Dating to the eighth century Keiun period, ryokan are Japan’s ancient answer to America’s bed-and-breakfast except with tatami mats, communal baths, and more kimonos. OWIU—the architecture firm co-founded by Singapore-raised Joel Wong and Amanda Gunawan in 2018—channeled those elements in its latest project, a neglected 1955 home set in the foothills of Mount Washington, an emerging neighborhood adjacent to the trendy Echo Park and Silver Lake districts known for Mid-Century Modern architecture and Craftsman houses.
For Gunawan and Wong, known for infusing L.A.’s landscape with its signature Japanese-inspired design ethos starting with the acclaimed Biscuit Loft in the city’s former Nabisco building, the promise of subtlety and neutrality are core to their design approach. Neutrality is a vehicle for harmony, considering every detail in order to maintain an energetic balance, and then leaving just enough room for authorship. “It is collaborative design in the truest sense, egoless in its inclusion of the many hands that manifest a vision and then an almost Buddhist act in letting it go,” Wong elaborates.
Subtle steps between rooms, symbolic textural differences, and plays on transparency mimic separation without interrupting the lines of space. “The openness was intentional. To be able to demarcate a space without using a wall is important to us,” Gunawan says “The whole house needs to flow in synchronicity. It’s action-oriented and makes you aware of the changes in space, whether you mentally register that or not, your body feels the transition.”
Upon entering, the eye is directed towards the substantial garden through floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a backdrop of palm trees and the distant skyline. “We were drawn to the home’s seclusion from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles,” Wong continues. The outdoor deck takes into consideration the plot’s topography, using interweaving curves sculpted from the land to create harmony with nature. Every surface, inside and out, is painted to reflect the landscape, from terra-cotta to beige, and the foyer is finished in Venetian plaster, bringing the delicate texture of the surrounding mountains into the home. Including copious reclaimed wood, OWIU preserved any elements that could be used.
OWIU playfully integrates glass privacy blocks—a quintessential Mid-Century Modern design element that is slowly becoming extinct. Often misassigned to a period of garish flash from the 1980s, Gunawan is seeking to restore the material to its original glamour and refigure what might otherwise be considered obsolete. “We found the material to be highly versatile and intriguing; not only does it possess structural integrity, but it also allows light to enter,” she explains. OWIU uses the glass blocks for a wall between the bathroom and main living area, achieving privacy without obstructing flow. The blocks are also used as the base of the impressive bean-shaped kitchen counter, allowing the fixture to seemingly float.
Inspired by the tea ceremony rooms common to ryokan, OWIU built an elevated deck from the main bedroom, evoking a platform in a Zen garden that reflects the change of space, easing the home dweller into nature. The action is so unassuming and unaggressive that one might forget this step after the routine of living, but this is precisely the goal: a ritualized transition into calming spaces. The step-down leads, almost imperceptibly, into the garden. “We wanted the inhabitants of the [main] bedroom to have a space they could escape to, one that promotes stillness and contemplation,” Gunawan concludes.