In Hiroshima, Suppose Design Office buzzes with activity. Young architects crowd around a table, gluing pieces of a miniature building. Perched among piles of papers are tiny custom-made houses. One is shaped like an ocean liner while another looks more like a spaceship than a suburban home – grey walls jut outwards and a low-slung roof is topped with black tiles.
Suppose Design Office, founded by Makoto Tanijiri, is just one of a number of firms pushing the boundaries of Japanese architecture and interior design. Buildings range from the airy and spacious to those squeezed into coveted downtown locations. Materials used include glass and steel, but also plastic. Homes, constructed in unconventional shapes, are transformed into lived-in design museums with interiors to match.
Ayumi Sakamoto, 32, lives with her husband and son in “House in Takaya”, a two-story timber home built in 2011 by Suppose Design Office. The carbonated steel exterior looks austere in its setting among the paddy fields and cherry trees near Hiroshima. But behind glass doors a playful space awaits.
Sand covers the ground floor. A pathway of stone slabs leads between living spaces on raised platforms and up a wooden staircase sits a master bedroom encased entirely in glass. Decor is minimal: the living room is furnished with a single chair, a rug and magazine rack. The house, which has no outside space, is designed to act like an indoor garden. With a sandpit in one corner and bikes in another, it feels somewhere between a tree dwelling and a beach house.
‘House in Takaya’, by Suppose Design Office (2011), has an austere-looking carbonated steel exterior but behind glass doors a playful space awaits, with sand covering the ground floor
“Modern Japanese house design often makes a statement,” says Deanna MacDonald, co-author of New Japan Architecture. “It is an interesting phenomenon as, in theory, the average Japanese person does not want to call attention to themselves, but there is no hesitation in building a house that turns heads.”
Futuristic Japanese design took off after the second world war. The 1960s movement “metabolism”, which viewed cities like living organisms, provided a foundation for generations of architects to come. Although showiness is often frowned upon, innovation is valued, says MacDonald: “The new and the exceptional are accepted, even in very traditional settings, if it respects its surroundings … There is a general love of unexpected or fleeting beauty.”
Necessity has also propelled creation. Japan is hemmed in by mountains and the sea, making land a limited and expensive commodity. In Tokyo, for example, costs range between Y250,000 to Y300,000 (£2,006-£2,407) per square metre, according to Mikio Tai, founder of Architect Café.
In a country plagued by natural disasters, wooden homes have frequently been lost to tsunamis, fire, and decay. This reality, along with the Buddhist belief that all life is transient, means houses are traditionally designed to last only a few decades. Buyers can commission a home from scratch and young designers, eager to prove their worth, boldly experiment with forms and materials.
Inspiration for homes with shorter life spans comes from Shinto’s most sacred shrine, Ise Jingu, in Ise city, Mie prefecture on the east coast. Shrines in this 1,000-plus-year-old wooden complex are rebuilt every two decades to pass building techniques to a new generation of craftsmen and to convey a sense of life’s impermanence. Tai explains: “The Japanese don’t need to keep physical things forever, but the spirit is very important.”
If architecture is ultra-contemporary, interiors are distinctly more Japanese, says renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who is currently designing the new V&A in Dundee, Scotland. Japan’s boom years led to American influences, including condominiums and luxury mansions. But this style of housing lost favour soon after the asset bubble collapse in the 1990s.
Japan’s decades-long stagnant economy has instead fuelled bare-boned interiors with “modern” Zen aesthetics: wooden floors, white walls, and an emphasis on craftsmanship. “[It is] very different from the 1980s design. That means interior design in Japan looks very quiet,” says Kuma, from his flagship office in Tokyo.
Japan’s topography also shapes interiors. In a country that accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s earthquakes, not all materials are appropriate: bamboo, paper and silk are used instead of brick, stone and marble because they are more flexible and less likely to collapse during tremors. Heavy furnishings are kept to a minimum.
One homeowner who draws on Japan’s design-led present is Yukiko Yanagisawa. She and her husband Takuji have placed an elegant freestanding bathtub in the open-plan living room of their custom-built home in Kamakura, a historic city one hour’s train ride outside Tokyo. The tub sits alongside a brown leather sofa and floor-to-ceiling windows. They can also draw a white curtain, suspended from the ceiling around the tub, to create a makeshift atrium.
‘House in Takaya’, by Suppose Design Office
Designed by Mikio Tai, “House in Waga-Zaimokuza” makes good use of light, height and open space. The ceiling is 4.95m high and the vast living room is punctuated by a winding steel staircase which leads to an indoor balcony on the second floor.
Originally the couple had signed a contract for a prefabricated house, but after looking through design magazines they decided to hire Tai. “The prefabricated house is fixed,” says Takuji. “Three rooms: a living room, dining room, and kitchen. We wanted to break this custom.”
In their open-plan home, the master bedroom can be merged with the living room or hidden behind sliding wooden walls. Western pieces such as a stainless-steel bar top and low-slung Scandinavian lights in the kitchen are fused with Japanese influences including space set aside for a traditional tea ceremony and a high-tech Japanese-brand toilet.
Of course, unusual design comes at a price. The couple spent Y32m (£257,000) on a 55.6 sq metre plot of land and a further Y25m (£200,000) on building the three-storey house. But they do not regret their decision.
The couple believes their house is a breathing organism which must continue to develop. Despite paying close attention to detail – from the leather slippers by the door to the curtains made by textile designer Yoko Ando – there is always room for change. “The house is not finished yet,” says Takuji. “There are so many parts which can keep on growing forever.”
Main image: House in Takaya’, near Hiroshima, by Suppose Design Office (2011)