Review: The Japanese House

March 23, 2017
  • Rating: ★★★★★

The Japanese House is a brilliant, surprising, tactile exhibition that transforms the Barbican’s unusual gallery space into an organic tangle of bathtubs and ladders and orange trees.

It tells the story of post-war Japan through its architecture, from rebuilding – more than half of Tokyo was levelled by US bombing raids – to the “economic miracle” years and the subsequent housing crisis, to the present day, where Japan remains one of the most influential design hubs in the world.

The various themes are illustrated with documentary footage and intricate scale models and stunning geometric photographs, each one a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of a nation in unprecedented flux. During the rebuilding years, architects blended elements of traditional Heian and Edo design with modern, functionalist techniques, using materials in previously unimagined ways.

Next came the boom in “metabolism”, a new utopian manifesto for architecture that involved modular living in giant, interconnected mega-structures, providing housing for the rapidly expanding population and presenting a brave new vision for Japan. This was in turn rejected by many younger architects, who craved individualism, creating bold designs that tried to once again put people at the heart of the house.

The Barbican’s pièce de résistance is a replica 1:1 scale recreation of the Moriyama House in Tokyo, overseen by its creator Ryue Nishizawa. The project, inspired by Tokyo’s narrow alleyways, was designed as private rental accommodation, with 10 asymmetrical, semi open-plan units connected by a garden space, with no one unit better or worse than any other. Rather than just observe this building, you’re encouraged to clamber through its doors, climb onto its raised terraces and look voyeuristically through the DVD collections of its fictional inhabitants.

One of the most astonishing facts about Japanese architecture is that a house has an average lifespan of just 25 years; a blink of an eye compared to the squat Victorian terraces that dominate London. A combination of social factors and the regularity of earthquakes leads to a constant cycle of creation and destruction, referred to as an “amnesiac culture” where newness is baked into society. This gives Japanese homes a unique their ability to shed light on the people who built them, not only century-to century or generation-to-generation, but decade-to-decade and year-to-year.

Rarely does an exhibition transport you so fully to another place and time; this is a must-see not only for architecture geeks and Japanophiles, but for anyone with an interest in how the spaces around us reflect our dreams and aspirations.

First published in City A.M.