I chanced across a row of prewar nagaya, long houses, in working-class Kyojima, Sumida Ward, a couple of years ago, and wrote a short post lamenting their inevitable doom. Some are now scheduled for demolition within weeks. In the meantime, artist Haruchi Osaki has adopted three of them as part of a local project. He has renovated the houses by adding extra floors. The work is called Barrier House, and if you want to see it you must clamber inside, twisting and moving on your hands and knees.

To explore the first structure, a former storage space, you climb through manholes cut out of steeply angled plywood floors, scrambling across the smooth surfaces and eventually up to the exposed roof. Adjust your viewpoint from the ground (or down from the top), and the manholes line up like a sort of tunnel. The walls are earth and straw, and the central roof-beam is a tree trunk. You might feel a refreshing sense of risk – a lack of regulation – in the precarious angles, the absence of instructions about how to enjoy the work, and also the potential for splinters from sharp edges.

The other two buildings are situated in a rear laneway and, being row houses, adjoin each other. You move in a crouch from the entrance hall, hoist yourself up to floor 1 1/2 and crawl across the newly laid carpet, through the top-half of a doorway, from one house to the next. Curtain rails and kitchen exhaust fans meet you at eye level.

Osaki has stripped out the dividing wall between the mirror-image structures, so the toilets, staircases and futon cupboards line up side by side. Nagaya were built like this because it was cheaper and faster: the setup for one staircase is the same as for two, and plumbing was in mostly one place. Builders rescued materials from the wreckage of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which explains why some of the major roof-beams are charred from fire, though the houses show no sign of being burned.

The families who lived here shared more than staircases through thin walls. Raised voices would have carried straight through, and it’s hard to imagine the households had many secrets between them. You also get a sense of the different social or economic situations, with the first house and its nicely finished floors and more advanced toilet apparently better off than the second.

Hauling yourself up through the supports of the second-floor ceiling you come to the final storey, just under the roof. It may be with wry humour that after your efforts, the artist provides a peaceful, tatami-floored sitting room, washed in soft light from the frosted window, and faded red zabuton cushions scattered around a low table.

It may prompt you to question, as it did me, not only your own use of space, but whether you have a thing for getting back into the womb.

Osaki says one motivation for his work is his research into nervous disorders and design for the disabled. Of course these houses make you think about your freedom of movement. And the name of the project plays on “barrier free”. He says, I wondered how we would live, if a house itself has what we might call disabilities.

Climbing through the manholes or under the low ceilings, I made a mental list of other associations that came to mind. They included: Whack-a-Mole; the upside-down house at a childhood fun pier; Alice down the rabbit hole; a survival test; how it would be to live as one of the miniature under-floor characters in the British fantasy novel The Borrowers; Floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich; Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground; the poetic demolitions of Gordon Matta-Clarke; and the fate of Anne Frank.

The work conjures abstract things as well. It recalls the design of traditional tea houses, many of which were built as cubbyholes with very low doors. In the cosiness of the confined spaces I found myself reluctant to leave. The work might prompt you to question, as it did me, not only your own use of space, but whether you have a thing for getting back into the womb.

Barrier House deserves a spot on the international art stage, though its location in time and space guarantee it will never appear in anyone’s biennale. Osaki’s method and materials – these history-loaded buildings, the disappearing neighbourhood they engage with – make it a unique and rich work. It’s nice to see a piece that is free of self-consciously artistic gestures. The beauty and sadness in transience you’ll find here is inherent, not added on.

Barrier House Project is scheduled to run through the end of March

This is part of a series of events called 39 Art and 39 Art in Mukoujima

Related story Time is the Essence