by Zohra KhanMar 15, 2022
Residences with a history dictated either by the conditions on site or the owners of the property, a distinctive narrative that guides everything from the conception of the design to its construction and final form, feel invariably warmer, more personal: strongly evocative of the very primeval notion of a home. Japanese architecture particularly has a strong aspect of nature and ancestry sewn into the residential landscape of the island nation, and such “stories” can be found influencing the architecture of many modern residences in the already rich cultural context of Japan, complete with the effervescent principles of minimalism and Wabi-sabi. This unique residence, dubbed the Soil House, in Minamisōma city in the Fukushima prefecture by local practice ADX is a near-complete embodiment of the kind of residential architecture I am talking about, merging a number of appealing aspects typical to Japanese design and architecture, shunning material and stylistic embellishments, and binding them together with an inimitably personal narrative.
The enticing story that forms the metaphorical foundation of this house has the owner of the property relocating to the current dense residential settlement the house is located in, after being displaced by the Great East Japan Earthquake, also known as the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Before the earthquake, the client’s former abode was a residence ensconced in nature, surrounded and moulded by forest like natural expanses. Forced to relocate to a temporary housing structure in the wake of the natural disaster, the owner’s family was tragically separated too. The earthquake and the resultant tsunami are said to be so powerful that they moved Honshu, Japan's largest island, 2.4 metres east and shifted the planet on its axis by an estimated 10 centimetres. Looking to new beginnings, the family’s foremost requirement came to be for the house to be nestled amid “thick woods”. Imagining a pragmatic solution to an urban unfeasibility, the design team at ADX worked their way around to the rather unusual design brief by working on the landscape design of the site first, followed by the structures around a pre-designed requisite.
An additional discovery that became one of the many defining aspects of the design further down the line was the disposal of surplus soil from excavation costing more than the estimates submitted. Building on the distinct memory of playing with soil during childhood, the design team at ADX devised an interesting solution, utilising surplus soil rather than disposing it. Trapezoidal mounds of the excavated soil were formed as load-bearing elements, complete with a foundation, and then lined with expanded polystyrene, eventually sprayed on by a cocktail of shotcrete and aforementioned soil, for an unfinished surface bearing the memory and imprint of a mud wall, believed to be embodying its own energising spirit. Through this literal rooting of the house to its land, the Japanese design practice claims to have achieved an atmosphere that is in line with nature, apart from the greens usually employed to fulfill that purpose.
The ‘residence’ planned along these nearly incidental mounds then prioritises utility in spatial planning and minimalism in overall schematic. Gliding through the corridors that allow access to the residential quarters of the house, one’s movement is guided along the “natural”, even surprising occurrence of these mounds. The rooms are further done up in the traditional Washitsu style of architecture, complete with sliding screen doors, while timber acts as the primary as well as secondary structural material hoisting the single-storey residence.
Responding to the significant emotional value impinged upon the house, and how their design harnesses and translates it into a modern, functional city residence, the design team at ADX believes that this unique design conglomeration of ideas “balances staticity and dynamism: "staticity" to reflect in silence, and "dynamism" to get down to work”. On the memorability it evokes, the team adds that “we wish this house will inspire people to think about themselves, their family, the region, and society in a comfortable and peaceful way. Moreover, we desire this house built with local material remains in their hearts as a symbol of the region”. Aptly christened the Soil House, the house seems a beautiful coming-full-circle of the family’s displacement by the earthquake, and the house in turn honouring the earth; a fulfilment of a familial arc. The house’s unique relationship to the ground, that binds, connects, even nurtures, is exaggerated by these mounds that act like an inverted foundation of the house itself, super-structured to support the roof instead.
Name: Soil House
Location: Minamisōma city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan
Site area: 1003 sq.m.
Building area: 144.2 sq.m.
Total floor area: 137 sq.m.
Design team: ADX
Project manager: Kotaro Anzai
Engineer: Kenji Nawa/ Nawakenji-m