The Japanese House – Review

It was a beautiful day and we (my Mum and I) very nearly didn’t go into The Japanese House exhibition at the Barbican. Why hide inside layers of concrete when you can enjoy some rare sunshine? That was the theory at least and I’m glad we suspended our sun worship for an hour (I would recommend longer) of homage to my catchy new religion of post-war Japanese domestic architecture.

It was everything that my clunky titling isn’t. Light, ephemeral, imaginative and seemingly modern before its time.

I haven’t visited Japan and I would love to one day. My understanding of their architecture, therefore, comes mainly from the odd episode of Grand Designs. Do you recall that episode where Kevin gets in a hot tub in in the Welsh countryside with the  lovely Japanese host? Anyway, I think of angular houses, sliding doors, simple clean rooms and low rectangular tables. I have never thought a) if that was reflective of Japanese architecture as a whole b) why such design developed c) if or how that related to ancient Japanese architectural traditions. The exhibition brought me to consider such questions, and more, and to realise the extent to which Japanese design has foreshadowed our conception of ‘modern’ living.

The exhibition itself is ordered around a ‘to scale’ model of the Moriyama House, a minimalistic, modern interpretation of the Japanese domestic living, designed by Ryue Nishizawa Architects. It consists of 10 modules with principal materials of glass and stark white plaster walls, green plant life is spaced around these living spaces which are startlingly well lit. Around the second floor level of the Moriyama House is are a series of rooms charting Japan’s architectural response to the challenge of building a modern nation out of the cultural and social ruins of the Second World War. These exhibition spaces show the preoccupation of post-war architects with balancing respect for tradition with new, western, consumer influences and the waves of social democratisation. Some of most interesting aspects, for me, were where the juxtapositions between these competing elements were most evident. Concrete, manipulated in such a way that it mirrored the texture of wood used to construct an architect’s retreat in the forest. Yashuhiro Ishamoto’s stunning photographs of the 17th century Katsura Imperial Villa are shot with such texture and seductive light that you could mistake the palace for the latest thing in modern Japanese design. Metabolism, embodied in it’s first example, The Nakagin Capsule Tower is the most striking example of this juxtaposition. It’s concept of modular living, one person’s home in a small box, was modern for the 1970’s and still appears pretty whacky but the thinking was remarkably imaginative – much more so than the equivalent schemes in the west at the same time. In that way it’s a good exemplar for the whole exhibition – inventive and thought provoking

I thoroughly recommend.

A shot of the interior of the Moriyama House

Wood and concrete construction blending into the forest setting

Yashuhiro Ishamoto – Katsura Imperial Villa

Yashuhiro Ishmoto 3

Osamu Murai – Photograph in 1951 of a Tokyo house designed by the architectAntonin Raymond

Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa



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