KYOTO--On entering the old private house in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward, the first thing that hits you after opening the sliding door beside the faded latticed windows is the soft aroma of old wood. Sunshine from the back garden illuminates the rooms beyond.
U.S. architect Geoffrey Moussas is renovating the 100-year-old home on a 3-meter-wide alley in the Wakokucho district for use as a new office for his firm, Design 1st.
There is plenty of work to be done. The house was left empty for about 40 years, and its roof has crumbled. The decayed floors are in disrepair, but Moussas is the man for the job. It is the 20th old private house he has taken on. Born in a suburb of New York in 1963, he grew up fascinated by building, making imaginary towns with cardboard boxes as a boy.
His love affair with Japanese buildings started on the architecture program at the graduate school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston, where he saw slides of old Japanese temples and houses. The slender vertical bars of "Kyo-goshi" latticework and the elegant simplicity of "battari shogi" foldable benches, used by shopkeepers to display goods, caught his imagination and he began studying Japanese. He came to Japan in 1994 after finishing graduate school.
Moussas pursued an interest in contemporary architecture in the offices of Japanese architects including Fumihiko Maki and Yoshio Taniguchi, but later returned to traditional styles, beginning to learn house building in 1998 from carpenters working for Sotoji Nakamura, a leading exponent of “Sukiya-zukuri” building techniques.
A married couple whom he became acquainted with then made a life-changing offer. An 80-year-old house was lying vacant. Why didn’t he go live there?
He still remembers opening the latticework door shielding the old home’s compound from the street and taking in the beauty of the garden in front of the entrance, the old "tori-niwa" corridor leading from the entrance to the backdoor and the "engawa” wooden veranda facing an inner courtyard. He was struck by the thought that the building represented Japan’s architectural heritage and its sense of beauty. He took up the couple’s challenge.
According to a survey of the Kyoto municipal government, about 48,000 old private houses remain in the city, but about 700 are destroyed every year.
"These buildings are full of traditional wisdom, but people in postwar Japan apparently think that new things are better,” Moussas said.
He is trying to save a fraction of that heritage. He said his approach to three years of work on his first house was partly influenced by "Inei Raisan" (In Praise of Shadows), an essay written by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) that he had read in translation while a student at MIT.
Departing from the image of toilets as unclean places, the essay says that the small windows of "kawara" (toilets) are suitable for appreciating the pathos of the changes of the four seasons.
Recalling the description, Moussas made a window in his bathroom so someone taking a bath could feel the changes in the garden. In a more practical improvement, he installed floor heating equipment in the chilly "tori-niwa" passage.
"I was able to establish a philosophy that the most important thing is to combine traditions and the new," he said.
Moussas set up on his own in 2001 and has since concentrated on renovation. Projects have included transforming a 100-year-old house into a glass-walled shop selling traditional Japanese weapons and an Edo Period (1603-1867) storehouse into a communal gathering place.
In the future, he hopes to design a condominium building to accommodate the traditional Japanese lifestyle. Bathrooms, for instance, could face outside so that bathers could interact with nature and entrances to homes might be as wide as three tatami mats, allowing people to enjoy chatting there like in the old townhouses.
He said his dream is to build houses inspired by cultures across the world, but he said he will continue to base himself in Kyoto.
"Though I have lived here many years, I can still find new things. That is the wonderful thing about old homes," he said.
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