Photo © Atsushi Nakamichi/Nacása & Partners

IWI Orthodontics

Contemporary Architecture Practice


By Naomi R. Pollock, AIA

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As dazzling as a perfect smile, IWI Orthodontics makes a bold first impression, but its elegant beauty lingers on long after. Filling the fourth floor of an existing building in the heart of Tokyo’s hip Harajuku neighborhood, the clinic specializes in an implant orthodontia system patented by its head doctor. With the goal of creating an equally innovative office space, he hired the New York City—based firm Contemporary Architecture Practice (CAP). The result of their collaboration is a sleek interior that seamlessly merges cutting-edge medical technology with gracious Japanese hospitality.

As if greeting guests at a traditional inn, a staff member meets patients at the street and individually escorts them upstairs. The elevator opens directly onto the lounge, where patients sip beverages while waiting for their appointments. From there, a short corridor leads to the three private examination rooms and the office laptop bar, a tiny windowed nook where staff keep records and an eye on activity. It adjoins a sequestered support and sterilization area in back. Across the front of the clinic, the patient-occupied places segue onto a large, covered terrace. Contiguous with the ceiling inside, the steel canopy of the terrace edits the city view, but its floor-level grass planters reference the wooded shrine precinct across the street — visually extending the entire clinic and providing a peaceful distraction for patients while their dental hardware is adjusted.

Intended to move teeth quickly and invisibly, IWI’s jewel-like components are crafted with the utmost accuracy and installed behind the teeth. “The client wanted to bring these ideas to 3D life,” explains CAP principal Ali Rahim. Inspired by this challenge, Rahim and the firm’s coprincipal, Hina Jamelle, finished the raw space with an implant system of their own. Putting a fresh face forward, it consists of streamlined surfaces laced with lines of light that form the floors, walls, and ceiling in the lounge and exam rooms while completely concealing the construction underpinnings.

Flush with all four planes, the LED strip fixtures are longitudinally oriented to lengthen the 2,250-square-foot space. Beginning at the clinic entrance, twin tubes of light glide through the rooms, cross the barrier of glass doors that separate interior and exterior, and culminate at the edge of the terrace. En route, they diverge around shelving embedded in a wall, a built-in bench rising from the floor, and lozenge-shaped panel recesses. “They are like streams going around rocks,” explains Jamelle.

Meant to be organizing elements that double as ambient lighting and expansion joints, the linear runs of LED illumination remain constant throughout the clinic. Between them, richly sculpted surfaces fluctuate continuously. “Many architects concentrate on the space and do not really pay attention to the wall design,” comments the client. But CAP’s highly articulated calcium-silicate wall and ceiling panels rise and fall, project and indent, or effortlessly curve around corners. Though low transfer beams, HVAC ducts, and other constraints determine high and low points, they do not compromise the impact of the energetic design. “Our desire was to remove these issues, so we incorporated them from day one,” says Jamelle.

A subtle, secondary network of lines emerges when different surface materials abut. They are visible where compressed wood flooring evolves into balcony grass, silky smooth wall panels morph into Ultrasuede seating cushions, and laser-etched glass door panes change from transparent to translucent to opaque in order to both protect the privacy of patients in the exam rooms and admit daylight into the windowless corridor. To calm jittery nerves, white was the architect’s color of choice throughout the clinic — even the patient chairs are custom-upholstered in white leather. But within the examination rooms, back-painted green glass panels and built-in cabinetry predominate. The clinic’s only other colors come from the sun, whose rays tint the walls and ceiling with a variety of hues over the course of the day.

Getting all of the built-in components to align successfully was like fine-tuning orthodontic wires and brackets. Even a minor change had a major impact. “The panels are the same size,” explains Rahim, but “each design on each panel is unique and does not repeat.” Amazingly, CAP supervised this precision work largely from New York City while the local contractor coordinated activity on-site. Taking advantage of the latest technology, the firm maintained vigorous control by communicating directly with the fabricators via digital models. The architects also made site visits as needed to bring them up to speed on the digital millwork techniques required to make the complex, contoured sections. In terms of logistics, the limited size of the elevator — the job’s only method of delivery — was a restraint from the start. To assure that the factory-finished panels got to the fourth floor of the building undamaged for installation, the architects scaled and configured the pieces to fit like a puzzle. When the panels arrived at the site, the construction team attached them to the interior and exterior framework with plywood and furring channels.

Exquisitely crafted down to the details, the completed clinic is a boon to patient confidence. Contained within a small space, its dynamic forms symbolize the steady movement and controlled repositioning of teeth. By putting a premium on patient experience, CAP’s design for IWI Orthodontics makes a potentially unpleasant process more palatable.

Looking more like a hip cocktail or airport lounge, the Minimalist waiting room at IWI Orthodontics is outfitted to provide patients with relaxing, contemporary surroundings complete with sleek, upholstered built-in seating, fluid strips of LED lighting implanted in the walls, access to a grassy outdoor terrace, and lots of daylight from the glass doors.

Naomi R. Pollock is a Tokyo-based special international correspondent for architectural record.

Location: Omotosando, Tokyo, Japan

Completion Date: January 2010

Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle/Contemporary Architecture Practice.
233 Spring St. Suite 801
New York, New York 10013
Tel: 212-366-9333
Fax: 212-524-8501

September 2010
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