Saved From Demolition, a Japanese Sake Warehouse Sees a Second Life

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By Aileen Kwun / Published by Dwell
In a provincial town of Japan's Yamanashi prefecture, locals band together to reboot a derelict inner-city site.

For years, an old kura, or traditional Japanese warehouse, sat neglected in a state of poor decay in the center of Ichikawamisatocho, a small agricultural town in central Japan best known for producing fireworks and washi paper.
But where others may have disregarded the building as a forgotten artifact of the former sake brewery compound that once inhabited it, members of the local community saw potential in the urban blight.

Tokyo-based architect Jorge Almazán, in collaboration with a studio lab he leads at Keio University, brainstormed with a local community group for months to propose a solution for the space. Irreparably damaged, it was largely demolished by its owner, though the small portion of the main building that remained—amidst a now-vacant lot overgrown with weeds where its larger partitions once stood—was primely sited along a main shopping street. 

Rather than build anew, the group proposed a multi-purpose space that would activate the neighborhood with a variety of cultural programs, including exhibitions, performances, and conferences. 

"Our goal was not only preserving the old warehouse, but giving it new life while keeping its historical and architectural character," says Almazán. "For this purpose, in our design we use a Japanese traditional repertoire of materials and elements, but giving them new forms and uses."

"Our goal was not only preserving
the old warehouse, but giving it new life while keeping its historical and architectural character."
—Jorge Almazán, architect

Restoring the walls, repairing the roof, and retaining as many details as possible, such as the original roof tiles, they also introduced a host of new ones. New wooden wainscoting, found in many kura warehouses, was added to protect the lower half of the walls. On the western-facing portion of the vacant lot, they created a small plaza with a two-sided stage that extends the interior to the outdoors, inviting community engagement. New lighting fixtures and rails for spotlights set the stage for installations and events.

Outside, a set of circular plinths in varying sizes dot the perimeter of the structure, enlivening its connection back to the main shopping street. Inspired by stepping stones found in Japanese gardens, the additions are set in concrete, in a modern nod to the traditional.

"By reinterpreting traditional architectural elements," says Almazán, "we integrated the new and the old. Beyond the positive impact on this local community, we hope that this project will become an inspiring model to re-inject new life into many neglected traditional warehouses found in provincial Japanese cities."