The Skyward House

The Skyward House

By Winifred Bird / Published by Alpine Modern
Dwelling in a tiny Tokyo apartment for decades, the school teacher had dreamed of a vegetable and flower garden with a little house—but never of the inspiring minimalist home she eventually built in the woods of her native hamlet. Architect Kazuhiko Kishimoto designed for her a white, womblike core with skylight and outward-focused spaces affording views of her passionately cultivated paradise, plus Mount Fuji and the Japan Alps at a distance.

Yoko Fushimi adores her house. It is a small wooden cube set on a slope overlooking a rippling expanse of mountains rising west of Tokyo toward the crescendo of the Japan Alps. The modest exterior belies an unusual and conceptually exciting interior, composed of what architect Kazuhiko Kishimoto calls "inner and outer spaces." Aside from a skylight at the apex of its peaked ceiling, a pure white, womblike inner space offers few glimpses of the outside world. Conversely, the low, wood-paneled outer spaces focus almost entirely on the surrounding environment. After three years, Fushimi still delights in a house full of interesting contrasts and surprising shapes.

When she first set out to build a house, however, she wanted none of these things—or at least she didn’t know she wanted them. "I never dreamed I’d have a house as wonderful as this. The way the light changes on the white walls, the views at night…I didn’t request any of it," she said on a recent afternoon. She was sitting in one of the outer spaces, a pentagon-shaped living area dominated by a large window that overlooks the mountains and creates a sense of floating in the sky. A hibiscus plant bloomed vibrantly in one corner. Across from it, on a low sofa, sat Kishimoto; the architect and his client have maintained a cordial relationship since the house was completed.

What she had initially wanted, Fushimi explained, was a garden. She grew up in a large traditional house a five-minute walk from her current home, on the eastern edge of Yamanashi prefecture. The back of the house peered down on a maze of mist-filled valleys, while the front faced a lofty stretch of the Koshu Kaido, one of the five great roads of the Edo period (1603-1868). Many of Fushimi’s neighbors grew vegetables or raised cows to supplement the occasional visit of traveling merchants. Her father, too, would rise early to tend his garden before heading to work at city hall. Mostly he grew flowers, which bloomed in succession throughout the warmer seasons. Fushimi had dreamed about having her own garden ever since. But after high school she had moved away to study education, and then settled in Tokyo, where she remained for forty years, teaching elementary school and living alone in a small apartment.

She dreamed of a garden with a house

As retirement neared, Fushimi decided to return to the hamlet where she had grown up and build herself a house with a garden (or rather, a garden with a house). "The problem was, I didn’t know how to get a house," she admitted. When she came across an advertisement for a free seminar in downtown Tokyo about "serious home construction," she decided to attend. Kishimoto was one of the speakers. "It was like love at first sight," she joked. "I wanted him to design my house. I liked what he had to say."

"It was like love at first sight. I wanted him to design my house. I liked what he had to say."

A very human-sized home 

"What all my houses have in common is their human scale," he explained as he sat in Fushimi’s very human-sized home. "The height of the ceilings and the size of the rooms are small and compact, and as a result, the houses themselves are small. But I don’t design individual rooms. I design places that are connected with each other so that you can always sense the whole. They’re very comfortable to be in."

"What all my houses have in common is their human scale…I design places that are connected with each other so that you can always sense the whole."

Tiny houses abound in urban Japan, where firms such as Atelier Bow-Wow and Schemata Architects have found mind-bending uses for any chink in the crowded landscape. Most of these, however, are responses to site limitations. Kishimoto was after something different. He wanted to revive a Japanese design tradition that had always made more sense to him than conventional Western architecture, regardless of site size. 

"If you enclose a room with walls, no matter how big it is, it feels small," he said. However, this Westernized approach to home design had become increasingly common in Japan since the 1950s. Kishimoto wanted to do the opposite: make small spaces feel big through creative design. When he set up his own firm in 1998, he turned to traditional architecture for inspiration.

Japanese building tradition — on the mat

Since at least the 1500s, Japanese builders have been using a standardized set of architectural dimensions derived from the size of the human body and the inherent structural limitations of wood. For example, one key unit sets the size of a tatami mat at just under six feet by three feet, around the size of a reclining adult male; as an old proverb points out, all the space you really needs is "one mat when you’re asleep and half a mat when you’re awake." Three of these mats might make up a tearoom, and five might make a family sleeping area.

The houses comprising these units were often small, but they contained a number of techniques for creating the sensation of spaciousness. "There was a unique way of connecting rooms, a secret hidden in the design," Kishimoto said. By and large a house constituted a roof, a floor, some posts, and some sliding screens. Spaces were interlinked, solid walls were scant, and inside led fluidly to outside. Kishimoto wanted to translate these concepts of connectivity and human scale into the aesthetic language of modern design.

"There was a unique way of connecting rooms, a secret hidden in the design."

Fushimi hadn’t thought much about architecture until she heard Kishimoto talk about these ideas at the seminar, but what he said appealed to her instinctively. Plus, she liked the look of his houses. After the talk she decided to send him a letter. "I assumed he’d turn down such a small, low-budget project," she said. Instead he invited her to discuss the project in person, and ultimately took it on.

The design process spanned two years, partly because of the town’s very slow-paced permitting procedure. Kishimoto began by helping Fushimi select a building site from amongst several owned by her family. The lot they settled on had very few technical limitations: there were tree-filled views on all sides, no visible neighbors, and plenty of space. They also discussed her requests. These included wheelchair accessibility so her aging father could visit, a skylight so that light would pour in like it had in a church she once saw on a trip to Europe, and in her words, "three pages crammed with detailed requests, but not a single one that got to the heart of what I wanted."

Fortunately, this gap between what clients say and the fullness of what they truly want is something Kishimoto devotes considerable thought to in his practice. "Words apply to objects, like the size of the rooms, and any contractor can meet those requests. My role is to respond to the desires people can’t express," he said. He engages his clients in chitchat, watches their expressions, and replays conversations again and again in his head, trying to grasp what they mean by vague terms such as "beautiful" or "site-appropriate." "You don’t draw closer to happiness or beauty in a mechanistic way, like climbing a staircase or adding one plus one," he said.

"Words apply to objects, like the size of the rooms, and any contractor can meet those requests. My role is to respond to the desires people can’t express."  

In Fushimi’s case, Kishimoto thought about how her long years in Tokyo and her request for a churchlike skylight—"a very urban desire"—contrasted with her rural upbringing and her wish to be surrounded by greenery and gardens. Internal contradictions of this sort are common, but how to deal with them? "Modernism wants to clean things up, make them easy to understand. This is city, this is country," he said. His response was messier: he wanted the visual and spatial contrasts of the house to reflect Fushimi’s own complexity.  

A modern take on the little cabin in the woods 

What emerged was a very modern take on the little cabin in the woods. The outside of the simple form is clad in unpainted red cedar planks separated by gaps of approximately four-tenths of an inch (one centimeter), which are intended to lighten the building’s visual impact on the landscape. "I thought it would melt into its surroundings as the trees in the garden grew up around it," Kishimoto said. A wooden ramp leads up the left side of the lot, past a lush garden, and around back to the entryway. The back corner of the house has been sliced off so that the door sits at a diagonal, and the excised space serves as a small porch, now tangled with potted passion-fruit vines and avocado trees.  

"I thought it would melt into its surroundings as the trees in the garden grew up around it." 

This wild, leafy space opens onto an entirely different world: the white, light-filled core of the house. Kishimoto intended this inner area to serve as a comforting cocoon where Fushimi could retreat when storms or darkness swept over the mountains. It contains the kitchen, computer area, toilet, and sleeping niche. The walls are white plaster, the floors shiny white ceramic tile, and the custom-made table and kitchen-island are white, as well. Light enters from an opening at the peak of the pyramid-shaped ceiling. Kishimoto encircled this skylight with a steel ring for structural support; the ceiling beams rest on the ring instead of on one another when they converge at the top of the pyramid.

Four "outer spaces" adjoin the inner core. One, reached by hunching through a rectangular opening of Alice-in-Wonderland proportions, is a cube-shaped tea room whose glass outer wall reveals a diagonal line of grass and cherry-blossom trees. Fushimi often uses this room to arrange flowers. Another contains a fragrant pinewood bathtub and a wood-framed window that lets in birdsong and cricket chatter. A tiny porch sits adjacent to the bath. Finally, there is the five-sided sitting area with its sweeping view across the mountains. All four of these outer spaces have much lower ceilings than the inner core, and all are finished in the same cedar panels used on the exterior; the interconnecting lines of the panels strongly accentuate the architectural geometry.

Altogether, inner and outer spaces measure only 640 square feet (ca. 59 square meters). To Fushimi that feels large: she spent decades in a 260-square-foot (ca. 24-square-meter) apartment. She continues to find surprises in her new home. 

"One splendid thing I recently discovered is that if I stand at the exact midpoint between the kitchen and the bed and sing, my voice echoes so beautifully I sound almost like a professional soprano," she wrote to me in a letter.

The most remarkable part of the house, however, is that which Fushimi has created herself. In three years the bare slope of the lot has become a profusion of trees, flowers, and bushes. Kiwi vines, morning glories, honeysuckle, and wild roses twine around moss-covered tree trunks and arbors. Lilies, ferns, and violet sage crowd the pathways. The garden has a wild feeling that is rare in Japan, but perfectly suited to its surroundings (while weeding, Fushimi has spotted foxes, deer, wild boars, monkeys, badgers, and three black bears). She tends to her garden most days that weather permits, and thinks of it as a present to the birds and butterflies and people who wander past. But most of all, it is a long-awaited gift to herself. "Right now," she said, "I’m completely caught up in playing in the dirt." △


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