When it comes to architecture, context matters. As luxury projects pop up in our cities with increasing frequency, we’re starting to see more projects that are out of context. This could be a condo tower that looks like it belongs on another continent, a restaurant in a cold weather city that looks like it should be in the tropics, or even glass buildings in an arid city.
From a design perspective, these are just aberrations of unlearnt practitioners. But from the real estate perspective, where the primary focus is profitability, these deviations from the norm are refreshing and ultra-appealing to the worldly client. In the hospitality sector especially, that mix of what the international traveler expects and what the local culture represents can lead to some truly distinguished designs, like at WE Hotel Tōya in Hokkaidō, Japan.
Opened in 2018, this boutique hotel is both a modest reflection of Japanese architecture and a global space of luxury. In contrast to its facade, which looks like it could comfortably fit in anywhere in the world, other parts of the hotel reveal the traditional intricacies worked into its design. This can be seen as soon as the entrance, which itself is lined with cedar logs on the walls.
The ceiling is a multi-layered surface of logs, all of which start at their highest points outside but slowly come down as they approach the corner where guests turn right to enter the hotel. At night, light from below these logs creates a golden hue that makes for a very warm welcome. The entrance, along with the overall facade, signifies the dual personality that WE Hotel Tōya must show the traveler to be successful. Sure enough, the design has done nothing but add to the respect that Kengo Kuma & Associates have earned both abroad and at home
Inside the lobby, pleated cloths are draped to form soft and elegant interiors. Other than the floor, the hardness of the walls and ceilings is completely concealed by the plushness of the backlit fabric, providing a calming area from which to view the tranquil waters of Lake Toya.
The cloth motif carries through to the hotel’s other common areas and hallways, but in the seating area for the EZO Cuisine restaurant and lounge, the fabric is replaced by rigid paper. Folded with the precision of origami, the paper creates lightweight interior surfaces to hide columns and beams. All guests see is the form of a groin vault, but the patterns reminiscent of those from a fan vault. On the window side, each vault shapes a wide semicircle for guests to look out onto the lake while they enjoy their meals and cocktails.
In the TARU Bar, the style is decidedly more contemporary, with barrels being the theme for both the counter and ceiling. The neighboring cigar bar is even more modern, with an aesthetic that would look just as at home in Los Angeles, Milan, or Melbourne.
With the exception of the two bars and the spa, the boutique hotel’s lobby, restaurant, karaoke room, and other common areas have a distinctive Japanese feel. The guestrooms retain the same graceful meekness that Japanese design is known for, while offering all the amenities that guests from South America or Europe would expect.
Guests can also enjoy a bathtub made of hinoki wood on the balcony (with privacy walls on either side, of course) and use the room’s espresso machine before going for their morning walk. These comforts provide the balance to the vernacular of the design, making people feel at home even when they’re miles away from it.