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Works in Steel;Small but beautifully formed _Text By Sally Stewart2008.04

Works in Steel;
Small but beautifully formed For Mac Mag32
Text By Sally Stewart Mackintosh School of Architecture

The exhibition is almost complete, filling the space with models, photos and drawing from the last ten years of Ks Architects preoccupation with steel sheet houses. Having known Hiroaki Kimura since he was a student at the MAC, the work exhibited reminds me of the extend to which this theme within his work had evolved and the range of possibilities it presents. Experimenting with the potential of sheet steel and working towards a true monocoque, free form any frame structure has produced a series of highly functional houses each of which also manages to express the uniqueness of its client, context and programme. The appetite for architect designed houses in Japan has not diminished, and despite the economic downturn of recent years there is no signs of a recession that we would recognise in the UK. We walk round the work, discussing how Kimura’s ideas have found expression, choosing our favourites and discussing possible visits. Based in Nishinomiya, Kimura’s home town, the audience seems likely to be a local one, until I realise that what I took to be largely a suburb of the Osaka / Kobe metropolis, is a city in its own right with a population larger that that of Edinburgh. Here, applying western perceptions does not always give an accurate reading.

The taxi climbs high up the hillside from Mikage Station and stops opposite Kobe Shinsei Baptist Church, the first of two steel projects we are visiting. The site enjoys breathtaking views across Kobe Bay with the active shipyards with their red and white cranes in the foreground, the City and Corniche in the middle distance and the islands in the bay spreading out to the South West. It's a clear April day and were are enjoying Hanami, cherry blossom viewing time. The Cherry tree that marks the building at the crossroads is in full bloom, silhouetted in front of the dazzling white chapel sitting behind.

The chapel occupies a third of the original Baptist Church plot. When the American organization moved back to the States, the site was divided and sold. In order to maintain their base, the congregation decided to raised money to buy the ground, commission an architect and build a new place of worship. The commission came to Kimura through a student who’s family were members. The tiny plot and restricted budget became the drivers for ingenuity both in design, material choices and building sequence. The plot, a tight corner surrounded with small villas, offers two mute sides and two revealed to the street. The building simply fills the site and uses the opportunity of the hill the narrower façade open on to, to reconcile the slope and rationalise entrance to the chapel itself and the social space below.
The worship space takes the form of a steel tent draped over a concrete plinth housing all support accommodation below. The envelope is completed by two gable walls formed entirely from glass blocks, the only light sources. The simplicity of the space is striking, as is the quality of the light filtered through the etched glass blocks at the alter end.

The steel envelope forming the continuous wall and roof, is made from twelve steel sheet sections 1800 X 7000 mm. At the limits of what could be brought to site by road, the sections were hoisted into place before being bolted together, allowing ventilation to filter through a narrow slot between the steel and concrete plinth, and at the ridge. The sheets form the simplest possible solution to creating the volume required with surface forming both structure and surface. Additional bracing is supplied through tension cables triangulated between bays and through cruciform H sections which restrain the glass block gable walls. The heavy doors within the front façade are merely pinned through one of these, offering an almost frameless construction. A steel lecturn and timber pews provide the only furniture (the result of a student competition, the pews were also built by students keen to become involved in a live project).
The chapel space is almost a reverse of Ando’s Church of Light nearby. Here light itself defines the space, producing an intensely spiritual experience. The steel sheet, internally treated with only a clear lacquer coating, also seems to absorb sound insulating form the outside world and intensifying the experience.

Few opportunities are ignored. Vaulting within the undercroft is reminiscent of the Maison Jaoul while the faceted concrete form of the staircase linking the two floors increases its structural strength while reducing the volume of concrete involved. It also reminds us of the decorative possibilities based around satisfying functional demands.
Determined to keep within the budget, Kimura co-ordinated the separate trades on site, thus keeping construction costs to a minimum, and co-incidentally providing a constant presence for quality control.

On a previous visit it became quickly apparent how proud the client group were of their new base. Two years on the Chapel shows little sign of losing its sheen but plenty of purposeful occupation on a more or less constant cycle.

Visiting the tea house involves a sortie into the vast Osaka suburbia. Originally a farm, the farmhouse or Minka is now completely landlocked, surrounded by small detached houses, and somewhat surreally a golf range, the nets of which form a 20 m green curtain to the edge of the property. Kimura has acted as architect to three generations of the same family, originally for the father, his first client on returning from Scotland. The most recent work for daughter and granddaughter has entailed remodelling the 1920’s house to provide a more flexible living space, and a teahouse. The teahouse provides both a memorial to the patriarch and a means for enjoying a beautiful landscaped garden he planed around the house. Steel is the material of choice, providing a keen juxtaposition between the traditional and contemporary.

It is hard for a Gaijin to understand the significance of the tea ceremony in the Japanese psyche. ‘Underlying the Japanese spiritual identity are three significantly interrelated phenomena: the national Shinto religion, Zen philosophy and the tea ceremony’ (Sacchi 2006). ‘Even though it it is an intense aesthetic experience, the tea ceremony which in Japanese is more simply called cha-no-yu ( hot water for tea), should nonetheless not be regarded “as a pastime with aesthetic leanings, but as a vehicle created by man to keep himself alert, so that he does not become drowsy by automatic repetition of practical activities and so lose contact with the intrinsic value of his deeds and his own spiritual reality”

What Kimura’s teahouse offers is a fresh view of this most specific of Japanese spaces, countering Taut’s criticism made early last century that both the ceremony and architectural response were redundant to contemporary life as they had “been transformed into a series of rules set into stone and arid academicism.”(Taut 1936). Sitting in the two tatami mat room, configured in its initial closed form, you are at once aware of what has been removed – the landscape and the external visual field, and what replaces it - a lofty yet contained space the boundaries of which become blurred through the patina of the unfinished steel and the shifting geometry of the roof. As the ceremony proceeds and the transaction between tea master and pupil moves through its precisely defined sequence, the walls begin to shift to reveal the trees, rock pond, blossom and topography, a condensed and borrowed landscape. The position of the viewer, kneeling, and the height of the opening coincide to frame nature in a particular way. On a spring morning the colour and textures becomes hyper-real and the world beyond the boundary ceases to exist. Externally the room appears as a sculpture in white, whose lines fold and flow. Like a puzzle, the space inside can be revealed and concealed, as the glass and steel planes cantilever beyond the mass or retreat to their starting point. We return to the house to take leave of the family and are inevitably invited to have some tea. Sitting picking up fragments of the conversation, the intention and impact of the recent changes are apparent. It is far less about adding accommodation - extending and far more about a new interpretation of a familiar situation. In this the choice of a tea house is a deliberate move to connect to your tradition yet situate it in the here and now.

Writing about ‘A’ House completed in 1995, Kimura asserts that “ the conception was that the entire Façade would be enveloped in smooth steel sheet, which was cut out, bent, and folded like a sheet of construction paper. The design was quite unlike existing architectural styles: the effect was as through the structure was wearing a mask - or was a sporty automobile” (Kimura 2002). The steel sheet drawings for many of the buildings are more reminiscent of dress making patterns, complete with darts and inverts, unsurprisingly as we are dealing with a planar material producing sculptural form. Kimura is careful to add that these buildings employ simple building techniques, form fabrication to assembly, the aim being to make them as accessible as possible. In both the examples we visit, the cost and the particular construction process are key factors in the buildings being realised.

These two projects sit in the expanded field of the houses being exhibited, largely due to their programmatic particularity. Both are built around a pattern of ritual use designed to lift the mind to a higher plane, to remove the mundane. In both an individual or small group is taken through a sequence of stages or steps, the choreography of which is closely allied to the form of the space in which the ritual takes place.

Within the teahouse, the tea ceremony itself requires the referencing of the complete space by both master and pupil before the exterior world is revealed and re engaged with.

The congregational nature of the church means much of the formality of the religious meeting is played down, leaving a much more subtle but immediate connection between worshipper and space. Connection with the external world is filtered out through form and material consequence.

The extent to which both small buildings are transformed through their realisation, by the choice of material envelope becomes evident in visiting them. They are perhaps the clearest examples yet of the possibilities and potential the monocoque offers within Kimura and Ks architects work.

Japan-ness in Architecture
Isozaki, Arata
2006, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts

Tokyo; City and Architecture
Sacchi, Livio
2004, Skira, Milan

Fundamentals of Japanese Architecture
Taut, B
1936, Kokusai Bunka Shinokai, Tokyo

Steel Sheet Houses
Kimura, Hiroaki,
2002, Amus Art Press, Osaka

Further information
Space in Detail v; for Houses
Japan Architect
No.58, Summer 2005

No.8, 2005