If Cincinnati is so provincial, as some outsiders say, how does the Far East connect to the architecture of a luxury home in Western Hills?
The link is Charles Ellis, a native of Japan whose experience as an architect and a martial artist enables him to design residences that bring unusual delight to his clients.

Take Mary and Marty Farmer. Ellis' concepts come to life for them last December when the Farmers moved into the million-dollar home he designed in Bridgetown. "The other house never felt like it was 'ours'," Mary says, comparing the Ellis home to her former residence. "We were comfortable in this house, almost immediately." Marty adds: "Every room is what we wanted. It is all it's intended to be."

Fully addressing the needs of a client involves truly "hearing" what he or she has to say. Mary appreciated Ellis' keen ear. "He really listened well. He hears you, will digest it and come up with this idea, and then you know he 'got it.' It became so common that we forgot how extraordinary it is for someone to really hear you and then come back and put on paper what you wanted."

Ellis custom designs residential and commercial buildings in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. He's a member of the American Institute of Architecture as well as a registered architect with the International Interior Design Association. He has degrees in environmental design and architecture, and significant experience in carpentry and construction.

Founded in 1990, Ellis' design firm is named Tozai, meaning east-west in Japanese. Although he has lived in the Midwest for most of his adult life, Ellis was born in Tokyo and lived near there until age 12. With a Japanese mother and American father, he notes, "My early childhood has shaped my inner soul and it is reflected in my art and architecture."

Ellis' ability to comprehend and translate his clients needs is based, in part, on more than 25 years of practicing Zen meditation as a martial artist, and in the process developing a state of mind referred to as mushin. Zen and mushin both, he says "play a vital role in my life and architecture."


Ellis' study of martial arts began in 1979 with judo, when he was attending Ball State University. After graduating, he was drawn to jujutsu (modern judo is derived from jujutsu) because of his growing interest in Zen meditation. He achieved the rank of Shodan in jujutsu in 1995.
After moving to Cincinnati in 1998, Ellis transitioned to aikido because it was "noncompetitive, esoteric, and very free-flowing." He practices and studies aikido in Cincinnati three to four days a week, in conjunction with Zen meditation. Now he is preparing to take the exam for Shodan in aikido, which is the first-degree black belt for this martial art.

Japanese martial artists, he says, develop mushin by practicing Zen meditation (also known as zazen). It's described this way on the Zazen Meditation web site (www.zazenmeditation.org.uk): "One common misconception is that zazen meditation entails the shutting out of all worldly stimuli in order to reach some special, superior state of mind."
In other words, a single, internal focus.


That focus helped make the Farmer house a pleasurable reality. The residence features three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and 4,500 square feet of living space that is fully handicapped-accessible. Influenced by the "Arts and Crafts" era and Frank Lloyd Wright, the brick, stone and stucco structure, surrounded by curved red-brick terraces, sits on an east-west axis on a rolling hill of almost two acres of land.
Just inside the front entrance, indirect lighting, terrazzo and maple floors, and dark wood columns define the open "public space" into the living and dining rooms, creating pockets of intimacy and comfort. The intricate wood screen in the vaulted ceiling above the dining room table was an antique find, along with two stained glass windows in the master bathroom and kitchen.

A curved wall of stone (matching the home's exterior) shields the kitchen and more traditional master bedroom and private areas from the public space. The modern kitchen sits off-center from the dining and living rooms, helping the Farmers keep an eye on the ebb and flow of guests and food during social occasions.

Views from the three-season patio and the living room's floor-to-ceiling windows highlight sunsets and storms on the far horizon. "Of particular interest to me was having the inside and outside open to each other," Mary observes. "With all the windows, we're always part of the outside. It was a surprise for both us last year, just how stunning the views were from inside."


Creating a building from the ground up requires the concerted effort and coordination of many elements, including surveyors, masons, construction companies, and contractors, often orchestrated by the architect. The pile of city permits, approvals, plan sign-offs, and building code paperwork fill a filing cabinet drawer to overflowing. "With architecture," Ellis points out, "you can get lost, there are so many parts."
In other words, multiple outside distractions.

On the surface, Zen meditation/mushin and architectural design might appear to be opposites.
In reality, the mind of an individual during mushin (strictly defined as "mind of no mind") is not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion, and thus open to everything. As such he or she is free to act and react without hesitation, relying not on what they think should be the next move, but what is felt intuitively.

Ellis says Zen and mushin allow him to effectively manage the complexities of his projects. He points to Christopher Caile's Fighting Arts, which explains that Zen and mushin allow a person to be "free to fully perceive, respond and commit to action. The mind is not fixed on anything and is open to everything; a mind expanded through the whole body with total awareness of and focus on everything."
After more than 25 years of pursuing his passions, from Japan to Greater Cincinnati, Charles Ellis found a way to "hear" his clients' hearts, minds and spirits by opening up his own.