Prominently featured on the base structures of iconic Japanese castles such as the Himeji and Matsumoto Castles – both currently designated among Japan’s National Treasures – traditional stone masonry in Japanese architecture is revered for its durability and sheer visual weight. Although its rough, naturalistic appearance lent itself well to civil engineering applications in the past, the technique was seldom employed in purely architectural forms. Japanese architect Tomoaki Uno of Tomoaki Uno Architects stumbled upon this very revelation when enlisted to design a residence for a couple and their three children in the city of Nagoya, the capital of Aichi Prefecture. One of the client’s more peculiar requests was to utilise a variation of this building method known as field masonry in fashioning the home’s enclosure – a fairly challenging proposition in today’s day and age.
The site, located in a residential neighbourhood, was in close proximity to the campuses of both Nagoya University and Nanzan University. Only a half hour drive away from Nagoya Station, the plot was on an inclined road in an area with profuse greenery littered along its streetscape. “A vacant lot I had inherited from my parents was on the corner of one of the lanes and the site for this project lay to the northwest. As soon as people who know me well saw the house, they would make fun of the fact that Mr. Uno had persuaded the client to build something unique,” remarks Tomoaki Uno in a statement. As per the client’s desire, the home’s walls were to be made using this age-old masonry construction method. However, the architects were adamant about the low feasibility of this approach, advocating for a pyramidal volume in stone that would merge into the concrete envelope composing the rest of the home.
As Uno shares, “The presence and volume of the masonry could not be compared to that of an ordinary thin stone covering a wall. There was a real danger of spoiling everything if it was mishandled. I wondered if it could be used not as a finishing material but as a framework for architecture.” Following a thorough investigation into the historical use of field masonry, he arrived at the conclusion that it had seldom been used for large scale construction in an architectural context and was mainly seen on the walls and platforms of fortified buildings. The evolution of Japanese masonry over the centuries had also rendered newer structures in a way that diverged greatly from their older predecessors. Struggling to conceptualise a relevant implementation of this practice in a contemporary residential design context, and fearing the desecration of this antiquated technique through poor execution, Uno realised the difficulty of the task put in front of him, and temporarily put the project on hold.
However, a revelation presented itself to him in the form of a photograph of the pyramid of Tenayuca in Mexico, whose refined and concise form inspired a fresh look into the implementation of field masonry in the residence’s architecture. What emerged from this new approach was a pair of interlocked volumes – an elongated cuboid in exposed concrete merging with a pyramidal volume in stone, which would house the client’s study room. A courtyard and pool served to mediate between these two contrasting environments on the building’s interior.
Austere in its composition and materiality, the façade design exudes a weightiness that could not be achieved solely by conventional materials in any scenario. Lacking any clear openings save for the garage door at the basement level, the structure is almost reminiscent of a bunker by virtue of its sheer solidity. The concrete mass is replete with tie holes which provide an ordered, grid-like counterpoint to the more organic texture and geometries of the stacked stones, which rise up from the elevated end of the plot. A stairway built into the side of the pyramid bridges levels, with warm lighting design fixtures washing the stone mass in a gold aura.
Spread out over two storeys – a basement and ground level that adhere to the slope of the land – the program has placed private spaces on the basement floor while common areas are concentrated on the level above it. Four smaller bedrooms line one side of the basement, separated from the master suite by the car park. The upper floor, accessed via an internal staircase, is configured around a courtyard, with a kitchen, living and dining area, along with a gallery overlooking the pool.
As the main source of natural light and contact with the outside world for most of the home’s spaces – besides a few skylights placed throughout the plan – the courtyard serves as a break from the stern, concrete-finished interior design scheme, with blooming plants imparting a burst of colour as part of the landscape design. The effect here is one of respite from the enclosure of the rest of the home’s spaces. Glass walls maintain visual continuity between the spaces ordered around the courtyard, and foster a sense of openness within the house, where the otherwise monolithic materiality and small scale generate an almost ‘confined’ atmosphere. Along with the chestnut wood furnishings and storage, which add an earthy touch to the design, these elements infuse a touch of much-needed warmth to the ensemble.
Interestingly, even after the scheme was finalised, the commencement of construction turned the whole venture on its head. “Fresh problems came when the site work started. It was the overwhelming presence of the masonry. Almost everything else felt light and thin. Of course, I had assumed this to some extent. Still, when the stones were piled up to scale, their presence far exceeded my imagination and gave me a completely different impression. The materials and detailing I had spent a year or so fine-tuning had to be rethought.” He continues, “All the planned copper sashes were replaced by upsized iron and used in its raw form. The materials, detailing, and construction methods of the floors and hardware were also reconsidered and renewed. This flexible response was based on the premise that the client had entrusted us with the project. It would have been impossible if I had not undertaken the contract myself or if I had followed the blueprints in their original form.”
Uno reflects on the project, noting, “I don’t think my decision was wrong as I have never worked on anything where you can feel a sense of the mass of the materials as much as in this house. This greatly influences the individuality of architecture. Recently I have noticed architecture that is insensitive to this sense. This is probably because they only focus on the theory and ignore it and there is no common language for emotion. The reality is that some architecture has a life that we can feel, but no amount of theory will produce that kind of architecture. I believe there is potential in something more sensual beyond such scientific thinking which is what I continue to search for while confronting materials and struggling with them on-site daily.”
Name: Takamine House
Location: Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
Year of Completion: 2021
Area: 189.91 sqm
Architect: Tomoaki Uno Architects