Review: The Japanese House at Barbican Art Gallery

The latest exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London charts the evolution of the Japanese house from the end of the Second World War

Barbican Art Gallery, London
Until 25 June
Review by Cate St Hill

The intimate domestic life of the contemporary Japanese house goes on show at the Barbican Gallery’s latest exhibition on the nation’s residential architecture from after 1945. With some 200 works by more than 40 practices on display, the exhibition portrays how Japanese architects completely turned the conventional, single-family home on its head, transforming it into a site of radical experimentation and fantasy. It charts the evolution of the Japanese house from closed-off edifices protected from the polluted and overcrowded urban metropolis outside to ingeniously light, almost weightless, structures that have been deconstructed and pulled apart to play with privacy and permeability in modern city life.

Visitors enter the concrete, brutalist gallery spaces of the Barbican to find that they have been transformed into a maze of white cubes and narrow pathways — a remarkable 1:1 replica of Moriyama House in Tokyo, designed by SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa for a reclusive collector called Yasuo Moriyama in 2005.

Redefining the boundaries between private residence and community living, the house is formed of 10 individual, prefabricated blocks, connected by little gardens that are open to the street, referencing in miniature the narrow back alleys and small dwellings of old Tokyo.

There is no front or back and no visible main entrance, neither is there any hierarchy between units — rather, it’s a fragmented landscape erased of all borders.

An astonishing level of detail has been recreated with the help of Moriyama and Nishizawa — the blocks have been furnished with books, plants, chairs and TVs. Chopsticks and plates are carefully laid out on tables, Muji slippers are placed in neat rows, bathrooms are fully kitted out and there are even plugs fitted to walls. There are lifesize trees in the alleyways and little pockets of calm to discover. The lighting of the space subtly changes every hour too, so each visitor can experience the course of one day in the house, from dawn to dusk. Unlike small-scale models or staged photographs, this allows visitors to experience what it might be like to live there.

A brilliant video by filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, the French-Italian duo behind Koolhaas Houselife, also paints an intimate portrait of Moriyama, following this endearing character wandering around the house, as he brushes his teeth and shaves outside in-between the blocks, and as he reads and dangles his legs out of the big windows. The film slows the experience right down, focusing on the play of light and shadow or the way the air moves through the space.

Opposite is another house, although completely different in style. Designed by Japanese architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori especially for the show, and built in collaboration with students from Kingston University, it’s an eccentric teahouse clad in hand-charred black timber that sits on wooden stilts amid its own unique garden. The juxtaposition of this handmade structure with the minimalist form of Nishizawa’s design references the debate between tradition and modernity that has come to define the identity and idiosyncrasies of the Japanese house in the past 70 years.

Following the widespread devastation of the Second World War, Japan had lost more than 4.2 million homes, while 50 per cent of Tokyo lay destroyed. Faced with a severe housing shortage pioneering architects, such as Kenzo Tange and Seiichi Shirai, sought to find new solutions for urban living and reconsider the traditions of the past in light of changing lifestyles. And in effect, the country has been rebuilding ever since, in a perpetual cycle of demolition and renewal, and continuous experimentation, where the lifespan of the average Japanese house is just 25 years — in the UK it’s nearer 80.

Terunobu Fujimori’s black, charred-timber teahouse can also be experienced by gallery visitors. Image Credit: Ben TynegateTerunobu Fujimori’s black, charred-timber teahouse can also be experienced by gallery visitors. Image Credit: Ben Tynegate

From the economic boom of the Sixties to the ‘Bubble’ era of the later Eighties, Japan has seen land prices rocket and increasingly smaller pockets to build on, as its cities have become some of the most densely populated in the world. With laxer regulations than in the UK and less precious attitudes around heritage, Japanese architects have responded with boundless creativity — on show there are houses that look like faces, structures suspended in the air, dwellings open to the elements and homes without walls. Highlights include models of Atelier Bow-Wow projects, such as its own house and office in Tokyo (2005) that weaves working and living spaces together on to a tight plot so they can co-exist and visually connect to one another in one open, inclusive, split-level structure. The studio’s Pony House (2008) for one woman and her beloved equine is designed as a stable that can accommodate people.

Other houses that have flipped domestic conventions include Kazuyo Sejima’s House in a Plum Grove (2003) in Tokyo, a compact home for a three generation family on a tight site comprised of small, nested spaces, some only the size of a bed, that are linked with internal openings but still allow privacy. Toyo Ito’s White U House (1976), also in Tokyo and since demolished, was built for his sister and featured a bare soil courtyard wrapped in a tubular, white space that formed one continuous, immersive, living and dining room, presenting a windowless, curved, concrete facade to the street.

Even more unusual homes could be called works of art, such as Keisuke Oka’s Arimaston Building in Tokyo, which the former dancer has been slowly building bit by bit himself since 2005 in some form of performative act. The improvised, ramshackle construction is made with 70cm blocks of concrete, which he casts in the basement — the size limited by the amount he can carry up to the top — experimenting with moulds to create different textures and shapes.

By questioning and redefining what a house should be, these homes offer up a freer kind of living, unconstrained by typical sizes, shapes or styles, where it’s as likely to change house and start again as alter the decor. At the same time, they suggest an alternative relationship with the city, where ordinary four walls break down to become permeable borders that change and adapt over time.

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