090630 Matsudo Mansion

'Mansion reform' is not an uprising of the Japanese proletariat against those who live in big houses. 'Man-shi-on' is a euphemism the Japanese long-ago appropriated to describe the generic concrete apartment blocks forming much of Japan's sprawling metropolises. The tiny units inside are often cramped and outdated by modern standards. 'Reform' (or refurbishment) of any type of building used to be rare in Japan. The earthquake prone country has always had a disposable disposition to its housing, preferring to tear-down and rebuild anew rather than reuse existing dwellings. Now, the boom and bust throw-away culture seems to be giving way to a more sustainable resourcefulness and a preference for clean, modern living spaces.

New to Tokyo, architects Alastair Townsend and Kayoko Ohtsuki transformed one such typical 'mansion' apartment into a contemporary Japanese home. The husband and wife team arrived from London in need of a place to live and establish their emerging practice, BAKOKO. They settled on an small apartment in an eastern suburb, only 30 minutes by train from Central Tokyo. To the West is a view of distant Mt. Fuji and a gaudy neon-lit 'love hotel' to the East. "Most people don't think that buying a home around Tokyo can be affordable." said Townsend. "But, unlike London or New York, we found buying an older apartment here surprisingly affordable."

In order to control costs and gain hands-on experience, the couple did much of the work themselves and hired trade contractors as needed. "Working along side Japanese carpenters was a great way to improve my Japanese and learn their building techniques firsthand." says Townsend. "While there were some frustrating moments when things got lost in translation, drawing details on the wall at full-scale, not to mention Japanese polite and attentive and cooperativeness, overcame the communication difficulties. What a difference from builders we were used to working with in the UK."

Before demolition, Townsend and Ohtsuki's apartment was typical of Tokyo's rapid urbanization of the 1960's and 70's. The small 37m² (400ft²) unit was divided into two Japanese-style rooms with tatami (reed mat) flooring separated by paper (fusuma) sliding screens and a western kitchen. Ohtsuki reflects, "It was quaint and cozy, but that type of interior was simply made for a different generation." After entirely gutting the unit, it was transformed into one room, but with space in short-supply the couple found that retaining some traditional Japanese features made sense. The new tatami mat area serves as flexible space for entertaining, contemplation, and occasional dining during the day. As is typical in Japan, a futon and blankets are unfolded onto the floor mats from the adjacent closet at bedtime.

Sliding doors run along nearly the entire length of the opposite wall, concealing a walk-in closet, full-height mirror, book shelves and a hot (pink) desk. "We do a lot of work from home. The sliding wall allows us to quickly shut away our personal clutter when a client comes over. However, its equally vital to be able to shut your work away and forget about it at the end of a hard day." said Townsend. A green line of foliage hangs above the dining kitchen counter, indirectly lit by a cleverly recessed strip of light opposite. Since standard fluorescent light strips are relatively inexpensive, the couple seized the opportunity to be creative with built-in architectural lighting features that create subtle effects and atmosphere throughout the interior.

The bathroom was divided into a new wet room with Hinoki timber floor (or sunoko) accessed from a small changing room with compact sink and mirrored vanity unit. Typical of modern Japanese bathrooms, the small, but very deep bathtub has no faucet. Instead, it is filled from digital consoles in the kitchen and bathroom. Bathing is a daily ritual throughout Japan. Since the Japanese assiduously cleanse themselves with a vigorous sit-down shower before entering the bath, it is forgone assumption that the bath water is kept clean. Rather than draining the bath water after each person gets out, a family may share and recycle the same bath water keeping it warm under the insulated bath cover for several days. The computerized system allows users to set the bath water temperature and remotely reheat it either on-demand or by setting a timer. A chirpy female voice chimes in when the bath is ready. The system also controls the hot water for the rest of the household.

The old squat toilet was replaced by another marvel of Japanese sanitary innovation. Ensconced in mat black walls and illuminated within a halo cast from the concealed light above is the Washlet. From a control panel on the side of the western style toilet the user can operate an built-in bidet function. Although this basic model lacks advanced features such as an auto flush, self-opening and closing toilet seat, music player, or variable jets, the faucet on top of the tank is more practical, allowing users to conserve water by washing their hands in the refilling water destined for the next flush.

Townsend, who was raised both in his native UK and the US says he feels right at home in Japan, "There are so many aspects of daily Japanese life I'd like to popularize in the rest of the world because they inherently make so much sense. Likewise, there are many western concepts we wish to bring to Japan; particularly, sustainable methods of design and construction."

DIY is still in its infancy in Japan, but gaining in popularity are magazines and television programs devoted to detailing ever-more ingenious space-saving transformations of neglected homes crammed full to their rafters. With an aging population and its economic superiority waning, realizing the potential of its existing building stock might be just the type of economic reform Japan now needs.


BAKOKO is a Tokyo-based design company founded in 2009 by two graduates of London's Architectural Association (AA): Kayoko Ohtsuki and Alastair Townsend. The company seeks to bring design value to building projects at varying scales and stages within the development process. Built on a model of collaboration with entrepreneurs, developers, private clients, and other architects, BAKOKO offers unique design skills that distinguish their involvement in large to small projects.
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