This weekend house in the Japanese mountains is a real box of tricks

Black box: this weekend house in the Japanese mountains is a real box of tricks

If you were to drive for two hours north-west from Tokyo to the mountain resort of Karuizawa and then go down into the woods there, you might be surprised and perhaps even a bit discomfited to come across this little black cottage squatting in the sylvan landscape. Like some dark witch’s hovel, it has a curiously unnerving aura. No communing with nature here; no gently weathering cedar or faux rusticity. The pitch black corrugated cladding that shrouds the walls suggests an emphatic impermeability. It could have dropped from the sky and be anywhere.

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The reality is slightly more prosaic. It is, in fact, a weekend retreat for city dwellers, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and guest space contained in a simple barn-like volume with a big pitched roof. That suspicious-looking protuberance is actually a balcony for surveying the surroundings. Yet there is still something uneasy about it all. Bearing down like a big black weight, the exaggerated proportions of the roof seem top heavy for a mere single-storey dwelling. However, the reason for this apparent ungainliness is revealed once you get inside.

Individual spaces have their own internal pitched roofs, supported by gable walls, creating a deep void between the main external roof and secondary internal roofs/ceilings (architect Go Hasegawa describes them as ‘back ceilings’). Light is captured and funnelled into the roof void by large skylights and is then filtered through the back ceilings which are finished with very thin skins of wood or paper. In the main living space, the back ceiling is lined with sheets of maple fixed to clear acrylic panels hung from a timber framework. When the sun dapples through the wafer thin wood, the entire surface is suffused with light, the effect analagous to a poor man’s alabaster. In the bedroom and guest room, back ceilings are lined with sheets of washi, traditional Japanese paper that is both strong and delicately translucent.

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The mechanics of the roof void and back ceilings can be apprehended more clearly in the kitchen, through a large skylight, as well as from the dog-leg staircase linked to the external balcony. This brings you up into the roof itself, from where you can admire the complex geometry of gables, voids and structure, rather like seeing how a stage set is constructed. And though the main aim of the back ceilings is to modulate light, there is also a climate-modifying aspect at work. In a mountainous region with chilly winters, the void and secondary roofs help to insulate the house. So there is rather more to this witch’s cottage than at first meets the eye. C. S.

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COPYRIGHT 2008 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning