“Japanese people don’t care about resale value,” says the architect Sou Fujimoto, explaining why clients have allowed him to create houses that lack conventional versions of walls, ceilings or floors, and which require the skill of an acrobat to comfortably inhabit.
Fujimoto, 43, is standing in front of House NA, a jungle gym of white steel bars amid beige apartment buildings on a quiet street in Tokyo. Built on a tiny site of just about 600 square feet, it nonetheless incorporates 21 levels connected by angled ladders, with wooden boxes doubling as step stools. Gauzy white curtains provide privacy, but not a lot; the house is as much terrarium as shelter. The owners, a husband and wife drawn to unusual designs, “bought a small lot but got a lot of living space,” says Fujimoto. Those stairway substitutes would be illegal in most countries, but in Japan, there is little building-code enforcement within private homes, which gives Fujimoto the freedom to follow through on his sometimes confounding ideas.
Fujimoto’s goal isn’t just to make spaces—the basic function of architecture—but to make people relate to spaces in new ways. Watching the couple move around the house, approaching everyday activities with the finesse the unusual design requires, suggests he is well on his way to achieving it.
He concedes that his clients have accepted “some really extreme solutions” to their housing needs. But rather than make their lives difficult, he says, he hopes to bring people “some comfort that is yet unknown.” That comfort may derive in part from landscape elements that Fujimoto blends into his buildings. During a tour of his studio in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, the architect points to dozens of model houses with tiny trees breaking through walls, floors and ceilings. In Fujimoto’s hands, nature sometimes overpowers the built environment, a vision that could be apocalyptic were it not for his highly refined aesthetic. “I call it primitive future,” he says of the natural-artificial mash-up he is pioneering. […]