For sale – a slice of Japan

The architecture of the Far East is increasingly influencing British developers. Gwenda Brophy reports
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The Independent Online

In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton defines the essence of Japanese architecture and interiors as simplicity, efficiency, modesty and elegance. The resulting sense of calm order and flowing space are, here in the UK, something we have tended to admire from afar. However, in stressful and recession-ridden times, an increasing number of developers and architects are looking to the Far East for inspiration.

For Chris Thompson, of eco-firm Citu, his visit to Japan marked a defining moment – as it had for many other developers. "In Tokyo, each building has a personality of its own, refusing to conform, yet they all work beautifully together," says Thompson. "Small plots and the high cost of land demand ingenuity, and produce some fantastic uses of space and light. And even though Tokyo is one of the world's largest and loudest cities, we noticed a surprising degree of calm. It just felt like a great combination of elements to bring home."

Back in Britain, his ambitious plan was to recreate these in a building close to Leeds city centre. The result was Tao, meaning "creative harmony". This three-storey building was slotted into a brownfield site, inside and out "reflecting the purity of Japanese design and style", with, for example, no radiators cluttering the walls in the six apartments full of white, light surfaces.

The building's striking contemporary looks led to accolades from the City and the Royal Institute of British Architects, but far from being a one-off, the small-scale Tao has acted as a large-scale catalyst for other projects. "We learnt so much from it, mainly because we were pushing boundaries," Thompson says.

Citu's new development, Greenhouse, has 172 units. "We've adapted what we did for Tao and the level of sustainability outstrips anything we've ever done before. There is bamboo flooring, which looks fantastic and is a great sustainable product since it grows more densely than traditional hardwoods per square foot – and it grows back within six years," says Thompson.

A key feature of Japanese use of space is increasingly being seen in new developments. Dekra, an upmarket developer specialising in penthouses, have incorporated Japanese-style fusuma sliding doors to effect at The Penthouse, in St John's Wood, London. The award-winning, three-bedroom apartment with a 360-degree vista from the wraparound balcony on top of the art deco apartment building, priced at £4.25m, has vast lateral living and entertaining space that can be concealed or revealed as required.

The use of temporary screens allows even greater flexibility to redraw rooms. Michael Pearson, of the Shoji Studio, a company selling the screens, says their style, simplicity and marriage of form and function "make them ideal for dividing areas into clearly defined, separate living areas that also allow a natural flow of diffuse light. They are also easy to move, and creating different moods by the use of back-lighting can transform even modest living spaces."

The company's Shoji Cube – where more than one screen is combined – was, says Michael, "a response to the increase in studio apartments. In addition, a shoji screen is not considered a permanent structure, so it does not impinge on planning conditions. The Shoji Cube structurally takes up very little room, and creates a light and airy feel to the space."

Free-flowing space was at the heart of the conversion specialist City & Country Group's The Manor near Newmarket. Formerly a Japanese school, the group converted The Temple, a later addition with its copper roof, bamboo interior doors and sliding glass doors, on to the decked terrace overlooking the Japanese garden with waterfall and bridge to the tea house.

Yukiko Yoshimura, a business adviser who has incorporated elements of Japanese style into her and her husband's home in Royal Birkdale, says "a traditional tatami floor mat – still a very important element of Japanese homes – can look stylish, and you can now get these here from companies like Tatami UK. A low table and cushions creates informal space, while a futon stored behind sliding doors means you can get extra use as a guest room."

"Exterior space is also highly important in Japan, and as well as its aesthetic value, it is also low maintenance", says Yukiko. Developers in Plymouth imaginatively incorporated a Japanese style with an entrance atrium with pergolas, gravelled areas and seating, a "transition" space between outside bustle and the apartments, while in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, a Japanese Garden at Castle Village retirement development, centred around a koi pond and summerhouse pavilion, is a tranquil oasis, with acers and monkey puzzle trees, bonsai garden, oriental bridges and the sound of trickling water. Some 150 properties are set within the grounds, priced from £235,000 for a one-bedroom apartment to £350,000 for a two-bedroom cottage.

It seems the appeal of Japanese style is cutting across geographical, and property-price boundaries – but the fact that planners have also begun to embrace it, rather than demand that new developments are pastiches or narrowly contextual, is the real breath of fresh air.