Minimalist, utopian, playful: The Japanese House

‘Life can’t be contained within a single slot. People’s sense of living expands beyond it, effectively erasing all borders,’ says Ryue Nishizawa. I’m thinking of this as I roam around the life-size model of the Pritzker-prize winning SANAA architect’s Moriyama House. Built in Tokyo twelve years ago, it is a kind of living organism, working on the concept of the house as a small city, of urbanity nestled inside a building.

The Japanese House, Barbican, Moriyama House Installation Miles Willis, Image ©Getty Images

Moriyama House, The Japanese House, Barbican, installation by Miles Willis, image © Getty Images

Moriyama offers a set of compact living quarters where cuboids of varying sizes are scattered seemingly randomly on a small stretch of land intersected with landscape and nature – a little like delicate water streams. The large windows give a sense of lightness and weightlessness to the complex. Here landscape, city and house become indistinguishable. The curators have imagined the environment around this house – the traffic, the peace, the sounds, the light. Each room offers an element of the unexpected, a strange plant, a music library of free jazz. There is a sense of timelessness here.

The Japanese House at Barbican Art Gallery. Teahouse y Terunobu Fujimori, Photo © Nargess Banks

Teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori. Installation at The Japanese House, Barbican

Alongside the giant teahouse in the second room, Moriyama makes up the centrepiece for The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London – a comprehensive and fascinating look at post-war Japanese domestic architecture. Nishizawa’s Moriyama is minimalist, whilst architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse is a bit of a fairytale construction with a hand-charred timber exterior and a white plaster interior. What it does is to reveal another side to Japanese architectural language, one that celebrates craft, the handmade; gives centre stage to materials, is at one with nature and loves an element of fantasy.

Toyo Ito, White U, 1976 – Photo © Tomio Ohashi

Toyo Ito’s White U, 1976 – image © Tomio Ohashi

In 1945 Japan had to deal with many of the issues we face today. Tokyo and the main cities were devastated by war. There was mass urbanisation and a shortage of housing. And environmental issues, caused mainly by earthquakes, had to be addressed. Added to this, designers were eager to forge a new language (or languages) that spoke of this new Japan. Some architects explored ways to fuse a traditional vernacular with modernism, whilst others used architecture and design to express their fast-evolving society.

The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation

Exploring minimalism, installation at The Japanese House

In the 1970s, enclosed housing became a bit of a thing and it spoke of a way of protecting habitants from the polluted and overpopulated city. A decade later the economic excesses of the ‘bubble era’ saw architects embrace the arrival of information technologies and produce houses that were exceptionally lightweight and open to the outside world. Today, new voices in design are creating habitats that will work in Tokyo, a metropolis, amongst the world’s largest – ideas that could also be applied to any other megacity in the world.

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 © Keizo Kioku

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 – image © Keizo Kioku

The two floors at the Barbican speak of an on-going dialogue that involves realistic solutions to housing, to more abstract ideas, utopian visions and grand manifestos. What’s exciting is the canvas they paint of a society that is complex and evolving, but also willing to explore living away from the traditional single-family house. Some of the ideas such as the giant treehouse speaks of imaginative and unexpected dialogues.

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

The Japanese house feels transient. The life expectancy of a domestic building is short so they tend to be lighter and less formal, and they can take on the persona of artwork or become manifestos for the creatives. Some proposals, such as Sou Fujimoto’s 2011 House NA, question our European concepts of comfort and privacy. These 74-metre living spaces in Tokyo are stacked like LEGO one on top of another and are completely exposed.

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 - Photo © Iwan Baan

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 – image © Iwan Baan

The Japanese House offers a narrative between history and modernity. Much like Japanese culture, the architecture is extreme too, from the NA’s complete nakedness to Concrete U by one of Japan’s best known architects Toyo Ito which was designed to shelter his widowed sister from the outside world. The exhibits here can be refined and rigid, then suddenly playful, kitsch even; some are like paintings, others like poetry.

Moriyama House still, 2017, image c Bêka & Lemoine

Moriyama House still from film – image © Bêka and Lemoine

The spirit of the show can perhaps be summed up by the brilliant documentary from Italian filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, commissioned for this exhibition. We watch Yasuo Moriyama, a 79-year-old ‘urban hermit’, a reclusive who has never left the city, at The Moriyama House where he lives. We spend time with him in his daily life, as he roams around the complex attending to his garden, chats to the beautiful actress neighbour, listens to the avant-garde jazz, ‘noise music’ as he calls it, and sleeps on the bare floor exposed to nature and the outside world. It is playful, funny and unexpectedly endearing. Domestic architecture is placed in context at the Barbican, with the life of the house is at its centre.

Nargess Banks

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London until 25 June 2017

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