The Japanese House: Architecture & Life After 1945 at the Barbican

Japanese architecture conjures images of streamlined designs, neutral colours and natural materials: elements that are very familiar in modern Western design. A new exhibition at the Barbican looks at how Japan’s centuries-old design traditions met with the country’s rapid modernisation after 1945 and resulted in some of the most ground-breaking styles in the world.

houseModel for ‘House NA’ by Sou Fujimoto, 2011

The exhibition’s focus is the 'house'. Unlike public architecture, houses are lived in and experienced much more intimately; the development of residential architecture is closely entwined with societal shifts. In the years after 1945, a hot debate arose about the role of tradition in the new modern nation. Western styles and lifestyles had flooded into the country, and at its independence in 1952, architects began exploring how to synthesise historical styles with modern ideals.

japanese-houseKenzo Tange in his house constructed in 1953. Courtesy Michiko Uchida.

In this 70-year overview of Japanese architecture, the designs that persisted throughout the country’s modernisation can be clearly seen. The modernist designs of the 1950s were laced with distinct historical references. Raised floors and open spaces had roots in shinden-zukuri, a historic style dating from Heian palace architecture of around 700-1000 AD. The earthen floors, sturdy columns and wide roofs of the old rural farmhouses likewise found their way into modern designs.

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In the 1950s when a Japanese-American photographer travelled to Kyoto, he was struck by the modernist aesthetics of much of the historic architecture, the uncanny Mondrianesque feel of a 17th-century palace and the stepping stones that recalled the collages of the artist Hans Arp.

japanese-house-2Photograph by Yasuhiro Ishimoto from the portfolio Katsure, 1953-54.

Another feature that persisted through the modernist period until present day was the architect’s value of natural materials. As concrete pervaded architectural practices of the 1950s, Japanese architects worked to assimilate this practical, earthquake-resistant material into the organic warm woods that dominated their building culture. Concrete was treated as a natural material, simply a composite of sand, stone and clay, used alongside wood and greenery.

2-the-japanese-house-fujimoto-house-na-2011_2Sou Fujimoto Architects. House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011. Photo by Iwan Baan.

The irresistible pull of historical styles and traditional practices has shaped the development of Japan’s built environment. Yet the country’s lurch into modernity led designers and architects in new directions. Alongside architectural plans and models, the Barbican’s exhibition explores changing attitudes towards the home as lifestyles and customs shifted.

The family unit evolved and the patriarchal structure of the man as the head of the household and the confined housewife were challenged and quashed over the late 20th century. These changes were explored by film-makers, photographers and artists throughout these decades, such as Takashi Ito’s disturbing film 'Grim' from 1985, a psychological thriller that distortedly portrays of an apartment’s interior.

japanese-house-1Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Moriyama House, 2005. Photo by Takae Satoshi.

Urbanisation and the ongoing threat of earthquakes played into the evolution of new architectural traditions. The average lifespan of buildings in Japan is about 25 years before they are pulled down and replaced. The temporal nature of the architect’s plans gave licence for more creative experimental designs, as well as prompting the use of lightweight, easily assembled building materials.

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A modular style of design evolved that could accommodate independent lifestyles as well as airy open plan spaces. In the 1980s, architects began to experiment with new technologies, creating houses that were open to the world and creatively composed to fit within the narrow city spaces.

In the centre of the Barbican’s art gallery, filling half of the lower gallery space, is the Moriyama House, a new commission by architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori. The installation features a hand-charred timber treehouse for visitors to sit in, set in a garden complete with hedges, bushes and trestle arches. The rooms of the house installation are entwined with the Barbican’s brutalist architecture, with quaint living rooms, compact kitchens and fully-accessorised bedrooms dotted around the space. It feels as though the exhibition has grown out of the fragmented house.

imagheThe Moriyama House treehouse and gardens installed in the Barbican by Terunobu Fujimori.

The 10 furnished rooms of Fujimori’s Moriyama House are experienced throughout the exhibition, like a living demonstration of Japan’s architectural styles as well as the hectic reality of urban domestic architecture. The pockets of tranquility in the Moriyama installation reflect the simultaneous escapism, openness and design-led aesthetic that can be seen in Japanese houses over centuries.

The Eastern-inspired promotion is on at ACHICA until 1 April.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 is on at The Barbican until 25 June.

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Annabel Sheen

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