Aki House – Frozen Music

The original bungalow was renovated first. I don’t think architecture can substitute for a biography but it is possible to use forms, shapes, and details to create a portrait of sorts, architecture that conveys someone’s personality. Working with this client over a period of 15 years, we took a rambling bungalow with a shed in the back yard and tried to weave her personality through the renovated house and music studio.

The original house was a simple bungalow and rather dark. Over time we tinkered here, we adapted there. We solved the common problems, like getting more natural light and fixing a collapsing roof. But to make the place special we sought inspiration from the southern New England setting, our client’s Japanese heritage, her interest in wood, and her experience as a world class violinist and professor of music at Yale University.

Using a specific shape or detail to suggest abstract ideas such as nature, music, and someone’s roots, is difficult, seldom will everyone read it the same way. I doubt "the pickle" is the idea the architects were trying to suggest for the recently completed high rise office building in London. However, we have tried here through a combination of shapes, details, and materials to convey the joy of nature and music as well as conjure up a feeling of being in New England - with a whisper of Japan. Our goal was to create a visual version of a musical concerto.

A shed in the back yard was then renovated into a music studio. To make the most of what existed we kept the original roofs of the house and studio. We extended the eaves and set up a rhythm of wood columns and beams to hold the roof up. Suggestive of trees, these columns and beams are made of a cluster of "sticks."

We then added a tower. Borrowing from nature, and the different woods that make up a violin, we "painted with wood." Instead of using colors we used different woods, and wood grain texture, to accentuate different pieces and to create interest.

The cluster of sticks holds the roof up and provides an armature for up-lighting. The wood joinery overlaps one another, reminiscent of Japanese carpentry but instead of intricate carved interlocking we used simple modern New England wood joinery – butt together, bolt, and plug.

To visually and acoustically soften the room fabric panels, curved in the shape of a violin, are woven through the rhythm of wood. They also act as light reflectors for the up-lighting. The panels are made of two layers of fabric – the lower side with a tree trunk pattern, the upper side a simple sheet to diffuse light and hide bugs.

Instead of a rice paper shoji screen we created a dog proof American version. We laminated rice paper between two pieces of glass and installed it in a standard wood pocket door – Japanese heritage meets Stanley pocket door hardware.

The round window idea is stolen from the Katsura Palace. To make it our own we added asymmetrical straps of wood over the window – abstract strings passing over the "sound hole" (admittedly the window is more reminiscent of a banjo sound hole than a violin "F-hole" but we preferred the double meaning of Japan and music instrument – and an F-shaped window would have been way too expensive.)

The custom interior light is made of sticks and rice paper fashioned by our model maker.

The wood panels are interrupted with lights, again fabricated by our model maker. They are made of a plastic version of rice paper wrapped around cheap Home Depot light fixtures – the sheets are simply slotted into one another and glued – grade school technology. In designing the fixtures we thought of sheet music flying around but did not want to get too literal.

For the music studio we used similar ideas to ones we used in the house but wove wood panels through the space to provide an acoustically live room for playing and recording. The shelves are supported by a steel beam so they did not need vertical supports – because it allowed more flexibility in where to store things, looked a bit like a music staff (the books and objects are the notes) and because we thought it looked cool to long and horizontal.

The tower maintains all of the themes of rhythms and trees, a lyrical curve weaving through, and painting with wood. It took over an existing garage bay as the local zoning codes would not allow additional square footage.

We broke the curve at the top simply for aesthetic reasons – not for some mystical meaning. We found by breaking the curve and pushing half of it lower we could make the tower appear more vertical than if we simply built a single wave on top. The stepped break also helps the tower appear to emerge from the existing house more gently.

An interesting opportunity we discovered by adding to the house over a period of time is how natural wood ages. The exterior is all cedar, the only practical wood you can use in this wet climate, with an oiled finish. We took delight in the different colors the wood obtains over time – the longer it has been exposed the darker it gets. We opted to enjoy the different wood patinas and even them out with painted stain.

On the inside a rhythm is again established through horizontal striped ash paneling, which conveys a sense of weight by being wider at the bottom and narrowing in width as it stacks up. The horizontal rhythm then changes to a vertical one at the top. A sense of lightness is achieved by floating the upper floor within the upper rhythm of "tree trunks."

We endeavored to make the stair feel like another curved spiral weaving through the space. To help achieve this we cantilevered the stair from the edges so there would be no interior support to interrupt the spiral. It is made of cherry (with ebony accents) and the rail is made of two layers of glass (with twigs and leaves sandwiched in between) and an oak handrail.

We endeavored to keep the top of tower as vertical as possible to accentuate a sense of being in the tree tops. To help achieve this we made the vertical posts wider and the horizontal bands narrower. We also used thicker wood trim on the post so to create a pronounced post from floor to ceiling.

A classic architectural problem is how to make a hand rail running up a stair gracefully transition into a horizontal guardrail. It is hard to describe the problem but those who have tried to detail or build a stair will know the challenge. Here we decided it was more interesting and beautiful to not connect the stair rail with guard rail. We took delight carefully detailing a small, but safe, hiccup (or gap).