Fountain Studio of Ark - f s o a r k

Let There Be Shadow - Article

In August 2017 I was invited by Fook Weng Chan to visit one of his residential renovation projects in Horseshoe Bay, a treehouse originally designed by Brian Hemingway. Inspired by what I saw, I offered to write an article capturing my thoughts and feelings at the time. The first edition, written within a month, was gifted to Fook Weng as a gesture of appreciation.

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LET THERE BE SHADOW

Text, Photo and Sketch by: Imu Chan
May 2019 (1st edition September 2017)


In August 2017 I was invited by Fook Weng Chan to visit one of his residential renovation projects. Inspired by what I saw, I offered to write an article capturing my thoughts and feelings at the time. The first edition, written within a month, was gifted to Fook Weng as a gesture of appreciation. The article has since been tinkered with a few minor changes.


It is an age-old tale to some: the first day was created when light struck through darkness. 

And by the third day, when the lushness of the earth was awash with the sun, shadow – a by-product of everything freshly created – started to emerge. 

Unassuming and faithful, the shadows laid between blades of grass and dappled on tree branches. They abide to their hosts; they exist so that their hosts' existence can be made visible.

Such is the unique virtue of shadows. Many years later a Japanese writer by the name of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki would dedicate a book praising them. 

After a short anecdote, Tanizaki would, in In Praise of Shadows (1933), reveal to us the aesthetic beauty and spiritual composure of the toilet in Japanese traditional architecture, as he would describe himself sitting "in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out in the garden."

Until recently, I have forgotten about the prerequisite reading since my years in architecture school. After visiting a nearly completed house renovation by architect Fook Weng Chan, principal of FWC Architecture and Urban Design, the mesmerising words of Tanizaki finally crept back, manifested like a blissful summer breeze. 

The house I had visited is not in Japan, nor is dwelled by Japanese. The house is not considered traditional by any standard. 

It is cliffhanging on a forested hill, overlooking the coastline of Horseshoe Bay, in West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, a land once populated by Coastal Salish people. From the expanse of the window wall, you can see the great humpback whales in their migratory course to and forth Alaska. 

Originally conceived as a tree house, the house is considered one of the pioneers of Pacific Northwest modernism. It was designed by Brian Hemingway in 1976. Like many architecture of the same genre, the design embraces view and light and honesty and openness. 

But the renovation 41 years later, while respecting everything that the house was originally intended for, has treaded on such a fine line that, either by the gravity of the architect's seriousness or the lightness of the his mischief, new interventions have remained hidden in plain sight, realized only till time passes.

That is because Chan has selectively and surgically subtracted from the light, and filled the voids with shadows so deep that the sensations escape into the crevices of our mind, seeping in.

I suspect, like Tanizaki, Chan – a Malaysian immigrant to Canada – started also with the bathrooms, enveloping them in shadows from within. And if they were not dark enough, he admits a thin slice of daylight, which is already softened by the surrounding foliage, so that our pupils may adjust themselves, taking their time to ease into the darkness.

Chan found a small storage room tucked against the cliff face of the house, confined between the concrete buttresses at the foundation level. With bedrock certainty, he opened up the wall facing the rocky outcrop and replaced it with glass, and lit the rock with floodlights. Then he torched the remaining wood-cladded interior walls charcoal black – a Japanese wood preservation technique called shou-sugi-ban (literally translated as burnt cedar wood).  

In the end, the storage room was transformed into a meditative space where one's self-consciousness is completed surrendered, first to the darkness, then to the charred wood, then to the rock, and finally to the line of rainwater trickling from one corner of the outcrop. If you listen closely, you may hear the rock’s whisper.

Leading into the meditation room is a short passage, and before that, a day-lit anteroom. The passage is barely two feet wide, confined on one side by a concrete block chimney, and cladded on the other surfaces with the same shou-sugi-ban. From the anteroom, you take one step up to enter the passage, another two steps into the meditation room. Three steps are all it takes to move you between two worlds of complete reciprocity.

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Once your eyes adjusted to the darkness, you’d notice, on the right, a small charred wood plank cantilevers from the wall.  Initially thought of as a seat, I’ve later learned that the client is a tea connoisseur, and the plank is where the tea-ware are placed.

Should you sit or not sit?  Such is the mystery of the architecture of darkness.  The body searches between denial and discovery, somewhat transitorily and somewhat at peace. You learn to be curious again, like a child.

Eventually, when you exit the dark space, you see the whole house, and all its original view and light and honesty and openness, with clearer and brighter vision. Chan effectively uses the dark, secondary, service spaces to create a sense of containment and repose in order to heighten the three dimensional spaciousness upon reentering the primary, served spaces.  Like the day when the world was first created, the bathrooms and meditation room have become shadows of the living space, unassuming and faithful.

Besides the modernized kitchen, the rest of the house remains more or less in its authentic configuration.  Through various clever yet subtle interventions, Chan has given the spatial hierarchy and sequence of the house a finer definition, achieving so with modesty and respect. The gentleness and grace Chan has demonstrated in handling a project of heritage significance, especially when the house was originally designed and dwelled by his former employer, exemplifies a kind of virtue that allow architecture to transcend a mere creative undertaking. Tanizaki would have tacitly approved the renovation while sitting inside one of those bathrooms.