A Nod to Botany

Young architects capture light in a crowded Tokyo neighborhood by curving a house toward the sun.

Tokyo’s residential districts are a dense mix of multiunit buildings and small plots with single-family houses separated only by 20-inch gaps. Since founding Takei Nabeshima Architects (TNA) in 2005, Chie Nabeshima and Makoto Takei have made a practice of defying the limitations of such sites. However, their latest project, a mischievously tilted 355-square-foot shaft in the Meguro ward, is their most audacious design yet.

The corner lot seemed like a blessing to the young couple with a seven-year-old child who purchased it. But the architects knew that the city’s rapid development could suddenly turn the most beautiful views into dreary urban wallpaper, even with southern and eastern exposures. To prevent future surprises, TNA chose to orient the residence toward the sky, taking in light from above rather than from the sides. “It is of no use to make big windows in the external walls of this house,” Takei says. “It would only give a bad view of neigh­boring buildings.”

To bring in as much sunlight as possible, TNA opted for a three-foot setback that would allow them to build higher. The architects then made the northern elevation longer than the southern, curving the structure toward the street. The white mosaic walls, left all but closed, are topped entirely by a 248-square-foot skylight. Inside, the sloping northern wall transports that natural light all the way to the ground floor, making the normally dark side the sunny part of the interior. “With plenty of light coming from the top instead of from the south, the clients were easily convinced that a solution of reversed sides would give a rather beautiful effect,” Takei says. Accordingly, the rooms were positioned against the southern wall, with priority given to the airy top floor, where TNA placed a bright living-dining room with scenic views of the sky above. Because it is in open contact with the rest of the house via the spiral staircase, one can always feel the presence of other family members.

But the unusual spatial configuration didn’t mean that sacrifices had to be made elsewhere—instead it offered special advantages. In the tiny child’s room, the curved wall serves as a backrest for leaning or sleeping against, while in the kitchen it allows for extra storage space on the shelves. Outside, the 6.6-foot overhang doubles as a sheltered spot for the owner to park his car. It is this kind of canny opportunism that defines TNA’s approach to dealing with difficult sites. “A good house,” Nabeshima says, “is one that can make a pleasant atmosphere inside from the negative con-ditions outside.”

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