device to make you feel and think differently in this space.”
The climb to the Coal House tea room is purposely precarious. Fujimori wants visitors to “be a little afraid” on their way up; it’s “a device to make you feel and think differently in this space.”
Photo by 
8 / 23
In Fujimori’s most recent project, Coal House, a tearoom protrudes from the second story, accessible from the exterior by a timber ladder that appears to pierce the roof and from the interior by a secret door in the master bedroom.
In Fujimori’s most recent project, Coal House, a tearoom protrudes from the second story, accessible from the exterior by a timber ladder that appears to pierce the roof and from the interior by a secret door in the master bedroom.
Photo by 
9 / 23
Fujimori, demonstrating the process of charring cedar boards, packs newspaper into the base of three planks that have been bound together.
Fujimori, demonstrating the process of charring cedar boards, packs newspaper into the base of three planks that have been bound together.
Photo by 
10 / 23
To begin the charring process, the newspaper that has been packed between the boards is set on fire.
To begin the charring process, the newspaper that has been packed between the boards is set on fire.
Photo by 
11 / 23
Fujimori uses a tool to coax the fire up the boards; this ensures an even charring of the wood.
Fujimori uses a tool to coax the fire up the boards; this ensures an even charring of the wood.
Photo by 
12 / 23
Once the fire is evenly distributed across the length of the board, it is simply a matter of patience.
Once the fire is evenly distributed across the length of the board, it is simply a matter of patience.
Photo by 
13 / 23
After seven minutes, the length of time it takes to produce the proper amount of char, the boards are separated.
After seven minutes, the length of time it takes to produce the proper amount of char, the boards are separated.
Photo by 
14 / 23
The craftsman pours water over the boards to halt the charring process.
The craftsman pours water over the boards to halt the charring process.
Photo by 
15 / 23
After the flames have been put out, the boards continue to crackle and smoke. Charring the boards properly requires a delicate balance between just enough burning, but not too much.
After the flames have been put out, the boards continue to crackle and smoke. Charring the boards properly requires a delicate balance between just enough burning, but not too much.
Photo by 
16 / 23
The primitive and painstaking process is said to protect wood against rain, rot, and insects for 80 years. It also gives the exteriors a reptilian texture that’s as striking as it is practical.
The primitive and painstaking process is said to protect wood against rain, rot, and insects for 80 years. It also gives the exteriors a reptilian texture that’s as striking as it is practical.
Photo by 
17 / 23
Fujimori carves many of his architectural models, like this one, for his Too-High Tea House, out of wood.
Fujimori carves many of his architectural models, like this one, for his Too-High Tea House, out of wood.
Photo by 
18 / 23
Architecture and nature combine in many of Fujimori's projects: the Lamune Hot Spring House appears to be built around two pine trees, with their spires poking out from the roof.
Architecture and nature combine in many of Fujimori's projects: the Lamune Hot Spring House appears to be built around two pine trees, with their spires poking out from the roof.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
19 / 23
For Camellia Castle, which houses a sake brewery, Fujimori designed a grass-covered roof and a cladding comprised of grass-and-stone checkerboard.
For Camellia Castle, which houses a sake brewery, Fujimori designed a grass-covered roof and a cladding comprised of grass-and-stone checkerboard.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
20 / 23
Fujimori has an affinity for building structures that appear to be perched precariously: His charred cedar-clad Guest House seems to balance on a sliver of a wall.
Fujimori has an affinity for building structures that appear to be perched precariously: His charred cedar-clad Guest House seems to balance on a sliver of a wall.
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
21 / 23
Fujimori's playful approach to architecture is on display in his building that houses the Nemunoki Museum of Art. He wanted this humpbacked children's museum to resemble "a mammoth."
Fujimori's playful approach to architecture is on display in his building that houses the Nemunoki Museum of Art. He wanted this humpbacked children's museum to resemble "a mammoth."
Photo by 
Courtesy of 
Akihisa Masuda
22 / 23
Fujimori's retreat in Nagano, The Too-High Tea House, which is adorned with a roof of hand-rolled copper sheets, seems precariously perched atop a pair of tree trunks 20 feet in the sky. Why two? “One leg is dangerous and three legs are too stable and bor
Fujimori's retreat in Nagano, The Too-High Tea House, which is adorned with a roof of hand-rolled copper sheets, seems precariously perched atop a pair of tree trunks 20 feet in the sky. Why two? “One leg is dangerous and three legs are too stable and boring.”
Photo by 
23 / 23
fujimori terunobu charred cedar house exterior
Terunobu Fujimori's Charred Cedar House, completed in 2007. As the name implies, the entire home is clad in charred cedar boards, which have been treated with an ancient Japanese technique that seals the wood against rain and rot.

One of the first things you notice about the Japanese architect and architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori is his voracious appetite. His particular brand of hunger extends not only to food—which he devours swiftly and animatedly, crumbs flying Cookie Monster–style—but also to an ardent intellectual curiosity about the world, especially as it relates to architecture, his all-consuming passion for more than 30 years. A longtime professor at the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo, Fujimori came to designing late—he got his first commission at age 44, 19 years ago—but he has since conceived some of Japan’s most startlingly original buildings, on average one per year.

Leading the way to his office at the university (he calls it his “laboratory”), he walks swiftly and steadily, as if propelled on a Segway, his salt-and-pepper hair waving behind him. We sit at a table sipping green tea, and Fujimori thumbs through his sketchbook, discussing the atypical genesis of his career while gobbling tea cookies and sketching almost continuously with a blue pencil. Fujimori grew up in a tiny, rural village two hours south of Nagano, where he helped care for the surrounding forests, as the local villagers have done for more than 400 years. He studied architectural design in college but quickly became disillusioned by the lack of hands-on technical training—he was more interested in building than in design, he realizes now—and moved to Tokyo to pursue a PhD, spending the next 20 years as a scholar and professor of modern Japanese architectural history.

Architecture and nature combine in many of Fujimori's projects: the Lamune Hot Spring House appears to be built around two pine trees, with their spires poking out from the roof.
Architecture and nature combine in many of Fujimori's projects: the Lamune Hot Spring House appears to be built around two pine trees, with their spires poking out from the roof. Image courtesy of Akihisa Masuda.

Fujimori basically fell into designing buildings after his native village commissioned him to design a small history museum for a local family with ancient ties to the area. As he pondered what form the building should take, he felt the weight of all of architectural history bearing down on him. “Since I was a famous architectural historian,” he says, “I thought my architecture should be totally unique, dissimilar to any architecture that came before. I figured that if I did something traditionally European or Japanese, everyone would say ‘Oh, it’s because he’s a historian.’ I didn’t want that criticism.” But at the same time, he wanted to stay away from anything too contemporary. “Some of my closest friends, like Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito, were architects who were starting to get famous, and I didn’t want them to laugh at me and say, ‘Oh, you mimic my work.’”

His peers found the building intriguing. “Terunobu Fujimori has thrown a punch of a kind no one has ever seen before at ‘modernism,’” wrote the architect Kengo Kuma. Encouraged, Fujimori decided to continue designing. With no other clients in sight, he built a house for his family in a Tokyo suburb. Inspired by the plant-covered thatched roofs prevalent in Normandy, the Tanpopo (Dandelion) House has strips of volcanic rock affixed to the facade, with flowers and grass blooming in the grooves between them. The thick walls mean that the house is extremely well insulated and energy-efficient, a by-product of the design rather than a direct goal. While Fujimori admits that his buildings tend to be ecologically sensitive and extremely energy-efficient, he is wary of the contemporary conception of green design. “As an architect, I deal with the visual effects. Energy conservation is an engineer’s work. My intention is to visibly and harmoniously connect two worlds—the built world that mankind creates with the nature God created.”

Fujimori has an affinity for building structures that appear to be perched precariously: His charred cedar-clad Guest House seems to balance on a sliver of a wall.
Fujimori has an affinity for building structures that appear to be perched precariously: His charred cedar-clad Guest House seems to balance on a sliver of a wall. Image courtesy of Akihisa Masuda.

Earlier that day we’d met in Kiyosumi, a town 60 miles north of Tokyo, to visit his most recent project: a 1,080-square-foot concept house he designed for the Tokyo Gas Company Ltd., Japan’s largest natural gas provider. Coal House, as Fujimori calls it, uses exclusively gas-powered appliances and is full of quirky details: Squat, hobbit-scaled doors conceal a bathroom and side entrance (you literally need to duck to enter); the children’s room is accessible only by a steep ladder (“It’s okay,” Fujimori reassures me when I inquire about late-night bathroom runs, “children are like monkeys”); and a tiny tearoom hangs off the second story like a jutting upper lip, echoing the silhouette of his earlier Charred Cedar House from 2007. Both projects are extraordinarily striking, thanks in large part to their exterior siding, charred cedar boards with a crackled, crocodile-like texture—an ancient Japanese technique that seals the wood against rain and rot but is seldom used by contemporary architects. This is in part because it’s labor-intensive—it takes seven minutes to char three boards—and also because the method is considered primitive. “No educated architect would use this material,” says Fujimori with pride, grinning broadly. The effect certainly makes an impression; as we chat in front of the Coal House, a neighbor walks by slowly, swiveling her head, her mouth visibly agape.

Little about the way Fujimori works is conventional. He doesn’t have a firm per se but rather recruits promising graduate students to help him flesh out the details of each project after he’s done all the drawing. He makes his architectural models by hacking tree stumps into abstract, sculptural shapes using a chainsaw. Galleries abroad have offered to buy them, but he refuses. And when he’s completed the final drawings for a project, he invites his clients to his weekend house in Nagano for a little ceremony he’s devised. Sitting in his private Too-High Tea House, perched 20 feet in the air and wavering on two forked tree trunks, he hands them a hand-rendered version of the final plans. “If they don’t like my design, I shake the building!” he says, laughing heartily.

Fujimori's playful approach to architecture is on display in his building that houses the Nemunoki Museum of Art. He wanted this humpbacked children's museum to resemble "a mammoth."
Fujimori's playful approach to architecture is on display in his building that houses the Nemunoki Museum of Art. He wanted this humpbacked children's museum to resemble "a mammoth." Image courtesy of Akihisa Masuda.

Fujimori hires professionals to do all the structural and electrical work on his buildings but handles many of the interior finish details himself, with a motley group of volunteers that he calls the Jomon Company—so named for the Neolithic period of Japanese history and for the primitive tools they use to give Fujimori’s interiors a warm, roughed-up feel. When the structure is nearly complete, this loose collective of close friends—a painter, a novelist, a book publisher, a sake brewer, a priest—gather to do whatever unusual task Fujimori has set aside for them: planting hundreds of leeks in individual pots atop a gabled roof; weaving a bamboo screen for a copper-plated pottery studio; or cutting irregular chunks of wood with stone-carving tools and embedding them in a tea house’s vaulted ceiling. “Instead of playing golf that weekend, they work,” says Fujimori, hastening to add, “I never pay them. If you pay, it’s labor!”

Fujimori clearly relishes his iconoclast role, even as he receives increasing recognition and respect as a designer: At the 2006 Venice Biennale he exhibited his unconventional architectural models, and in 2007 the Japanese publishing company Toto released a monograph of his work. But increasing fame and more prestigious commissions don’t mean he’ll change his unconventional working methods anytime soon. He’s spent the past several years roaming the globe for new ideas, applying his historian’s mind to collect inspiration from ancient models: mud architecture in Mali, adobe buildings in the American West, and the famous Caves of Lascaux in southwest France. These spare,  stripped-down structures remind us that we all share primal instincts that can be aroused and satisfied through design: for shelter, warmth, and community. Fujimori may dismiss sustainability as a side note in his buildings, but his modern interpretation of the Neolithic captures a truth too often lost in our scramble for eco-credibility: Working with nature is sometimes the most radically green approach an architect can take.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016