Stripping away the surface of an interior to reveal the ‘essence’ and history of a building is not a new practice. On the contrary, it is very fashionable. But when Schemata Architecture began the process with the Sayama Flats, it had no idea how drastically destructive it would need to be, nor how well prospective tenants would receive it.
The site, originally a company dormitory building, is situated in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture (an hour’s train journey from central Tokyo), and the location is a far cry from the hip, urban living of the Japanese capital. Well, up until now. The 30 newly transformed rental apartments have proved massively popular among those attracted to the idea of stylish living in the tranquillity of the suburbs.
From the beginning, this was no ordinary brief. The first hurdle Schemata had to overcome was the distinct lack of a generous budget. With this crucial restrictive factor it soon became clear that it would be almost impossible to complete the renovation at all unless it changed its usual ways of thinking and its approach to design. ‘We really did not want to end up with a half-baked, cheaply designed product, so we have instead decided to use the radical method of demolishing the existing space to create something new,’ says Schemata’s Jo Nagasaka.
Encouraged by the freedom of creativity granted by the client, Schemata’s work began. The rather old and drab dormitory rooms came in different sizes and conditions. Nagasaka and his team responded by ‘relying on their instincts’ and regarding each room as a stage for a kind of architectural ‘jam session’. For Nagasaka, a devoted admirer of improvisational modern jazz group Medeski Martin and Wood, inventing accidental space as the design process went along was an excitingly dynamic way to work. ‘I realise that under normal circumstances, architectural practices do not conjure up notions such as improvisation. But in this particular case, that is the exact word I would use to describe this project,’ he explains.
Without really knowing what the outcome would be, Schemata soon started giving the aged rooms of Sayama Flats new life. Stripping down the 29-year-old wooden boards of the interior revealed that underneath were intriguing concrete structures and the mazes of wiring, ducting and pipes of the building’s service infrastructure. They would stay. Even the stains of adhesives were deliberately left on the wall surfaces and highlighted to create an artistic effect. And so it went on. The rooms were bare and exposed, called ‘naked’ by Nagasaka.
While it enjoyed discovering unexpected beauty through its almost brutal process of destruction, Schemata never forgot to respect the pre-existing utilities. One thing which is particularly noticeable in every room is the traditional Japanese-style partitions, such as the fusuma (sliding door) and the shoji (sliding paper screen). These are the remains from the old dormitory rooms and somehow manage to co-exist with the modern and Western-style ambience. Moreover, the abandonment of solid walls has resulted in a freeing up of space, turning the small apartments into loft-style living areas.
The communal rooftop terrace was, quite possibly, the only area where Schemata actually needed to build something new. The idea of using decking has led it to create a staircase-like structure, which people can stand on, sit on, or use as a table.
Although the idea of an accidental and beautiful living space was extremely well received by the client at first, in fact Schemata Architecture was only able to convert half of the Sayama Flats complex in this manner. The rest of the apartment rooms have still been made more modern, but only by using a much less adventurous white space, because of concerns about the possible negative reactions of potential tenants.
These worries proved to be completely unfounded, probably a huge relief for Schemata, and the popularity of the ‘naked’ rooms with customers has far exceeded even that of the ‘standard’ spaces. Even the problem of vibration, endemic to bare concrete floors, did not bother the tenants much and all of the young-ish inhabitants seem to really appreciate the creative living space.
‘And the unexpected truth is,’ Nagasaka says, ‘that the “naked” rooms let the tenants improvise with various furnishings far more easily than the conventionally designed rooms. Maybe because the space was created accidentally, it also has a capacity for a mishmash of styles.’
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