The Designers Envisioning a Bold New Kind of Japanese Architecture

BACK AT THE TOKYO office, we sat at a table that bridged the cafe and the workspace. “Do you know engawa?” Yoshida asked me. In Japanese, the character for en translates to “edge,” the one for gawa to “side.” The term has evolved to represent the verandas outside a Buddhist temple or a traditional house. Protected from rain by a sloping roof, divided from the interior by shoji screens and intended as an exterior hallway or a quiet place to meditate upon a rock garden, the engawa is both part of the structure and excluded from it. Although the Suppose architects rarely design such terraces — they have little interest in preserving or even invoking the country’s historical nuances — they are nonetheless devoted to the engawa as an ideological cornerstone of their practice.

Initially, it was hard for me to understand what they meant; we could only communicate with the help of translators, hovering between two languages, so Tanijiri grabbed a pen and began drawing. With a few crude lines, he sketched a stick figure standing inside a child’s version of a house — square walls, triangle roof — with a branchy, leafless tree out in the yard. He then drew the same house a second time, but this time he extended the roof until it encompassed the tree, bringing the outside in, or the inside out, neither and both at the same time.

Tanijiri and Yoshida in their Tokyo office.CreditTetsuya Miura

He had more or less depicted Anjo House, an 1,818-square-foot home for a family of five that Suppose finished in 2015 in the foggy Aichi prefecture, near the Pacific coastline. The interior of the asphalt-shingled structure is made almost entirely from plywood, down to the light-switch plates that follow the grain of the walls in which they’re inset. Half of the open-plan, triangular home is al fresco — with a dramatically pitched, skylight-punctured roof that partially covers a garden, dining area and kitchen where the family cooks, eats and lounges throughout the year. There is an outdoor hammock for sleeping. (There are also upholstered pieces, including a leather couch, which can be enclosed from the elements with sliding doors.) Unusual for a Japanese architecture firm, Suppose designed and sourced furniture, too, as they do for most of their projects. The result is not the sort of indoor-outdoor fantasy the clients likely first envisioned but a more elemental version of it: Three sides of the exterior have giant, rectangular holes where the walls would normally be, as if the family had chosen to live, mouselike, inside a set of conjoined garages with their doors left open.

A dramatic answer to a request for a home that embraces nature, Anjo House is also a manifesto of sorts. No matter how closely the architects listen to clients’ desires and plans to use the space, working with such a firm ultimately requires that the inhabitants leave much of that behind. Even its name, Suppose, dares them to question their own assumptions. Earlier this year, Tanijiri and Yoshida themselves decided to further challenge the notion of what an architecture practice should be: Rather than merely improve real estate for others, they created their own construction firm. Their next project, in Hiroshima, into which they will move their offices, will crash together public and private domains, just as their cafe-meets-back-office in Tokyo does. In addition to a restaurant, the building will have a hotel and a gallery. With this ambitious concept, Suppose will straddle an indistinct line: somewhere between what an architecture firm is — and what it could be.

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