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Care in Kyoto: a day-care centre for the elderly has been inserted in old Kyoto with tenderness to both users and context.

Care centres for the elderly are multiplying all over Japan, as its population ages. This modest venture, run by Dr Hiromichi Nagahara, does double duty: caring for fifteen to twenty seniors each day, and protecting a cluster of traditional buildings in Kamigyo, a declining textile weaving district in north-west Kyoto. In creating a new facility, Toshiaki Kawai sought to preserve as much as possible of the existing urban fabric. One building was removed to create a 70 sqm footprint, now occupied by a two-storey care centre, with a tea house on the flat roof for the owner's use. There is a parking setback in front, and a pivoting door leads to a tapering, open-roofed forecourt.

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The new, reinforced-concrete structure has a wooden house to one side and two traditional storehouses (kura) to the rear. Though confined, it enjoys good natural light, and the sense of elasticity that the Japanese bring to the smallest enclosures. The open-plan, ground-level living room opens up through a solarium and glass sliders to an inner garden. A slit in the ceiling along the north side allows natural light to wash the wall and penetrate to the lower level through a glass inset in the floor. Knotty pine floorboards and a basket-weave ceiling of cedar strips softens the raw steel and concrete. Kawai describes it as 'an abstraction of a traditional town house. Most healthcare buildings are too bright. Here I tried to create a diversity of light conditions, allowing people to find favourite places in which the level feels comfortable to them.'

And yet this is a rigorous, modern building that makes none of the sentimental, nostalgic gestures that occur when the elderly are treated as little children. The architect has created a functional volume with free-floating steel staircases. The first of these is a tilted box of steel sheets supporting wooden treads. Inspired by Jean Prouve, the architect used a thinnner (2.3mm) gauge of steel than the engineer recommended, and folded it to achieve the necessary strength. The second is a springy wall sculpture with cantilevered steel treads and slender rails, linking second floor to roof and casting a dramatic shadow across the white stucco. There is also a lift.

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In a city where it's often uncomfortably humid or cold, Kawai pulls the outside in. A wooden house wraps round two sides of the garden and, to save it from the wrecker's ball, it is maintained as a residence. The distinctive grey tiled roofs of a kura on a neighbouring site can be glimpsed through a glass wall to the rear, which is shaded by a deep brown curtain (noren) that glows in the setting sun. A glass-enclosed kitchen that serves the open, second-floor dining room is wrapped round a structural column.

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'The Japanese visit the old quarters of cities like Takayama and Kyoto as though they were exotic animals in a zoo, rather than living with them,' says Kawai. Most of the narrow-fronted wooden row houses that gave Kyoto its distinctive character have been destroyed with the full support of the city authorities. Current fire-safety rules, which are applied to wooden buildings whenever they are extended or re-utilized, stipulate a 3m setback from neighbouring structures or the replacement of wood by a nonflammable material. This code was devised for rural communities but is applied inflexibly to the urban fabric, and it has proved a disaster for Kyoto. The city has been as systematically degraded by developers as those that were hastily rebuilt after the devastation of wartime bombing.

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Architects like Kawai are fighting a lonely, losing battle against the unassailable, all-powerful bureaucracy and construction industry. The client's first architect wanted to level the site and start afresh. Kawai has created an enclave of humanity on this one block and is currently trying to bring that same spirit to a new apartment building.

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Article Details
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Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:654
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