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Canal House

An American Take On Traditional Japanese Features

Johnston MarkLee

Canal House
By Michael Webb -

American architects work all over the world, but rarely in Japan. Even more uncommon is a house that captures the spirit of traditional Japanese architecture and abstracts its forms as successfully as the residence that Johnston Marklee recently completed in Kyoto. Their Western-educated client had earlier commissioned them to design the Chan Luu jewelry showroom within a Tadao Ando building in his home city of Tokyo. Three years later, he invited them to design a second home for his family in an upscale district of Kyoto. The plot faces onto a canal, constructed centuries ago to bring fresh water to the city and lined with cherry trees. To the north there is a panorama of mountains.

The client requested reinforced concrete construction for its permanence and sense of modernity, in sharp contrast to the wood-framed neighbors. There are 400 sq. m of enclosed space, comprising a music room and guest bedroom in the basement, a two-car garage, tea room and living spaces at street level, a primary suite and study above, and a partially enclosed outdoor room and dining terrace at the upper level, looking over the city and north to Mount Daimonji. The rooms surround a glass-enclosed courtyard, opening on one side to a similar courtyard in the house next door, and a smaller void that pulls light down to the basement. This inner transparency and lightness complement the opacity and mass of the exterior walls, which are coated with white mineral silicate.

It is a challenge to build far from your home base, but especially in Japan with its dense web of regulations and time-honored practices. The American team drew on the experience of executive architect Satoru Umehara of UME architects to secure permits and supervise construction. They commissioned Toshiya Ogino to landscape the courtyard and the third-generation craftsmen of Nakamura Sotoji Construction to create the traditional wooden tea room within the concrete shell. Many contemporary Japanese...

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