Style & Design

Shigeru Ban designs an escape from the pressures of urban life

by Danielle Demetriou

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

With its smooth curving lines, undulating roof and cedar wood facade, Shigeru Ban’s latest hotel blends with unusual ease into the surrounding forest through which it, quite literally, winds itself.

It’s not often that a structure is built so meticulously around the trees that grew there first. Yet this was the precise goal of Ban when the architect designed Shishi-Iwa House, a new 10-room boutique resort in the mountains of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.

The idea behind Shishi-Iwa House, which opened early this year, is as simple as the structure is innovative: to rewrite the rules of traditional hospitality and provide a restorative sanctuary from a fast-paced digital world, with the goal of sparking intellectual creativity in its visitors through a mix of world-class architecture, contemporary art and nature.

Key to this formula is the curvilinear timber building that takes center stage. For Ban — a Tokyo-based Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate famed for his humanitarian work and innovations with paper — the shape, form and materials were all defined, first and foremost, by the forest setting.

As a starting point, Ban commissioned a detailed map of all 260-plus trees — cherries, maples, cedars and other evergreens — that are scattered across the wooded site, taking into account their positions and sizes, before sketching a building that flowed around them.

The two-story building is made up of a pre-fabricated module system of 38 wooden A-frames, each standing 7 meters tall, which were pieced together on-site, jigsaw puzzle style. In a classic Ban innovation, the gaps between the frames are filled with PHP Panels — paper honeycomb wedged between plywood panels — with the internal ceiling timbers left exposed and oak flooring throughout most spaces. The structure is crowned with its dark gray angular roof, made using alloy-coated carbon steel panels known as Galvalume.

“For this hotel, I developed a new timber panel construction method and made the shape of the building curved and narrow to preserve the nature,” Ban explains in a recent interview. “There were many beautiful trees at the site that I did not want to cut. We used this construction system so that blocks of the structural frame could be transported to the site without cutting down trees. This is a method that has never been used before in hotel construction. The shape of the roof also echoes the surrounding forest.”

Shishi-Iwa House is no conventional hotel, and not just because it curves through trees: It aims to create a new-generation prototype of social hospitality, with the structure designed to enhance human interaction and creativity in a digitally-saturated world.

The Grand Room of Shishi-Iwa House is complete with a range of furniture designed by architect Shigeru Ban. | COURTESY OF SHISHI-IWA HOUSE
The Grand Room of Shishi-Iwa House is complete with a range of furniture designed by architect Shigeru Ban. | COURTESY OF SHISHI-IWA HOUSE

So there is no restaurant, no Japanese-style onsen bath or luxury spa (although all these facilities can be found right on its doorstep — offering a direct connection between guests and the local community). Instead, its biggest luxury lies in experiencing at firsthand the purity of world-class architecture and the surrounding nature; the intimate proximity of contemporary art; and easy social interaction with other guests.

“The client brief was to create Shishi-Iwa House as a resort to reflect and restore energy,” says Ban. “Social hospitality is a core concept. To realize this philosophy at Shishi-Iwa House, we developed shared community rooms and layered room access from separated clusters as a new style of hotel.”

This idea of human connectivity is threaded throughout Shishi-Iwa House. The single flowing structure includes three “terrace villas” — A, B and C — each containing several private guest rooms on two levels and its own communal space with a kitchenette that brings to mind home more than hotel.

Each of these three “clusters” has its own internal wooden door that opens onto the heart of Shishi-Iwa House: the Grand Room, an epic semi-circular sweep of a room, with limestone flooring, a communal table for shared breakfasts and a wall of glass that opens onto a wooden terrace.

The interior — also by Ban — is as carefully considered as the surrounding trees. The guest rooms — each one uniquely sized and designed — are serene in their minimalist simplicity, with expanses of light shades of wood, peaked ceilings and large windows framing forest views.

Almost all the furniture is created by Ban. His signature use of paper can be spied in the cardboard tube headboards of the beds; the tube and birch plywood Carta chairs; the minimal, circular lines of his vertical Paper Taliesin lamps; the amenity carts in the guestroom baths; and the sturdy cardboard legs that hold up the long wooden table in the Grand Room.

The purity of Ban’s aesthetic vision permits the admission of just one other furniture designer, and a pretty impressive one at that: Alvar Aalto, whose cantilever lounge chairs, upholstered in shades of chartreuse or speckled gray, can be found in the public spaces.

Contemporary art — selected from the private collection of one of the resort’s co-owners — is another scene-stealer. There are numerous abstract paintings by a string of artists — many from Japan’s radical postwar Gutai movement — that would not look out of place in world-class art museums. Guests can savor, at unusually close quarters, the smooth, reflective water drops of painter Kim Tschang Yeul; the bold horizontal stripes of Masaaki Yamada, the ethereal ink circles of Jiro Yoshihara; and the geometric intensity of a Gunther Forg grid painting.

An exterior view of Ban's curvilinear Shishi-Iwa House. | COURTESY OF SHISHI-IWA HOUSE
An exterior view of Ban’s curvilinear Shishi-Iwa House. | COURTESY OF SHISHI-IWA HOUSE

One particular piece takes pride of place: an abstract monochrome photograph of the Empire State Building by Hiroshi Sugimoto, which is the sole artwork in the Grand Room (Sugimoto himself was a guest at Shishi-Iwa House just a day before my visit).

Sitting on an Aalto chair in the light-flooded library, Huy Hoang, the relaxed and friendly co-owner of Shishi-Iwa House and CEO at HDH Capital Management, a Singapore-based asset management company, elaborates on the concept.

“It’s a retreat for guests to come to reflect, to think, to generate creativity,” he says. “We are using architecture as a primary objective to create that feeling. At the same time we overlay architecture with art and nature to help take people away from busy everyday life in cities.”

He adds: “The best work by master architects is often not available for the public to enjoy. Most of the best architectural works are reserved for very wealthy individuals and their private homes. So 99 percent of the public don’t have the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in such a space. We wanted to create a place for the public to enjoy work by the best architects.”

And the concept seems set to expand rapidly. Plans are already underway to open two more architect-designed retreats nearby, a move that will transform this corner of Karuizawa into something of a creative hub. The long-term goal is even more ambitious: to open 10 resorts in Japan within five years and eventually 20 globally.

“Our concept starts in Japan,” says Hoang with a smile. “But I see no reason why it can’t be applied anywhere in the world.”

For more information about Shishi-Iwa House, visit www.shishiiwahouse.jp.

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