Nesting in Tokyo

Woven into a rare stand of trees, Hiroshi Nakamura’s apartment building offers business travelers a place to land.

Trees are rare enough in central Tokyo that discovering a grove of them is almost unimaginable. Yet land in the city is so expen­sive that when developer FLEG Inter­national held a design competition for a six-unit apartment building on a partially wooded lot, the sole stipulation was that the architects eke out the max­imum square footage possible on its 8,288 square feet. Hiroshi Nakamura, the ascendant 34-year-old protégé of Kengo Kuma, was the only one who didn’t propose to level the little forest. In his winning scheme—completed last August—rather than the trees and birds making way for the new residents, the newcomers were fitted in around the existing inhabitants.

Rented by the month to American executives temporarily stationed in the city on business, Danc­ing Trees, Singing Birds butts right up against the woods. (The unlikely targets of the poetic complex are analysts at Morgan Stanley, whose Tokyo branch is nearby.) The young designer, who now helms Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP Architects, kept the foundation compact, setting the support pillars back from the periphery so as not to disturb root systems. Nine “human bird nests” cantilever out from the south facade, jutting between trunks and branches. Woven among them are six small birdhouses that Nakamura hung to ensure that birds remain on the site. “The forest should not just be something to look at, but rather something to feel entirely enclosed by,” he says. “Immersing the res­i­­dents in the forest is our way of raising their aware­ness of environmental issues.”

While he may not have had the option of sacrificing space to preserve foliage, Nakamura was able to forfeit views in two of the apartments—a potentially undesirable situation that he instead exploited in the design. Each dwelling has a theme, an explicit response to Japan’s monotonous apartment buildings. “You can already guess what is behind your neighbor’s doors,” Nakamura says of the city’s housing stock. In contrast, he decided on six apartments of different sizes, each with a kitchen–dining room, a living room, a small bedroom, and a unique space devoted to a leisure activity. “On each site, and even within a site, I discover qualities that the building volume should respond to,” Nakamura says. Exotic designations such as Spa House and Library House, featured on nameplates by every door, are meant to arouse curiosity and suggest that Dancing Trees, Singing Birds is a place where neighbors—even temporary ones—will actually want to visit one another. “Ideally, they will form friendships or a small community together,” Nakamura says.

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