In Japanese culture, the word “shibui” describes the aesthetic of studied restraint. Shibui is the art of knowing when to stop. It is achieved through simplicity balanced with decisive complexity. The August 1960 issue of House Beautiful described shibui as a “profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. It is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments, but they are not paraded or displayed. The form is simple and must have been arrived at with an economy of means. Shibui is never complicated or contrived”.
In 2017 Red Architecture was commissioned to design a dwelling for a site in Tamahere, Waikato, with a serene outlook, enhanced by mature trees. The brief was for a sophisticated, modern family home, with generous space and volume. However, despite the large footprint, the spatial arrangement needed to facilitate connectivity between the spaces and its occupants and any sense of overwhelm created by the volume of space should be diminished.
It was also hoped navigating the spatial arrangement would create a sense of journey and enhance the experience of traveling through the home.
In response to the brief, the Japanese discipline of shibui was adopted for its celebration of complexity and restraint.
Correspondingly, the approach to the house is stripped of adornment and presents a strong, minimal composition. A detached asymmetric timber-shingled ancillary building, a gravel garden and a long path create a minimalist, sculptural approach to the house, while simultaneously building a sense of anticipation.
Intentionally, the simple spatial arrangement means the utilitarian workings and “hidden attainments” of the house are not obvious upon arrival, rather a sense of restraint is employed.
Inside the house, interiors are treated with the same shibui principles. In the gallery entry and adjacent living area the eye is directed away from the volume of space and towards a small internal Zen garden. A sunken lounge clad in dark cedar is embedded in the garden, further reflecting the shibui aesthetic. Both the internal garden and sunken lounge can be considered “hidden attainments” but their understated elegance is reflective of the design objective.
The north and west elevations create visual connectivity with the setting, while the south sides have either clerestory windows or screened glazing in auxiliary spaces, ensuring good privacy and cross ventilation.
Connecting passages elevate the experience of the client’s artworks and enhance the sensory experience of material and texture. Interior utility and service areas are hidden or recessed, with access via secondary passages. An expansive covered deck also allows exterior circulation of the home, devised to support social interaction across the building’s footprint and eliminate spatial boundaries.
Timber siding was chosen to clad both the main dwelling and a semi-detached pavilion containing a children’s sleeping and play area. The understated yet tactile materials, palette and textures used inside and out are a direct response to the shibui discipline. The materiality reflects an economy of means in arriving at a balanced, sculptural composition.
The intention was to capture that “quiet feeling” through the visual dichotomy of simplicity and uncontrived complexity.