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BOOKS&CULTURE/UPMOST EFFORT: Maverick architect gets high marks for his `wacky' treehouse hideaway
By KENSAKU NISHIDA, The Asahi Shimbun

Takasugi-an is an elongated treehouse that appears to be happily frolicking in the wind, surrounded by a patch of terraced fields, in a remote hamlet tucked deep in the hills of Chino, Nagano Prefecture. Even the structure's name is playful, meaning ``an overly tall hermitage.'' Designed by architect Terunobu Fujimori, 58, Takasugi-an is the ultimate hideaway for the University of Tokyo professor to write and unwind.

The treehouse seems like a sort of lovable animal, with a tiny skylight sticking out like a chimney for a face, and two spindly legs-two chestnut trees-serving as supports.

Ascending the long ladder to his castle in the sky, Fujimori commented, ``When the house was completed and the scaffolding came off, I myself was kind of taken aback by the height.''

The house measures 10 meters to the top of the roof, six to its floor. The climb felt precarious, and the queasy feeling did not subside even inside. The tiny cabin kept swaying back and forth, rocking with the wind.

The space inside measures only about three tatami mats. The walls are white, the interior spare, tea-ceremony style, equipped with a hearth.

Out the window you could see Fujimori's neighbors toiling away in their fields. No one seemed to mind that they were being watched from a high perch.

The majestic Yatsugatake mountain range appears to rise before your eyes. Come to think of it, the treehouse is about as high as a room on the third floor of a condominium-hardly an unusual altitude-but there was an overpoweringly fresh feeling up there.

Fujimori mused, ``Doesn't it make you feel like a space traveler from far away, taking a peek inside our world?''

As we sat sipping the green tea Fujimori had made the traditional way, the swirling feeling subsided, and the room, strangely enough, began to feel comfortable, as if we were ensconced in a spaceship.

Fujimori built his dream house on family land, where he grew up and lived until after high school. The hamlet of about 70 houses has not changed much.

At first glance, Takasugi-an may remind you of Huckleberry Finn's ``four-story treehouse,'' but strictly speaking, treehouses are built in living trees, whereas Fujimori's hut is not.

Fujimori said: ``To be absolutely correct, it is a house on stilts-an architectural structure with an elevated floor. I wasn't interested in building something that has to partly rely on a living tree.''

He first went to a childhood buddy in construction to fell chestnut trees from the communal woods. Eight meters tall with a diameter of 30 centimeters, the trees were stood upright in a field with a crane, and scaffolding was put in place.

The trees were buried 1.5 meters in the ground, and the base covered in concrete. Tests have shown that each stilt can bear at least a ton of lateral force. The architect does not have to worry about his house getting blown away.

Fujimori did the actual building with the help of a local carpenter, another old friend. The walls are plywood panels, the roof is copper paneling, corrugated by hand.

The interior and exterior were finished by the ``Jomon Kenchiku-dan'' (Jomon Pottery Culture [c. 8000 B.C.-300 B.C.] construction company), a dozen or so of Fujimori's cronies. Laborers included artist and writer Genpei Akasegawa and illustrator Shinbo Minami, who make it a rule to lend a hand to Fujimori's wild projects.

The treehouse was completed in spring 2004 after six months' work for only 2 million yen.

Still, Takasugi-an has gotten rave reviews and overwhelming responses.

Fujimori said: ``Nothing I've ever built has brought so many visitors into my life. It's not a major piece of architecture. I mean, you can't come visit it whenever you want.''

Various magazines-focusing on architecture, literature, women's interests-have covered Fujimori's treehouse. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) ran a special program. An elementary school sent students on a field trip.

Fujimori's specialty is architectural history and design. He became known for his award-winning essays collected in ``Kenchiku Tantei'' (Architectural detective).

He began designing buildings only when he was in his 40s. His first piece was the Jinchokan Moriya Shiryokan, a history library near Takasugi-an. Completed in 1991, the powerful structure looks like a primitive fort. The four virgin logs near the entrance that tower skyward were inspired by the Suwa Taisha shrine in Nagano Prefecture, which holds a festival celebrating sacred pillars.

Fujimori's own residence, built in 1995, is called Tanpopo Hausu (Dandelion house). Genpei Akasegawa lives in the Nira Hausu (Leek house), built by his friend in 1997. These houses, true to their namesakes, have dandelions and leeks planted on their rooftops.

Fujimori, who won a 2001 prize offered by the Architectural Institute of Japan for a dormitory at the Kumamoto College of Agriculture, pursues his own style, a tad different from run-of-the-mill modernist architecture. Some call it ``Y'avant-garde architecture,'' a pun on yaban, which means wild and savage. Takasugi-an, not counting his gravestone, is Fujimori's 11th construction.

Osamu Ishiyama, architect and professor at Waseda University, commented, ``It's a piece of architecture that stands alone, a misfit outside any conventional category, so `out of it' that it's interestingly Bohemian.''

He added: ``It sort of floats out there, a perfect match with current Japan, a country that skipped maturity and slipped right into its twilight days. Only Fujimori, the ultimate amateur who abhors sophistication, could do it.''

Fujimori's 84-year old father, a former elementary school teacher, had this to say when he saw the treehouse: ``There goes Terunobu, making something wacky again.''

Ever the free spirit, Fujimori never disappoints.

He had gold leaf put on part of the treehouse ceiling, which the setting sun sets ablaze. He chucks hot water used for rinsing the tea bowls right out the window. The water forms a long arc that descends six meters.

The treehouse is Fujimori's ``base,'' a dream from his boyhood in this hamlet.

So here we are at the beginning of a brand-new year. It is one thing to make a mad dash and try to get a head start on those New Year's resolutions. But a glimpse of Takasugi-an has the power to quickly knock you off the fast track. Taking it easy, one step at a time, may be a good thing, after all.(IHT/Asahi: January 22,2005)


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