Architectural Reuse in Tokyo

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By William Lamb
In Japan, “old” is a relative term. While the country is known for its exquisite ancient temples, when it comes to residential architecture, many houses are considered ready for the wrecking ball once they have been standing for 20 years. Martin van der Linden, a Dutch-born architect whose firm, van der Architects, is based near Tokyo, decided to make a statement about this needlessly quick path to obsolescence.

Van der Linden began hunting for discarded or recycled wood that could be used to redesign his firm's own offices, located in the Tokyo suburb of Denenchofu. When Nanako Tsujimoto, a designer in his firm, heard that a 40-year-old house — ancient by Japanese standards — was being demolished in her neighborhood, she talked the contractors into breaking it down by hand instead of using sledgehammers.

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The contractors agreed to do the extra work in exchange for beer coupons, preserving about 44 pounds of Japanese cedar, van der Linden says. "The contractors were actually very helpful," he says. "Maybe Nanako’s natural charm might have helped as well. I think they appreciated the idea to do something with the wood, plus they appreciated the beer we gave them for their work."

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Van der Linden and his colleagues rebuilt part of the house inside of their existing space, complete with a small window and a set of sliding doors. The house-within-a-house became a small library and conference room. Leftover wood was used to build two smaller structures that house workstations for the firm’s staff.

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The original house had been painted white but Van der Linden had the structures rebuilt inside out to show off the wood’s natural grain and the original contractor stamps on the backs of the planks. The result is a warm, intimate workspace that preserves for posterity an example of Japan’s overlooked — and rapidly disappearing — 20th century architectural heritage. "We thought our design could make a statement that not everything should be thrown away," van der Linden says. "That houses, poor houses such as the one that ended up inside our office, should be given a second chance."

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Martin van der Linden, a Dutch-born architect, was hunting for discarded or recycled wood that could be used to redesign his firm's own offices near Tokyo, when Nanako Tsujimoto, a designer in his firm, heard that a 40-year-old house—ancient by Japanese standards—was being demolished in her neighborhood. Van der Linden and his colleagues rebuilt part of the house inside of their existing space, complete with a small window and a set of sliding doors. The house-within-a-house became a small library and conference room. Leftover wood was used to build two smaller structures that house workstations for the firm’s staff.

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