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Sowaka Hotel: Traditional Forms Marry Modern Luxuries

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“We managed a balance between history and the luxurious facilities required for a modern hotel.”
—Shigenori Uoya

Sowaka comes from the Sanskrit word for “happiness” or “well-being,” and is typically expressed as a mantra or homage to the great spirits and powers that guide the universe.

That’s the kind of feeling you have when you enter the doorway of the historic Sowaka luxury hotel, located just steps away from many of Kyoto’s historic temples and celebrated shrines.

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The Sowaka consists of two buildings: the modern annex and the historic main building. The latter was originally a ryotei, a traditional, invitation-only restaurant that doubled as a meeting place for important clients.

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Sowaka’s Michelin-starred La Bombance restaurant offers contemporary interpretations of traditional Japanese cuisine.

While the historic building was initially slated for redevelopment as a condominium, architect Shigenori Uoya believed it could be redesigned. He proceeded to transform it into an elegant oasis of timeless beauty that embraces the comfort and convenience of the modern world without sacrificing the grace and subtlety of bygone days.

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Each of the ten rooms in the Sowaka’s main building opens to the intimate tsubo-niwa.

“I wanted to pass this building on to future generations,” Uoya says.

Such an approach demanded a refined eye for bringing past and present together in harmony. Rather than taking the approach of restoring historical forms and architectural features to their former glory, or that of re-designing and re-building those forms in a more modern way, Uoya married historical and contemporary designs to show how they can complement each other and form a cohesive whole.

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A muted palette and minimalist design elements heighten the sense of repose throughout the hotel.

“The architecture of the main building was a bit glamorous and lively. While retaining that aspect, I tried to create a slightly quieter atmosphere. We managed a balance between history and the luxurious facilities required for a modern hotel,” Uoya says.

That sense of balance extends beyond the buildings with an aim to inspire harmony within the guests. To that end, Uoya ensured all rooms have a view of the tsubo-niwa, an intimate, inner courtyard garden that is a defining feature of much Japanese historical architecture.

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A central feature of the Sowaka’s architecture is the melding of interior and exterior spaces.

Traditionally, these courtyards were intended to introduce the tranquillity and life energy of the natural world into the centre of a residence, shop, or other functional building. At the Sowaka, the tsubo-niwa enhances the feeling of personal reflection that soothes the spirit and leads the hotel’s guests to a feeling of inner serenity.

To achieve his goals, Uoya carefully selected layouts, design features, furniture, and décor that complement the style and aesthetic of traditional Japanese architecture. The result is a calming, relaxing oasis that soothes the mind and elevates the soul in equal measure.

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The elegant lines of Flexform’s Thomas armchairs complement the traditional Japanese architectural forms.

“We use Japanese products, but we also try to use non-Japanese products,” Uoya says. The tasteful Flexform furniture is a prime example—the uncluttered, minimalist aesthetic of the pieces is the perfect union of East and West.

“It’s clearly a non-Japanese piece of furniture. But when placed into this space, it actually looks like it’s from Japan. It’s an extension of traditional Japanese design.”

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Japanese design features merge with the Western-designed Flexform furniture to create a timeless, unified aesthetic.

In gazing over the space and rooms, one has the impression that as much as Sowaka is a functional building, it’s also a kind of manifesto—a living expression not only of the architect’s beliefs, but also of an entire aesthetic system that attempts to celebrate the importance of history while embracing the values of the present day.

“In the main building, I tried to create these ideas with a relatively classical architectural vocabulary. In the new building, I tried to create these ideas with a relatively modern architectural vocabulary,” Uoya says.

A fine balance indeed.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 111

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