Ring House

Karuizawa, Japan

A country retreat outside Tokyo, TNA’s Ring House opens itself to vertical forest views through horizontal stripes

By Naomi Pollack

A product designer with a young family was so taken with photos of the Ring House that he bought the place before ever visiting it. “Even the developer was shocked,” exclaims Makoto Takei, a principal of Takei-Nabeshima-Architects (TNA), the architects who designed the striking mini-tower on spec for a planned community in the town of Karuizawa, some 185 miles northwest of the Japanese capital.

Photo: © Daici Ano
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As an upscale weekend enclave, Karuizawa may be Tokyo’s equivalent of New York City’s Hamptons (minus the beach), but the developer had nonetheless failed repeatedly to sell the raw land on which Ring House now stands. Among the least desirable of the community’s 318 lots, the property forms a steeply sloped valley, bound at its higher end by a road on three sides. Unlike many of the other sites, this one offers no views of snow-capped Mount Asama, and its southern exposure—the most precious asset of any Japanese home—faces the rear of someone else’s house. The developer, hoping his luck would turn if he marketed the land together with a house, commissioned TNA, a three-person firm, whose two, 30-something principals had previously worked at Tezuka Architects. The developer, a youngster himself, had seen TNA’s work published in a magazine and was keen to give the newly minted design team a chance to build.

“Despite the flaws, we thought it was a great site,” recalls TNA principal Chie Nabeshima. The 1⁄3-acre property was not merely large by Japanese country-house standards, but also dotted with pine, cherry, and a host of other trees. Besides, the architects were confident they could make the slanted ground plane work to their advantage. Though code-stipulated setbacks defined the lot’s buildable area, the forest guided the placement of the structure. “We cut down only three trees,” boasts Takei, “the fewest number of any house in this entire development.”

Photo © Takei-Nabeshima-Architects; Takei-Nabeshima-Architects Mokoto Takei (left) and Chie Nabeshima (right).

The team created a mini-tower at the maximum height, skinned in alternating bands of wood and glass—an irregularly striped sheath that evenly balances transparency and opacity, acting more like a screening filter than a bona fide barrier. As sunlight floods into the interior by day (or electric illumination glows from within the volume by night), the wrapper allows views straight through the house. With three 20-foot-square floors, including a basement partially embedded in the hillside, the architects provided entrances at the lowest and middle levels.

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