Old country houses in Japan: Architect transforms Kominka into dream homes

Kominka have long been scorned as poor in Japan.

Old country houses in Japan: Architect transforms Kominka into dream homes

Kominka have long been scorned as poor in Japan. Now the wooden country houses, some of which are centuries old, are experiencing a boom. Also thanks to a German architect who, out of love for Japan's traditional architecture, first dismantled and then rebuilt the wooden buildings.

The thatched country house is idyllically nestled between wooded mountains and rice fields. It consists of centuries-old wooden beams and is reminiscent of German half-timbered houses at first glance. "Thanks to Japan's traditional architecture, such houses can even withstand earthquakes," says Karl Bengs enthusiastically. An art that only a few carpenters can master. "It is unique in the world," enthuses the German architect.

So that this art, which does not require nails and screws, does not die out, the 79-year-old native of Berlin has dedicated himself to the "recycling" of "Kominka" in his adopted home of Japan. "Ko" means "old", minka "country house". Made almost entirely of wood, using what Bengs calls "the best carpentry techniques in the world," they were mostly considered scrap until recently. But now they are experiencing a boom.

For the generations that grew up during Japan's rapid economic growth after 1945, the wooden houses, some of which were centuries old, appeared poor, uncomfortable and uncivilized. "For decades I've wondered why the Japanese simply threw away this unique architecture, these jewels, and put up these new prefabricated houses," says Bengs. "Unfortunately, Japan has no monument protection." Unlike Kominka, the prefabricated houses would only have a maximum lifespan of 30 years. It's not worth renovating. They would have to be demolished, but many could no longer afford that. The landscape looks correspondingly ugly today, complains Bengs.

Added to this is the rapid aging of Japanese society, which is causing entire regions to die out. The country already has around eleven million "Akiya", vacant houses. According to forecasts, their number is likely to double in the next ten years. Hundreds of thousands of these abandoned houses are Kominka.

But now interest in these long-spurned old country houses is suddenly growing, says Bengs. Since 1993, he and his wife Cristina have lived in a small village called Taketokoro in Niigata Prefecture - a good two-hour train ride from Tokyo's concrete jungle - themselves in a kominka renovated by Bengs at the edge of a forest that reminds visitors of the fairytale idyll in "tonari no totoro" by the famous Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Since then, other pretty country houses built by Bengs have sprung up in the village, which was once threatened with extinction. They combine traditional Japanese architecture with European amenities - and helped the village to an unexpected influx of interested parties.

It is often younger Japanese who want to leave the concrete cities of Japan and move to the country, foreigners looking for romantic villas - and even real estate investors who are increasingly looking for Kominka, renovating them as private homes and artists' studios or turning them into Airbnb accommodation and restaurants .

A demolition contractor friend of his helps Bengs on the search for an empty Kominka that is ready for demolition. There are still thousands of such abandoned houses in Niigata alone, but often in a pitiful condition. In the course of the rural exodus, prices have fallen so badly that Bengs can get hold of these buildings cheaply. "I feel sorry for these houses," says the 79-year-old. He is primarily concerned with preserving the old structures.

For this purpose, the house is first demolished down to the supporting beams. What happens then is the highest level of architecture. Each load-bearing beam is first numbered. Because the woods are connected to each other by tenons, they fit together to the millimeter. The wood is curved differently and has different thicknesses in different places. This is all for statics. And this is not determined by computer, but is based on the knowledge and skills of the craftsmen. And you also need this knowledge in order to be able to dismantle the beams and reassemble them elsewhere.

Due to their special statics, Kominka withstood earthquakes just like modern steel and concrete constructions, since the beams inserted into each other could react flexibly to movement, explains Bengs. In Niigata, the wooden scaffolding is also adapted to the massive amounts of snow, on Kyushu in southwestern Japan to the typhoons. "Each corner practically has its own building culture," enthuses the architect.

Using the original wood and taking into account modern construction standards, Bengs then creates something new that meets the highest comfort requirements of today's Japanese: from modern kitchens and bathrooms to air conditioning and, if desired, even underfloor heating. At the same time, not everything about Beng's houses is Japanese. For example, Bengs has so far had the windows and frames brought from Germany because of their good insulation. He even used slabs of Eifel slate for the roof of a house in his village, Taketokoro, that a business owner from Tokyo bought as a retirement home.

Unfortunately, architecture students at the country's universities are not taught the old architecture, complains Bengs. He tries all the harder to tell the Japanese about the beauty of this craft and to convince them of the need to preserve this tradition. So he gave one of his craftsmen the idea of ​​using the old building techniques when building new houses with new wood.

"Japan has great potential," says Bengs, who first came to Japan by ship in 1966 and initially stayed for seven years. Even then he was enthusiastic about Japan, which, in addition to his interest in the martial arts of judo and karate, goes back to his father. He had collected books about Japan. Among them a book by the German architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938), in which he already raved about Japan's old architecture. It now stands framed in Beng's office - a Kominka.

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