When an interpreter translates a sentence, he doesn't reiterate it word for word. Instead, he communicates the speaker's fundamental meaning, adjusting structures and expressions from one tongue to another. Stephen Muse, FAIA, performed a similar adaptation for this Washington, D.C., house, which conveys the spirit of Japanese architecture without actually reproducing elements from it. “We didn't want to do a bridge crossing over a koi pond,” says Muse. “We were looking more for the essence of Japanese architecture.”

The impetus for this nonliteral interpretation came from the owners, who had spent many years living in Japan. They shared their collection of Japanese architecture books with Muse and project architect Kuk-Ja Kim, AIA, pointing out photos that appealed to them. “We had to figure out what it was about these Japanese rooms they liked,” says Muse. “It turned out to be the strong feeling of geometry, the connection from room to room, and also the connection from interior to exterior.” So he and Kim created a simple floor plan whose room sizes and openings line up more precisely than in a typical American house. Their emphasis on geometry also extended to the interior detailing, rendered in flat surfaces of maple and painted wood to reference the exposed framework and paneling of the Japanese tradition.

The woodwork's clean lines signify a modern aesthetic that, according to Muse, came about by happenstance. “Solving the problems of the site and expressing what the owners want in a house led us into something very light and more contemporary in feel,” he says.

The house sits atop a steep, wooded hill—too steep in front for anyone to climb regularly. So the main entrance lies around back, where the driveway leads from a public alley up to a stand-alone garage. The architects created an entry sequence that starts in the garage, leads out to a window-lined gallery flanked by landscaped terraces, and ends in the skylit stair hall of the main house. Along with an ample number of windows, French doors, and outdoor rooms, the entry procession strengthens the home's tie to the landscape—a goal consistent with modern as well as Japanese architecture.

But the design also has its traditional points, like its Shingle Style exterior vocabulary. Muse chose the Shingle Style because of its distant roots in Japan and its relationship to structures in nearby Rock Creek Park. And it works well with the site: Cedar cladding and roofing echo the wooded surroundings, while sharply pitched gables keep the home's scale from overwhelming the hilltop. In addition, old-fashioned true divided-light windows echo the panes of the sliding shoji screens that separate the main public rooms. Copper Craftsman-style light fixtures mediate between the Shingle Style and Japanese motifs.

Taken as a whole, the house radiates the simplicity of Japanese design while fitting into its American neighborhood. Like master translators, Muse and his team found a way to express the design themes of one culture through the language of another.

Private residence, Washington, D.C.

Muse Architects, Washington

general contractor:
Peterson and Collins, Washington

landscape architect:
Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture, Washington

project size:
6,048 square feet

site size:
0.3 acres

construction cost:

Maxwell MacKenzie