New Barbican exhibition showcases Japan’s amazing architecture

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 celebrates Japan’s distinctive and experimental domestic architecture

Japan is filled with weird and wonderful architecture. Limited space and high land prices have resulted in some fantastically creative designs – from four and five-storey buildings with all-glass facades to oddly-shaped houses on plots intercepted by roads or power lines.

The country’s architecture is a fascinating mix of old and new: traditional wooden houses and futuristic dwellings that push the boundaries of what a house could or should look like. With an insatiable appetite for the new, there is a constant cycle of building, demolishing and rebuilding – the average lifespan of a Japanese home is just 25 years.

Various socioeconomic factors have shaped the country’s domestic architecture: economic growth in the 1960s prompted experiments with prefab homes and capsule buildings, including the famous Nakagin Capsule Tower. Rapid urbanisation in the 1970s inspired designs that aimed to provide quiet refuge from city life, while the fifties saw a debate around the role of tradition and cultural identity in modern architecture.

A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images
A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images

All this results in a hugely varied architectural landscape – one that was recently showcased in a great book from Phaidon. The subject is now explored in The Barbican Centre’s new exhibition, The Japanese House: Architecture and Life Since 1945. The show is a fascinating look at Japanese living and design, with its eccentricities and focus on craft, beauty and harmony.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a full-sized reconstruction of architect Ryue Nishizawa’s fascinating Moriyama House. The ‘house’ is made up of ten buildings between one and three storeys high scattered across a single plot of land. These structures can be reconfigured to create a variety of living spaces (owner Yasuo Moriyama asked Nishizawa to create sections of the house that could be rented out) and residents must pass through garden spaces to get from one structure to another. The design blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, public and private and can be easily adapted to create a single home or a series of apartments.

A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images
A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images

The home has been meticulously recreated inside the Barbican’s art gallery: visitors can wander through sleeping and study spaces or view bedrooms installed at eye level. A kitchen is nestled under a staircase and a first floor balcony hidden behind it. Rooms are filled with everyday objects, from kitchen utensils to Sonic Youth records, forming a portrait of its owner.

In an adjoining space, a new film by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine offers a glimpse of the real-life Moriyama House and Moriyama himself. One of the most challenging things with architecture exhibitions is capturing the feeling of actually being in a space – it’s impossible to convey this through a small model or photographs – but the full-scale reconstruction of the Moriyama House does just that.

Another major attraction is a teahouse and garden created by Terunobu Fujimori. Its design combines traditional crafts and natural materials with contemporary touches and an element of the fantastical – with large circular windows, white plaster walls and a hand-charred timber exterior, it resembles something out of a child’s storybook.

Installation view of The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images
Installation view of The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images

The rest of the exhibition explores key themes and movements in Japanese architecture through a mix of films, photographs, drawings and models, many of which have never been shown in the UK before.

A section on lightness includes a look at the stunning House NA – a glass structure with no internal walls – and airy structures that maximise natural light. Lightness and lightweight materials have long been key aspects of Japanese architecture but these designs take the concept in an interesting new direction.

Another section looks at houses created to shield occupants from the outside world. With their austere facades and high concrete walls, these homes look somewhat oppressive from the outside but were designed to provide a retreat from city life: a buffer between residents and the noisy and polluted urban areas in which they live.

A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images
A life-sized reconstruction of the Moriyama House. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images

The exhibition also charts the socieconomic conditions that have shaped Japan’s architecture: it traces the post-war economic growth that prompted tower blocks and mass produced housing as well as the increases in land prices that have forced some inventive uses of small plots. There are photographs of Takamitsu Azuma’s Tower House – a tall triangular building constructed on a plot measuring just 20m2 – and Kazuo Shinohara’s House Under High Voltage Lines. (The house’s circular rooms make the most of a cramped patch of land, maximising living space while maintaining a safe distance from overhead power lines). Ryuji Miyamoto’s poignant photo series Cardboard Houses documents inventive makeshift shelters crafted by Tokyo’s homeless population, highlighting the unfortunate impact of high living costs and a rise in unemployment in the late 2000s.

A section on vernacular architecture features some imaginative homes by Atelier Bow Wow onishimaki + hyakudayuki architects. Some draw on traditional Japanese architecture while others reference nature. The ongoing project Weekend House in Sengataki is made up of a sloping steel roof that sits atop narrow columns – the roof appears to float in the forest, “like a deer loitering in the woods, or an owl perched on a tree limb”, say its designers.

It’s impossible to encapsulate such a broad subject in a single show but The Japanese House offers a fascinating introduction to Japan’s domestic architecture. It also explores the role of the home in Japanese culture, with clips from ‘home dramas’ (films in which the narrative plays out from within the confines of a house) and a look at the inventive structures in Studio Ghibli’s animated films.

Walking around the space, visitors are encouraged to reflect on the purpose of a home: should it be a vehicle for individual expression or something more functional? The show reflects on how architecture makes us feel and its ability to transform our daily routines and interactions. Above all, though, it is a fascinating celebration of creative thinking – a showcase of some ingenious responses to design challenges – and the country’s unique and varied architectural landscape.

The exhibition includes a 1:1 reconstruction of the structural beams used by architect Kazuo Shinohara's House in Uehara (1976), a house created for photographer Kiyoji Ohtsuji. The main portion of the house is a concrete block with a lightweight steel structure on top
The exhibition includes a 1:1 reconstruction of the structural beams used by architect Kazuo Shinohara’s House in Uehara (1976), a house created for photographer Kiyoji Ohtsuji. The main portion of the house is a concrete block with a lightweight steel structure on top. The protuding beams are an example of what Shinohara described as ‘savage machine’ – where structural elements collide with everyday living spaces
Terunobu Fujimori's teahouse at The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images
Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse at The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Image: Miles Willis / Getty Images

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 is open at the Barbican Centre until June 25 2017. An events programme includes talks from Nishizawa and curator Florence Ostende. For details, see barbican.org.uk

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