With their audacious aesthetics and quirky details, Japanese houses are some of the wildest structures on the planet–a byproduct of the country’s competitive real estate landscape. Land is subdivided into oddly shaped parcels and there’s virtually no resale market; the average lifespan of a house in Japan is 30 years.
But in Okazaki, a city about 180 miles southeast of Tokyo, the Beijing-based architecture firm MAD chose to renovate a residence on the plot of land rather than raze it, turning it into a new kindergarten.
MAD preserved remnants of the original prefabricated wood structure and essentially capped it with a sculptural, igloo-like dome clad with white asphalt shingles. The firm calls the exposed wood beams a “symbolic memory” of the house. Leaving traces of the previous structure speaks to the ephemerality of buildings–and the importance of history.
“People always talk about sustainability for architecture in terms of technology and materials,” Ma Yansong, principal of MAD, says. “But I think cultural sustainability is also important. Architecture is all about time and life. Soul, spirit, and memory are all fundamental for human beings and they should be the most important functions for architecture, too. If we simply talk about technology and materials, and ignore the nature of architecture, that’d only make architecture a product, which will become outdated very quickly and eventually will mean nothing.”
For MAD this design was all about giving young minds plenty of food for thought and fuel to stoke their creativity, all in a comfortable space. To create the sense of home, it helped that the structure was formerly the residence of the school’s directors, siblings Kentaro and Tamaki Nara.
“When I met with the client, he wanted to tear down his own house to build a kindergarten,” Yansong says. “I was moved by his determination and devotion. Before that they had run a private nursery in their own home for years, therefore the emotional bond between the community, the client’s family, and the kids is very strong and special. It’s family-like. This is the ‘memory and soul’ I want to keep in the kindergarten. That’s why I decided to keep the wood structure–the subtleness and feeling of familiarity would tell you that this place has a soul.”
In the new structure, students’ desks are situated beneath the wood framework of the old building–it feels like a clubhouse within larger shell, which Yansong likens to a “mystical cave.” Elsewhere, thoughtful details abound: students peer into the sky through porthole windows, ride an outdoor slide from the second story to the playground, and have story time in a reading nook where bookshelves are built into stadium-style benches. The interior is flexible, with few defined uses. “Children are like blank paper,” Yansong says. “Instead of having a space with clear definitions, I think it’ll be interesting to provide freedom to the children to define the space.”
Yansong and MAD hope the school’s adventurous design leaves a lasting impression in the students’ minds in the future; in the present, it surely stands to make the kids excited to trek to class every day. The architects ought to earn an A+ for that effort alone.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Fuji Koji]