In September 2018 Stefano Graziani took pictures of Inverted House.

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Inside outing: Inverted House, Japan, by Oslo School of Architecture and Design + Kengo Kuma

 

AR House Highly Commended

Inverted House subverts conventional ideas about houses by embracing rather than sheltering from the elements

 

The heavy wooden front door, framed by a wall of weather-beaten concrete, swings open. It does not, however, reveal the inside of a home – instead it simply leads from one outdoor space to another. Crossing the ‘threshold’ of Inverted House is an abstract experience that perhaps best sums up the essence of the experimental structure, which excels at surprising and subverting in equal measure.

Located in rural Taiki, a small town on Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido, Inverted House was conceived by a four-strong team of students from the Oslo School of Architecture for an annual competition hosted by the LIXIL JS Foundation.

Inspired by the theme ‘House for Enjoying the Harsh Cold’, Inverted House won first prize and was subsequently built by the Oslo team, under the supervision of Kengo Kuma & Associates.

The structure, completed in January 2016, transcends conventional notions – both physically and conceptually – that a home should have four walls and a roof, created to keep the natural elements outside and protect its inhabitants inside. Instead, Inverted House – surrounded by lush green farmland in summer and deep snow in winter – not only embraces its environment but invites it to take centre stage.

The end result is a house that is more ‘out’ than ‘in’. An angular puzzle of interlocked layers, tilted roofs and raised platforms, it unfolds to reveal a network of outdoor spaces – from living room and bedroom to an al fresco Japanese-style wooden bath.

‘The house pushes to the extreme the idea of living outside – cooking, sleeping, eating, even bathing’, explains Laura Cristea, one of the Oslo students behind its design and construction (now a qualified architect practising in Switzerland). ‘So instead of wrapping a box in various insulating materials, we basically opened the house, inside-out. From the rough cross-wall, the bone of the house, the spaces extend indefinitely.’

The setting is deeply interwoven into the design concept. The Hokkaido region is famed for its heavy snowfall during the long winter months before evolving into a lush, green agricultural landscape from late spring to autumn.

The house’s precise location is Memu Meadows, a bucolic 46-acre former racehorse farm – a 15-minute drive from Taiki town – where LIXIL invites competition winners to construct their designs every year (it is currently one of eight experimental structures).

Taiki is perhaps an unlikely spot for a cutting-edge architectural showcase. Home to fewer than 6,000 residents, it’s primarily an agricultural community (mainly wheat, beet, potatoes and dairy farming), as well as an emerging hub for space technology research. But its wide, natural flat plains – typical of Hokkaido and very different from the mountainous terrain that defines much of the rest of Japan – provide the perfect natural canvas for architectural experimentation.

When visiting in early summer, the expressively ageing concrete and hand-painted dark timber that comprise the main materials of the Inverted House stand out against its green agricultural backdrop.

The lynchpin of the structure are two solid intersecting concrete walls, whose positioning creates loosely divided ‘rooms’ around its edges. The first space that comes into sight is the Garden Room – green in summer and filled with snowdrifts in colder months (the dimensions and angles of the walls are specifically designed to stop shaded snow from melting for as long as possible until late spring).

From here, a ‘front door’ opens into the Outside Living Room – a roof-covered space mainly open to the elements, set on a series of raised wooden platforms, with a log fireplace and expansive views capturing sunset across surrounding fields.

Just next door is the small Room for Cooking, positioned beneath a steep angled roof to protect against strong winds, while a sliding door leads into the only interior space: the Inside Room. The long narrow space – the coolest place in summer and the warmest in winter – has a minimal ‘sleeping bench’ and an angled wood roof, constructed by local craftsmen using a Hokkaido larch known as karamatsu.

Eyes are drawn to the low-lying strip of window, positioned to frame views of winter snowdrifts or green summer grass, while a warming log fire sits in one corner.

A nearby door leads to a discreetly positioned (indoor) toilet which opens onto an outdoor Japanese-style wooden bath, tucked protectively beneath a tilted roof but exposed enough to offer the possibility of an outdoor soak with a view.

Circling the house to return to the front facade, just to the right of the Garden Room are two concrete ‘sleeping platforms’ – hovering between the ground and a tilted roof and positioned to face the sun rising in an open Hokkaido sky.

From the placements and dimensions of the concrete walls to the precise tilt of each angled roof, the Oslo team dedicated a painstaking level of research into each individual component.

‘The distance to nature is precisely controlled through architectonic means’, explains Cristea. ‘For example, the main outside room has an almost flat roof opening up a horizontal, diagonal relation to the surroundings. The roof is large and low, standing on only one column, enhancing the flatness of the open landscape. ‘On the other hand, the inside room is long and narrow, rather a corridor space connecting, in a loop, outside to outside. It has a specifically framed view (with massive frames, as such), of the earth, grass or snow.

‘While all the outside spaces are floating on various subtle heights, the inside room is very much grounded, anchored in place.’

Katsuhito Komatsu – one of two architects from Kengo Kuma & Associates who supervised construction – pinpoints one overriding dynamic: ‘The relation between nature and space. The Inverted House is open to the outside by inverting the walls of a house, not only by having windows. It is interesting that the space on both the outside and inside is along one wall. We can experience nature continuously.’

For LIXIL JS Foundation, key to the competition is offering the creators of a design that both turns heads and provokes reflection on modern life, a rare opportunity to bring it to life.

‘Our goal is to give students a site and the opportunity to learn in a practical way by overseeing an architectural project from early design to construction’, explains Yoko Ushioda, chairperson of LIXIL JS Foundation. ‘In addition, our competition is a way to explore new types of architecture. We have held this competition for six years and every year students give us new insights and aspects about architecture and housing.’

Cristea and her co-creators are keen for the structure to be experienced as fully as possible and hope it might one day become an experimental guesthouse for overnight stays.

At present, it is open to the public during the daytime, with visitors including a mix of long-distance architecture lovers and locals. Events are also organised within Memu Meadows, ranging from summer glamping sessions to workshops (some organised by architect Toyo Ito’s non-profit organisation Ito Juku).

Experimental architecture and rural life in a small Hokkaido town are perhaps not the most obvious worlds to mesh together – yet it’s a welcome union for many locals, according to Mika Nakagami, who works at Taiki Town Hall.

‘One great positive is that many international architects and creatives are visiting Taiki because of this project’, she says. ‘The effect on the local community is perhaps not dramatic but it’s offering people a different perspective. I think it is slowly having a revitalising effect.’

Nakagami, like many locals, laughs initially when asked about her thoughts on Inverted House. ‘The theme did seem a little bit crazy at first’, she smiles. ‘For residents, it’s hard to understand because the winter cold is not something to be enjoyed. It’s a challenge. But I was really excited when I first saw the house. I felt it wasn’t a house, more a work of art. I love the harmony of nature with landscape and it made me see how this kind of harmony can make your daily life more fulfilled.’

Someone else who appreciates it is Yoshinori Kubo – who as caretaker at Memu Meadows is perhaps most familiar with its angles and shadows and transformation with the seasons.

As he says simply: ‘I see it every day. I enjoy looking at it. My favourite times? In the winter when it’s under snow and on nights when it’s lit up by a full moon.’

27.06.17, Danielle Demetriou