You could say the fate of Robert and Nancy Laws’ home was sealed as soon as the foundation was poured. In 1963 the couple built a midcentury-modern ranch in a new suburb north of Portland, burying the floor joints so the home’s floors sat level with the gardens in front and back. The result was a structure that exists in polite conversation with its gardens, where a few steps between inside and outside deliver only the smallest change in feeling.
Over the next half-century, the couple shaped the house just as the home shaped its residents, including a son, David. A woodworker trained in Japanese techniques, David would use his parents’ home as a staging ground for the greatest apprenticeship of his life. Here, he would design and build, toil and discover, exploring a Japanese idea that has global resonance: the human need to live in harmony with nature.
“The years I’ve worked on their house were never expected,” David said walking through the home’s rooms on a recent visit. “My dad always said to me: “You know, you can do anything you want to do, you just have to make your mind.”
“The years I’ve worked on their house were never expected,” David says, walking through the home’s rooms on a recent visit. “My dad always said to me, ‘You know, you can do anything you want to do, you just have to make your mind up to do it.’”
Growing up in the home, David spent hours exploring the tools he discovered in his father’s collections. Robert, a dentist who practiced for just shy of half a century, loved hand tools and had amassed an impressive number from Japan. Amid the collection, David discovered a number of items used in traditional Japanese woodworking: a nokogiri ryoba (two-sided hand saw for ripping and crosscutting), a dozuki (fine-toothed finish crosscut saw) and some bench chisels called oire nomi. He spent free moments leafing through detailed Japanese tool catalogs, poring over their elaborate descriptions and imagery, and flinching a bit at the high price lists. Later he would discover real working benefits of Japanese-forged hand tools. Unlike their Western counterparts, the saws functioned on a pull stroke instead of a push, allowing people of smaller stature to exact greater force and efficiency.
“I used to dream about those tools,” David says.
David’s father, Robert, had only recently begun cultivating bonsai, which literally translates to “plant in pot” but has come to refer to the art of growing small trees in vessels. He had acquired his first tree while at a dental conference in California around 1984. It was a juniper, bent in what’s known as a slanted style, one he calls “a junk tree beginners buy and are thrilled with.”
“It was never a particularly good tree,” Robert says. “But that is the interesting thing about bonsai. When you get a tree, you get attached to it.”
Robert would go on to amass as many as 400 trees in his private collection, and he served as president of the Bonsai Society of Portland from 2002 to 2004. Until recently, he volunteered a couple days a week as a bonsai artist at the Pacific Bonsai Museum just south of Seattle. Around the same time his father was falling hard for bonsai, David visited Japan as a high school student and member of a free-wrestling team. His hosts left him with strong impressions of warmth, kindness and generosity.
Some techniques and principles common in Japanese construction work well with Oregon’s climate and building styles.
- Overhanging roofs draw water away from the foundation.
- Pliable joint mechanisms combat rigidity during earthquakes.
- Using native woods adds to harmony with landscapes.
- Established trees are aesthetic objects to be incorporated into design.
- Wood is hand-selected for its particular purpose.
- Clay used next to wood pulls moisture away and prevents rot.
He took these qualities home with him. His first summer home from studies in architecture at Montana State, David built his father a traditional bonsai shed in the backyard to house Robert’s growing collection of tools, pots and other materials. Subsequent summers home saw the addition of a tsuiji-bei, a perimeter wall added for privacy and topped with authentic Japanese roofing tiles known as kawara, which he acquired from Kurisu International, a prominent Portland landscape architecture firm. One summer David and Robert even dug a koi pond together.
But a family’s needs change, and by the early 1990s, the home had become too small. By then, David had apprenticed himself to Japanese woodworking master Dale Brotherton of Seattle’s Takumi Company. David saw an opportunity to bump out the back of the home to accommodate a larger master bedroom for his parents while keeping them situated in this place they loved. It was also a chance to practice what he was discovering in Japanese joinery, which uses an elaborate puzzle-like process to connect pieces of wood hand-selected for their specific qualities.
“Japanese architecture is about the connection to nature,” David says. “They’re not trying to imitate it but to harmonize with it. You’re in it but you’re not competing with it.”
At this point, David had spent time studying in Denmark, and was becoming more and more fascinated with designing structures from the inside out. He saw a strong relationship between Danish and Japanese design; each focused less on facades than on subtle, well-thought-out, pure details. Unlike in Western cultures, where a frame is built and the construction is completed around it, Japanese building proceeds from a hierarchy of pieces, where each beam is added to support smaller and smaller pieces. As he built the bedroom and master bathroom addition, he used no nails, crafting intricate, interlocking joints that fit together in a moveable but structurally strong joint.
“Without nails to hold it together, the idea is that the wood moves together and goes out and back into position, say, in case of an earthquake,” David says.
As the Laws residence took on more and more of a Japanese aesthetic, new projects opened up. At the front of the home, David constructed one of his most recent visions, a front gate house featuring Sukiya-zukuri, or Japanese teahouse architecture. Teahouse style, called Chato, or “the way of tea,” is characterized by the use of natural materials and simplicity of ornamentation, with elements harkening as far back as the 16th century. The gate’s Japanese cedar posts, called maruta, are carved to affix bare wood to rock and provide a brilliant climate solution. They funnel rainwater out of the wood and into the granite, thus preventing rot.
gate’s Japanese cedar posts, called maruta, are carved to affix bare wood to rock and provide a brilliant climate solution. They funnel rainwater out of the wood and into the granite, thus preventing rot.
Just as the leader of a tea ceremony would make the most minuscule decisions in order to create harmony in the whole, David selected each choice for the gate — the combination of stones; random patterns; the asymmetry; and the balance of screens, openings and wall treatments — to connect with the front and back yards while accentuating the home’s entry.
“[The art resides in the] choosing of all the elements for a gathering that make it come together,” David says.
The father and son stand at the gate, talking about one more project they have planned: redoing the front door. Here, protected from lightly falling rain, resides a small alcove David incorporated called a tokonoma, a ceremonial place of honor where families have traditionally displayed treasured mementos, calligraphy scrolls and other objects of appreciation. David added it as a place for his father, now 89, to display his bonsai, the tiny, sculpted trees that grow more beautiful, and more like themselves, with each passing year.
“It’s those trees that keep me healthy,” Robert says.