Inside the porous, “park-like” Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex

UtA/Unemori teco Associates renovated a commercial building into a non-institutional health centre in Japan, replete with its own indoor playground, undulant ceilings and light materials.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Mar 21, 2022

This porous childcare health centre in Japan reminds one of playhouses and kindergartens, replete with undulating floors and ceilings that weave through its airy interiors. Conceived by UtA/Unemori teco Associates, the Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex is an architectural conversion of the first two levels of an eight-story commercial building located in the city Kitakami, into a multifunctional health and childcare support complex. Comprising a hall for medical checkups, an indoor playground, an exhibition/lecture hall, consulting and treatment rooms, rental room, and offices, UtA/Unemori teco Associates sought to create uncluttered, open spaces that stray from an institutional, “clinical” interior, where people can visit freely, without having any personal association with any of those specific functions.

The south elevation of the building features wavy eaves that follows the shape of the first floor’s ceiling | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
The south elevation of the building features wavy eaves that follows the shape of the first floor’s ceiling Image: Kai Nakamura

Unemori Architects and teco came together as UtA, and managed to transform nearly 2,000 sqm of the existing building’s floor space, which consisted of simple rectangular grids. With next to no perforations on its exterior walls, the interiors could not be glimpsed, even slightly, from the outside. “For this reason, we decided to create an indoor plaza occupying two structural spans in depth, by four structural spans in width, in the centre of the first floor and connect it to the city at large,” the Japanese architects explain. The façade is now glass-fronted, opening itself to the street and the community at large, with sliding doors that welcome guests into its massive lobby which embodies a relaxed, laid back statement. Unemori Architects and teco sought to create a “park-like” space with the building’s facelift, where people could spend time and interact freely, in contrast to the rigidity of the previously closed space.

  • Inside the airy atrium of the Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex where a gently undulating ceiling links all spaces | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    Inside the airy atrium of the Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex where a gently undulating ceiling links all spaces Image: Kai Nakamura
  • View from the entrance square towards the south street – five medical inspection vehicles can park here, and through this void, visitors are able to glimpse the activities of the floor above | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    View from the entrance square towards the south street – five medical inspection vehicles can park here, and through this void, visitors are able to glimpse the activities of the floor above Image: Kai Nakamura

The high-ceiling space of the ground floor atrium is flooded with natural light, and is fitted with a café and a consultation counter, serving as an entrance and waiting area to the surrounding rooms for checkups, consultations and more. In addition, it is designed as a multi-purpose plaza that can accommodate mobile medical and catering vehicles, as well as host events and exhibitions. This entire floor, with the indoor plaza at the centre, is covered by a gently undulating, luminous ceiling, the heart of the thoughtful renovation. The canopies, with a height difference of about 1.5m from 3.9m to 2.4m, is designed to ensure minimum head clearance for vehicles while leaving adequate duct space above the ceiling.

  • The material and colour palette employed for the interiors stray away from the typical, institutional feel of clinics | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    The material and colour palette employed for the interiors stray away from the typical, institutional feel of clinics Image: Kai Nakamura
  • The reception area of the atrium catches glimpses of the playground in action | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    The reception area of the atrium catches glimpses of the playground in action Image: Kai Nakamura
  • View from the entrance square to the community areas | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    View from the entrance square to the community areas Image: Kai Nakamura

The floor above contains a community area, a conference room, a temporary nursing room as well as an indoor playground, following the airy interior design of the level below. The wavy, softly surging floor for the playground is made partly from metal mesh, ensuring a fun, soft surface for children to play on. The undulant floors, canopies as well the use of mesh lends a softness to Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex, the architects inform.

  • The indoor playground features a gently undulant floor| Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    The indoor playground features a gently undulant floor Image: Kai Nakamura
  • The offices can be viewed from the designed void of the clinic | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    The offices can be viewed from the designed void of the clinic Image: Kai Nakamura

Transparent materials such as punching metal for the pillars, polycarbonate corrugated sheet for the ceiling enhanced by dramatic backlighting, and expanded metal for the slabs were chosen by the architects to display the original building’s structure. Other materials such as warm timber and wire mesh were employed to further themselves from the typical feel of a clinic towards a more relaxed, tactile setting.

  • Visitors and staff are encouraged to take off their shoes in the dining area that is swathed in warm timber | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    Visitors and staff are encouraged to take off their shoes in the dining area that is swathed in warm timber Image: Kai Nakamura
  • Wooden ceilings and floors of the childcare support centre creates a more heartwarming interior | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    Wooden ceilings and floors of the childcare support centre creates a more heartwarming interior Image: Kai Nakamura

Shadows and undulations created by the luminous ceiling is successful in providing a sense of depth to the space, augmented by strategically spread illumination. UtA placed a variety of seating areas underneath this swelling, radiant ceiling, both “with-shoes” and “shoe-free”, with varying textures and sitting height, "with the hope that this accumulation of everyday places would create a new landscape," they say. The ceiling straddles the upper and lower levels, to become a floor for the play equipment, and appears as eaves on the façade. This increases interaction with the existing shopping arcade, in tandem with allowing the activities taking place within Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex to be viewed from the street outside.

  • The undulating floor of the playground and the ceiling below use wire mesh that lends lightness to the space | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    The undulating floor of the playground and the ceiling below use wire mesh that lends lightness to the space Image: Kai Nakamura
  • By using glass walls in between, activities of each space are rendered visible such as the arching wooden bridge that connects the two levels | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    By using glass walls in between, activities of each space are rendered visible such as the arching wooden bridge that connects the two levels Image: Kai Nakamura

"In this project, we drastically changed the role of the building from a facility serving specific purposes, to an architecture that creates a new landscape, where people from all walks of life gather by deconstructing a mundane grid-based commercial building that comes alive with the gently undulating ceiling and floors," reiterates Unemori Architects and teco. The converted healthcare design champions the community at its heart, rather than indulge in another boring, straight-lined facility, with its public meeting spaces, playground and accommodating interior design, where health checkups, relaxing activities such as getting a cup of joe, office work and playtime can exist at tandem.   

  • Axonometric diagram | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    Axonometric diagram Image: Courtesy of UtA/Unemori teco Associates
  • Sectional detail | Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex by UtA/Unemori teco Associates | STIRworld
    Sectional detail Image: Courtesy of UtA/Unemori teco Associates

Project Details

Name: Kitakami Health & Childcare Support Complex
Location: Kitakami city, Iwate prefecture, Japan
Area: 3,884 sqm (Site); 3,097 sqm (Building); 14,216 sqm (Total Floor); 3,947 sqm (Renovation)
Year of completion: 2021
Architecture and Furniture: UtA/UNEMORI teco Associates
Structural Engineer: Design Office MOMI
Mechanical Engineer: ZO consulting engineers
Signage Design: Nippon Design Center Inc. Irobe Design Institute
Textile Design: Talking about Curtains
General Contractors: Hazama Ando Corporation, Obara Construction Joint Venture Group

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