An Old Farmhouse Gears up for the Future

Minka, the traditional farmhouses of japan, are a wonderful but fast disappearing building genre. They are generally constructed of heavy and often uneven timbers, bamboos, thatched roof and mud walls. Minka that have survived today were built by wealthy farmers and merchants, and represent the ingenurty of the Japanese folk craft traditions.

In spite of their charm, minka are often dark and cold, lack modern conveniences, and are very expensive to re-thatch and maintain. For these reasons, the number of these houses had been dwindling till quite recently However, there is now a renewed interest in these homes from several people who are working toward saving and restoring them. In the tradition of the well known German architect Bruno Taut before him, Karl Bengs, another German architect, has. over the past 20 years, become an important representative for this small group of people. One of the 180-year-old minka he has saved is now his own home, located in Matsudai Town, one of the heaviest snowfall area in the mountainous interior of Niigata Prefecture. This region also produces premier rice called koshi-hikari, cultivated in the traditional way, which provides the straw used for thatching this and other houses in this area.

Disassembling and reassembling minka is a relatively simple process due to the remarkable method of construction used by traditional Japanese carpenters. An elaborate system of mortise and tenon joints is constructed in advance, and then the timbers raised and fitted to form a frame without any metal fittings and adhesives. Bengs' house was reconstructed in this way. Making wooden joints is a recognized and respected art in Japan. On this main frame, a lighter frame of bamboo is constructed using bamboos and ropes, and a 50-centimeter thick thatch roof is applied. The details of the house and its finishing were painstakingly restored using traditional methods, and 20th century comforts added without compromising its integrity. These additions included insulating materials, double-glazed windows, floor heating, a modern kitchen and bathrooms. In addition, balustrades, fixtures and doorknobs from other old houses or antique shops have been added to complement the rustic beauty of the house. Bengs himself applied stucco to some parts of the walls. However, taking the liberty of being a foreigner in Japan. Bengs has painted the plastered parts of the exterior of this house a light pink, a color not usually associated with minka.

Besides his own home, Bengs has helped save and restore several other pre-modern buildings in Japan. Bengs is now working toward creating a "village" in Niigata, where minka from all parts of Japan may be restored and reconstructed, so that people from all regions can use them as vacation homes. Such restorations by Bengs and others are helping the Japanese people appreciate afresh the beauty of their old buildings, as well as highlight the sustainable lifestyle of old Japan, which was in complete harmony with nature.

Japanese Old Garden

This room contains a square, open hearth (iron), which was once the center of family life in a farmhouse, providing heat, light and a place to cook. During the renovation of the house, Bengs added large double-glazed windows to this room, giving it a more open atmosphere. These windows were imported from Germany because of their high insulation quality.

Jeffrey Bawa

Above: Minka derive their beauty from the stateli-ness of heavy timber and other natural materials used in a manner perfected over centuries. The lustrous patina on the wood comes from years of smoke from the hearth. A loft or a second floor in minka was traditionally used only for raising silkworms or for storage. Here it has been remodeled into living quarters with the addition of a staircase. Tlie handrail was bought at an antique shop, and had been originally designed to be used horizontally.

Right: Roughhewn beech beams positioned to emphasize the beaucy of their natural curve, and polished zelkova posts were connected together with notched joints when the house was originally constructed 180 years ago. This made it relatively easy to reassemble this minka in its new location.

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Old Japanese Wood Building

Above left: Staircases were rare in traditional Japanese architecture. Instead, a step-chest (koidan-dansu) was used to provide access to upper floors. Removable drawers and a closet under the steps provided the much needed storage space in a traditional house. These chests are unique to Japan and a popular item with antique furniture collectors.

Above right: The comer of the loft serves as Bengs' workplace, from where he has a good view of the surrounding countryside.

Left: Unfinished logs and bamboo bound with rice-straw rope hold the house together, and impart a rugged beauty to it, made apparent with the addition of electric lights in this area that has traditionally been dark Simple white walls accentuate the earthy textures of the beams and reeds on the ceiling. A lantern of the type used as an accent in gardens has been attached here to the stair post for providing light to the bedroom.

This room contains a square, open hearth (irori), which was once the center of family life in a farmhouse, providing heat, light and a place to cook. During the renovation of the house, Bengs added large double-glazed windows to this room, giving it a more open atmosphere. Tliese windows were imported from Germany because of their high insulation quality.

Old Japanese ArchitectureJapan Traditional House Stair

Above left: Staircases were rare in traditional Japanese architecture. Instead, a step-chest (koidan-dansu) was used to provide access to upper floors. Removable drawers and a closet under the steps provided the much needed storage space in a traditional house. These chests are unique to Japan and a popular item widi antique furniture collectors.

Above right: The corner of the loft serves as Bengs' workplace, from where he has a good view of the surrounding countryside.

Left: Unfinished logs and bamboo bound with rice-straw rope hold the liouse together, and impart a rugged beauty to it, made apparent with the addition of electric lights in this area that has traditionally been dark. Simple white walls accentuate the earthy textures of the beams and reeds on the ceiling. A lantern of the type used as an accent in gardens has been attached here to the stair post for providing light to the bedroom.

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Antique Collecting

Antique Collecting

ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.

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