STUDIO NOA, based in Tokyo, Japan, specialises in architectural design to address lifestyle challenges. This includes tackling issues such as population decline, extreme weather events, viral pandemics, and political and economic instability. STUDIO NOA firmly believes that architecture must continue to evolve in order to meet these challenges. So, what does it take to design a house in today’s world? In a conversation with Luca A. Caizzi, STUDIO NOA explores the current state of the art in architecture and highlights five key principles for designing in the present day.

Luca A. Caizzi: Let’s start this interview from the end, in a way. Architects, do you think it is possible to design the future today?

SN: Architecture is originally designed to be used in the future. The definition of the future may vary, but it can be said that all new architecture is for the future. In housing, the design focuses on the lifestyle and family structure of the residents. Architecture is fixed in place, but lifestyle is not. We even think that if the architecture no longer suits their lifestyle, they can move to a new house. Then, the architecture will be rented out or sold to new residents. We believe that attractive architecture will remain as a long-loved space even if its use changes. Its use is not limited to housing but may be in shops and galleries. We seek to design the future by pursuing the beauty of timeless spaces.
LAC: What can you tell us about your latest project? Which modern change factor did you have to deal with?

SN: The latest project, the Victoria 1842 building, was built for a Hong Kong investor as a center for cultural exchange between Japan and Hong Kong. The site area is 41.8 m2 and it is a fireproof wooden structure with three floors above ground and one basement floor. It consists of a bookshop on the basement floor, a café on the 1st and 2nd floors, and a co-working space on the 3rd floor. To minimize the impact of rising construction costs, the above-ground part of the building is made of wood, but it is designed with fire-resistant covered wood to prevent fire. Despite the narrow and deformed site, in order to create large windows on the roadside, it is structured as a rigid wooden frame using laminated timber with large dimensions. The façade is covered with a traditional Japanese architectural element, the window lattice, and is designed as an expression to suppress the flood of information in the city. The wood-like components in this lattice are artificial wood, and the material behind them, a perforated metal rack painted black, is used to soften the space.

LAC: What influence does Japan have on your practice? How do you relate to the available space, and how much space do you think you need to create the perfect architectural design?

SN: Although the sites we work on are frequently small, we are conscious of creating a large, open space somewhere inside. The combination of ample storage and compact private rooms creates a cozy living space. Space is considered relative. The impression of a space depends on various circumstances, such as the view from the window, the ceiling height, the amount of light and brightness, and the furniture. Therefore, simple comparisons of space or areas are not very informative. It is important to have a sensory scale of comfort as if the gymnasium is uncomfortable to live in.

LAC: What kind of city is Tokyo? Is it the result of urbanisation without a plan?

SN: Tokyo, once called Edo, was considered the most densely populated place in the world. Since that time, a culture has developed in which people can live peacefully in densely populated areas without causing trouble, which has contributed to the formation of a caring culture in Japan. Architecturally, repeated disasters in densely built-up areas have resulted in improved fire and earthquake resistance. In addition, shrines, temples, and parks around the city were left as shelters to prevent the spread of fire. They are now a popular place for citizens to relax in Tokyo.

LAC: You have long faced architectural projects to respond to changes in people’s lifestyles and protect them from difficult natural disasters. Where do you place the passing of time and aging architecture in your planning?

SN: We are committed to problem-solving design. By paying careful attention to each person, problems come to light and solutions are inspired as ideas. When these ideas are turned into architecture, a custom-made, unique space is created. The problem itself also differs from period to period and from person to person. We believe that solutions become more motivating when the problem is not seen as a weakness but as a uniqueness.

LAC: We are impressed by the number of projects in your portfolio and the consistency of design and aesthetics of your exteriors. Do you wish to export your way of looking at space outside Japan as well?

SN: The exterior appears according to the demands of the interior function. As the densely built-up urban areas of Japan do not offer beauty in the outside landscape, the interior spaces are designed to provide a sense of lightness and openness. However, windows are a sign of daily life. Our design takes care to minimise or hide windows to protect privacy. Where large openings are required for lighting, we use window lattice to make it difficult to see inside. We were very moved when we received recognition from abroad. It is our hope that people inside and outside of Japan will widely realise that architecture has many possibilities and the power to create value. We are looking forward to seeing what kind of architecture we will encounter in different environments around the world.

LAC: If you had to set up a list of 5, what are the things you never separate yourself from in your work?

SN: I have chosen the following five competencies as essential to my job. Ideas: I recognise ideas as the most powerful partner in problem-solving. Spatial awareness: Being able to accurately visualise the finished design in my mind is a fundamental competence for an architect. Communication skills: The ability to seek out requests from the client is a competence that is developed based on a wealth of experience. Cost control: Budget allocation and coordination skills are required to turn the concept into reality. Time management: The completion of a building requires the cooperation of many people. This requires an understanding of the arrangements and the ability to carry them out.