This two-building residence in Japan uses shadows and light to create a rhythm in the living spaces
Inspired by his memories of his childhood years, architect Hitoshi Saruta’s family residence in Nagano is a creative haven for his family of artists and musicians.
From the exterior, this avant-garde trapezoidal building in Nagano oozes an aura of mystery. But it is no new age art gallery. Instead, this is the house that architect Hitoshi Saruta designed for his family and purpose built to nurture their various creative endeavours.
Built in 2014, the two-building residence features a piano hall where Saruta’s brother, Yasuhiro, works and gives piano lessons. The interior of this space features exposed wooden frames done in the “Kaburazuka” style where beams radiate from a central point.
“I wanted to see what I could do in terms of design and acoustics to create a music hall where he could play comfortably. This was designed to be like the inside of a whale with a framework to prevent sound from randomly reflecting,” said Saruta.
The sound quality turned out very well, but there is more to the space than just its acoustics, said Yasuhiro.
“Music-making is not just about producing sounds. You will also need to have a rich imagination and inspiration,” he said. “I asked my brother to create an inspirational space as best as he could, and I think I got what I asked for. There are many good stimuli and I am thankful for that.”
The design of the house is strongly inspired by Saruta’s childhood experiences and memories of Matsumoto, where he grew up. The 51-year-old architect played the violin as a child and started working as a carpenter before studying to become an architect. Today, he is widely recognised as one of the leading Japanese architects of his generation for his distinctive designs, featuring wood as a key material in his buildings, including this family home.
He explained: “Just by touching wood and seeing it with your eyes, it heals your heart. It was why I chose this material. When we build on a site, the architecture should reflect that uniqueness of the location.”
He also ingeniously designed the house, which overlooks Matsumoto Castle and Matsumotodaira park, to highlight the view from different angles. “As you can see, the house opens up to this beautiful landscape view of the area. My family wanted to be able to experience and enjoy the view wherever they are in the house,” he said. “So I created the design, based on this wish, by arranging the windows in different ways so that when you stand, walk, or sit down, even if what you see is the same, it would feel like you are making new discoveries.”
While the facade along the road is closed to secure the family’s privacy, the other side of the house features strategically positioned windows to allow for a contrast of light and shadow.
As natural light filters into different parts of the house, this beautiful illumination is made more deliberate by intentionally playing up the contrast of light and shadows to create a “rhythm in space”.
“I personally do not feel comfortable in a brightly lit room. I think it is a part of the Matsumoto style – it is a feeling, or rather, an atmosphere, that has been etched into my mind,” Saruta observed. “Using different elements like the presence of shadows, I aim to create works that resonate with people and the environment in various ways.”
In a nod to traditional Japanese architecture, he used moveable shoji screens as a design element in the living area. “In the olden days, Japanese buildings were all made of wood with thin glass windows and vertical columns, so they were open to wind. Having shoji screens inside the building helped to block the wind which would provide thermal insulation, which is the original way of using them,” he said.
In this modern home, the screens function as a room divider to diffuse and soften the natural light streaming into the space where his mother practises and teaches calligraphy.
It is no surprise then that his mother, Masako, loves this carefully curated room. “Calligraphy is a quiet activity. I think I have a good balance in everything, including my mental health, by having hobbies that are quiet and dynamic,” she said.
The house, which took about two years to build, turned out to be a catalyst that brought the family closer. While designing the blueprints, they had many conversations to ensure the home would meet the needs as well as aesthetic preferences of everyone in the family. “In that sense, I think it may have become a presence that strengthened the family unity,” said Saruta.
His mother wholeheartedly agrees. With a smile, she said: “A lot of thought was put into the design. All the elements blended well together. It has become a relaxing and nice place.”