The Copper Palace

Today I’d like to share with you a Tōkyō residence formerly known as the Isono Mansion. This structure is one of the more unusual residences in Japan. Construction commenced in 1905 and was completed 7 years later, similar to the Ellison Residence I worked on many years back. Like Ellison’s place in Woodside, the Isono residence was built without limits on the budget or construction schedule. When completed, this copper clad house, glinting in the sun, was quickly christened the Akagane Goten, or Copper Palace (銅御殿) by neighbors. It is one of at least three structures in Japan that go by that name by virtue of copper-shingled wall and roof cladding:

An island of beauty in a sea of modern ugliness. There is a site with an English page describing this house – otherwise all the resources I came across – and there aren’t many – are in Japanese. I stumbled upon it while searching for something else – not an uncommon experience with a Google search, no?

The client, Isono Kei (I give the names as per Japanese convention, last name first), had made his money in the lumber business, and in fact was nicknamed the ‘King of Forestry’, or san-rin-ou (山林王). He wanted a house built that was especially earthquake resistant, took its design cues from temples, and which was highly fire resistant.  Did Isono therefore seek out an architect for his unusual requirements, someone with a knack for drawing and model making but who probably wouldn’t get his hands ‘dirty’ with actual construction? No. Did he seek out a designer, someone who ‘sees the big picture’ but who also probably won’t show up on site, someone who is nowhere to be found when the little details start to matter? No. Did Isono seek out a pre-fab kit house manufacturer? No.

Isono put his faith in a 21 year old master carpenter named Kitani, Yonezo (北見米造). Kitani was given the discretion to oversee not only the budget, estimate and the carpentry work, but the design, planning and material sourcing. Materials were sourced from all over Japan, including fine Kiso Cypress, of which he bought an entire mountain’s worth, as a Japanese saying goes. According to the website I found, Kitani didn’t just buy wood from Kiso by the truckload,

…he stationed a blacksmith there to make an edge tool tailored to each tree. Then he would make the rift-cutter carve the wood, and would make him do the process of checking the curve and then carving it over and over about 3 times, allowing not a single mm of impreciseness.

Unlike many ‘palaces’ created today, which are often essentially little more than gaudy boxes to show off trinkets, expensive art purchases, etc., the Akagane Goten was built with the constructional art uppermost, front and center:

The materials, the finish up, the construction, all marked the best quality of that time. The interior was fully focused on the art of carpentry techniques. i.e., it excluded paintings, sculptures or other artwork to emphasize the beauty of the formulative (sic) design of wooden architecture.

One of the interior walls are said to have been painted eleven times by 2 Meisters. Not one crack was found after the great The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, proving the quality of their work. 

I think they meant ‘formative’ there, and ‘plastered would have been a better choice than ‘painted’, but it’s actually quite well written in comparison to a lot of natively-translated Japanese material one comes across online. That this building survived both the Kanto Earthquake and the incineration of the city by the US in the mid-1940’s, is a testament to some mix of luck and a successfully-realized design. It has resisted earthquakes, and it has resisted fire. Apparently even the sub-floor has some innovative construction which makes it damp-proof. I’d love to find out what those details are. Successful old buildings are a veritable goldmine of information about what works and what doesn’t over the years.
I hope I have sufficiently whetted your appetite to see this place. From the street, it is much like a lot of high class Japanese residences – you can’t see much:

The main entry gate is quite unusual. The carpenter built it out of dunnage, material from the lumber yard used generally considered as scrap, for weighting down other piles of material, etc. He had this scrap pieces charred by a gardener and then combined them together in an artistic manner, meticulously joined. The doors are solid Camphorwood (called kusu no ki, 楠の木, by the Japanese) planks, and seem to have stood up well for 100 years:

The carpenter’s aim was to build an imposing gate, without using any metal fasteners – a gate no one else could make.
The main support posts have 30cm-long tenons going into stone plinths:
You see, ‘rustic’ can be done with a high degree of skill.
Past the gate and looking back:
The uplift on the gate eave edge is an interesting feature – not quite an eyebrow or kara-hafu (cusped) in form.
Approaching the house:
As mentioned, most of the exposed walls are shingled in copper:
 The main sitting room of the house has an outstanding ceiling, a type referred to as ori-a-ge-tenjō (折上げ天井), what would be called in English a coved ceiling:
The fan raftered decorative eave is quite sublime, as are the wide plank boards in the center of the ceiling.
The use of ‘cloudlifts’ in this part of the house reminds me of Greene and Greene’s ultimate bungalows, funny enough, though the level of craftsmanship in the Copper Palace is, I’m sure, several notches higher:

I really wish I could find more interior pictures of this house! The site linked above has some old black and white photos showing some of the interior detailing, especially the variety of shōji patterns, but I hunger for more!
I did find one picture showing part of what is presumably a portion of the guest room:
The ‘moon’ window behind the staggered shelves, chigai-dana, has a sweet pattern of kumiko, a bit reminiscent of Klein Quartic Hyperbolic Tiling:

Anyway, from all accounts, and from what I can see, this house is a masterwork of carpentry and is definitely on my list of houses to visit next time I’m in Japan. In the meantime, if any reader happens to be in the neighborhood of the Copper Palace please let me know!

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.
error: Content is protected !!