Have you ever sat in the hair salon with your chair turned away from the mirror while they styled you? Or sat blindfolded? Who does that? Nobody. We always watch as they transform us from our previous self to the new restyled one. Why? Is it because we like to see ourselves change, little by little, to minimise the shock of the new? It’s not as if watching this transformation has any bearing on its outcome (unless of course you micromanage your stylist, instructing them snip by snip, which in most salons would eventually get you killed).
I just sit there and watch as the vision of the stylist reveals itself through a series of confusing, alchemic hair techniques. This can be quite challenging to your confidence. Think the lank lather of hair dye. Think tinting caps with the little holes through which the stylist pulls your hair using a crochet hook. Think the futuristic tinting foils that look like they could tune in to Radio Tokyo. And then, like a phoenix from the hand basin you emerge with your new style, the new, improved you or the you that you should have been if you hadn’t let your style grow out in the first place.
(NOTE: I currently cut my own hair. That way I can micromanage myself.)
The point is, it’s a watched transition, and because of that it’s something you’ve grown used to even before you’ve seen the end result. You’ve had time to adjust throughout the process.
What would it be like, however, if you hadn’t seen it all happening before you, if you’d only seen it at the end as the blindfold was removed? Would you immediately recognise the person you see in the mirror or would it take a minute?
That’s kind of what it was like the day I saw my house reveal itself for the first time from behind the visually confounding layers of scaffolding that had hidden it since well before it even looked like a house. It was a bit of a shock. I thought I had all my expectations under control.
The thing is, it had been coming together beneath that screen for months, but I had never fully seen my house exposed to the site, the sky, the dirt beneath it. Before the scaffolding went up, it was just a skeleton. No floors. No walls. No windows. No roof.
The most accurate picture I had of it was the model Shimada san had built for his entry in the GA Gallery exhibition in Tokyo, where he was invited to exhibit my house as an example of modern Japanese home architecture. It was a very good model, but it was still a leap of imagination for me to see it on the site, under the sky of Hamilton hill.
When the scaffolding came down though, I could for the first time see it in all its dimensions. And though I knew it so well, though I’d pored over every aspect of the plans and photoshopped the model onto the site from many angles, nothing had prepared me for the first reveal of the actual building from behind the terrifying tower of scaffolding.
There were a few things that surprised me:
The building looked taller than I had imagined. I had talked myself into believing that the epic way it launched out from the platform at the top of the site to loom large over the street was just a trick of the scaffolding. But the effect the scaffolding had on the dimensions of the building was to broaden it, to make it look fatter. With the scaffolding gone, the footprint shrunk, which made the building thinner and therefore it appeared taller. Much taller than I’d expected it would look.
Meanwhile, I had always expected the underside of the lower slab to be the major statement, with its shiny surface and stair snaking up through the hatch in the floor. I didn’t count on the space above that deck exerting itself so much. But with the scaffolding gone, the negative space between the entry deck and the floor above it was drawing my eye through its refined emptiness.
Especially from the inside out, this space, a deck that had always seemed to me to be a designer’s luxury now seemed to have meaning and magnetism. I wanted to sit out there. Or at least pause there before I entered the house.
Sometimes architecture does this. It seduces you into a pause. How can you see that moment on a set of drawings? How can you feel that moment in a model?
I’ve previously described all the agonising that was done over the gutters. That over-thinking had already been shown to be worth it even with the scaffolding up because the gutters, when they were installed, could be seen up close and they were beautiful. But did I count on the major effect that the down pipes would have on the way the building presented itself? I have to admit I glossed over them, nodding whenever they were mentioned just to keep the architects feeling as if I appreciated what they were doing. But I didn’t really care. I mean, a down pipe is a down pipe, right? But with the scaffolding gone, I now care a lot more. I can see that those downpipes are doing something beyond taking the water away. The way they don’t interfere with the posts is the whole idea here. They sit out just enough to create a feeling of lightness. They assist the idea, they don’t compromise it. They’re not a concession to just accept.
There was also a happy surprise with the down pipes. We had no idea that the spirals on the surface (a technique of their manufacturing that allow them to be made to any length) would rotate in perfect cadence with the repetitive pattern of the cladding. When I say “we” I mean the architects too. They can’t take credit for that kind of luck, but it’s luck that only revealed itself when the scaffolding was removed and the building could be seen from a distance.
Not all of the surprises were on the exterior though. Walking around inside the house was an entirely different experience once the shadow of all that scaffolding was removed. It was bright and open. The windows could now play their part, orchestrating the light on the inside.
From the beginning, I had always imagined this was a house with transparent walls, but until now I’d never experienced it that way. There’d always been a row of planks or a grid of steel in the way. With the scaffolding gone, I could get an immediate appreciation of the empty spaces and an appreciation for the areas that Yo Shimada had been trying to protect from rude incursions like traditionally designed window frames and door jams.
They may seem like minor things or things you just have to accept will be there, but this space is so simple that the concept is only now revealing itself in the refinements. So here we are at the stage now of refining those empty spaces.
The windows for example have no reveals. I see now what this is all about. Hiding the window frames by hanging the windows on the outside of the house and boxing the walls all the way in to the line of the glass is all part of the refining process that is the mantra in this house with so few rooms and so little space to play with.
Bigger houses have the luxury of bigger rooms that deliver their feeling of space through scale. This house is small though and it only has the luxury of removing things to refine the edges and reveal more of the space that’s left. It’s been very hard to understand Yo Shimada’s vision through this build. That’s probably because I’ve made the mistake of looking at what he’s designing into the building. I can see now, with the scaffolding down, that I should have been looking at what he’s been designing out.
Of course it’s a bit hard for novices like me to appreciate that. It’s difficult to imagine space, emptiness and negative areas. They’re feelings more than things. Thankfully I don’t have to imagine them now, I can see them taking form.
I’m looking forward now to the further refinement of these spaces as the complexity of the stud work in the walls is covered up by ply and the ceiling is lined and painted. How much will that change the feeling of the space? Again I’m unable to imagine but at least I’ll be able to watch these stages as they happen without the interference of scaffolding, with more time to adjust, and fewer moments of hello, here I am, don’t you recognise me?