Engawa House

Engawa House | Modernizing a traditional veranda opens doors

As a fashion merchandiser, Hidekazu has been to Italy many times. Once while visiting, an Italian friend invited him to his home, an old farmhouse in Biello. There, they spent evenings eating at the long table outside, and enjoying discussions by the fireplace in a large room lit by candlelight. It left a deep impression on Hidekazu. “When I looked for an architect,” he explained, “I knew I had to find someone who was capable of understanding that sort of lifestyle.”

Being in Japan, the obvious answer was one architect – or rather two: the architectural team formed by Takaharu Tezuka and Yui Tezuka. Apart from a modern art museum, their work mainly consists of private residences. All of their buildings are characterized by a strong, simple concept, which always incorporates “outdoor living”. This has taken various forms: rooftops utilized as living space, huge glaze façades that can be entirely opened, decks and verandas, skylights, and views. They use only orthodox materials such as steel, wood and concrete, which is quite a statement in Japan, where plastics and other artificial materials are the standard.

More than their philosophy, though, it was a photo of the Tezukas in a magazine that convinced the Higashibatas they were right for the job. “In all the usual photos, the architects are dressed in black, gazing with pseudo-intellectual expressions into the camera,” muses Hidekazu. “But not the Tezukas. They are always smiling, dressed colorfully, looking relaxed. Plus, when I saw in the photo that they drive a yellow Deux-Chevaux, I knew for sure they would get my idea.”

Seated at the table in his brand-new lofty house, Hidekazu talks enthusiastically about the design and how the house has changed their lives. “Before, we lived in a regular apartment. I wouldn’t come home until late at night, only to plop down on the sofa and watch TV. With this house, I try to be home as much as possible, even during the holidays.” A warm spring breeze blows through the house, playing with the long white curtains. Hidekazu and his wife Miharu are extremely content with their new house and it is easy to understand why.

On the site adjacent to Miharu’s parents’ house, the Tezukas designed a long one-storey house that can be completely opened on one side by a series of glass sliding doors. Some amazing structural acrobatics are carried out by a single steel beam, which spans the sixteen-meter façade in its entirety. The same steel-beam trick is used on the opposite side of the house, where only the upper part of the three-and-a-half-meter-high wall opens up to the outside via sliding glass doors.

A large 2-meter-high shelving and closet unit, divides the interior into smaller cubicles that serve as bath- and bedrooms, but leaves adequate distance from the ceiling so that the entire interior appears to be one uniform space. In one sense, the house can be regarded a modern interpretation of traditional Japanese architecture, which also has an open floor plan without inner walls, and with sliding doors that open the interior rooms to the outside.

The name “Engawa” given to this house hints at another parallel with traditional Japanese architecture: engawa is the Japanese word for an open corridor protected under the eaves and skirting the outside of a traditional house, like a veranda without guardrails. An intermediary space between the interior and exterior, it can be connected to either the interior space or to the garden by way of sliding doors. It not only protects the interior from wind, rain, and, in summer, the strong rays of the sun, but also functions as a place to entertain guests, and as an entranceway from the garden into the house.

The parents’ neighboring house was built in traditional Japanese style, and its engawa inspired the concept for the new house. Their engawa was in deplorable condition: instead of a garden, it faced a wall. The Tezukas rehabilitated the old engawa by knocking down the wall and filling half the site with a garden; meanwhile, the new house on the other half of the site, opens onto the same garden. Earning its nickname, the house is, in essence, one giant engawa.

When the Higashibatas initially approached the Tezukas about designing a house, they jotted down a list of ideals for their new home. It mentioned materials, function, and atmosphere, as well as memories of beautiful places they had visited. At the top of the list was the desire for a good environment for children. Their two sons, aged five and eight, love soccer. With a grass lawn and a goal post that also functions as the clothesline, the Higashibata boys are probably the only kids in Tokyo who can play soccer in their own backyard. The house is already famous among the neighborhood children, and the place seems to be an open-house every day. It was also the boys who discovered that the house does in fact have a “second storey”, something which the architects themselves were not even aware of: the top of the shelving unit proves an especially fun place for little boys to play, and the family has now bought a ladder to access this treasured space. Nothing beats a child’s imagination in appreciating the finer details of modern architecture.

Text by: Femke Bijlsma Photo by: Alessio Guarino