“The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” -the exhibition currently on at The Barbican’s art gallery- is an immersive, multi-sensory experience in which the visitor is not simply a viewer, but is invited to become an occupant of the houses and structures themselves.
The exhibition comprises the work of 40 architects who worked to redefine Japanese architecture in the years following the Second World War. The work on show takes the form of photographs, video installations, maquettes and partial and whole structures, offering an all-encompassing snapshot of Japanese architecture and domestic life over the last seventy years. The exhibition explores a range of architectural styles which developed during an era of radical social change following the Second World War, beginning with the notion that modular and prefabricated structures were a solution to post-war housing crisis.
The exhibition brings to the fore the dichotomies of post-war Japanese architecture: traditional building methods versus industrial techniques, the home as a space for the imagination to run free versus a space dominated by technology to enhance its occupants experience, the notion of escapism and separation versus that of connectedness.
The imposing concrete Brutalism of The Barbican serves as the perfect foil for the light, airy, prefabricated structures of Japanese minimalism designed to exist harmoniously with the natural environment. Conversely, the interaction of the two contrasting architectural styles, as the temporary exhibition structures weave in and out of the columns and staircases of The Barbican, highlights the fact that they do share one thing in common: concrete. Not just concrete as a practical material to add stability, for example in the event of an earthquake, but concrete as a flexible, malleable material from which aesthetic beauty can be created.
This was the fundamental belief of architect and former mathematician Kazuo Shinohara (b. 1925) who, in 1962, proclaimed ‘a house is a work of art’. Shinohara rejected the commodification of architecture and instead focused for the majority of his career on the single family home, emphasising that homes are spaces in which to dwell, spaces where the inhabitant can be creative and thrive. This idea stands in direct contrast to the more prescriptive, modular megastructures of Metabolism.
The exhibition explores the identity crisis experienced in Japan’s built environment following the war, owing to the westernisation brought by the occupation of the allied forces. It traces the rise of Metabolism in the 1950s and 60s and its subsequent rejection by the following generation of architects and the shift in the perception of the home as a fortress in which the occupant is protected from the outside world to one of the home as being accepting of its environment and fundamentally connected to it.
The work of architects such as Kazuyo Sejima (b. 1956), whose structures are characterised by connectedness, demonstrates dialogue between man-made buildings and their natural surroundings, while the exhibits by the ‘Bow-Wow’ atelier show the recent return to vernacular architecture by anonymous designers.
The show’s centrepiece is a full-scale reproduction of the ‘Moriyama House’ by Ryue Nishizawa (b. 1966) and the accompanying film Moriyama-san by Ica Bêka and Louise Lemoine which presents glimpses of the life of the owner, an “urban hermit” named Yasuo Moriyama. By recreating the ‘Moriyama House’ to scale, visitors to the exhibition are invited to inhabit the sprawling conglomeration of single and multi-storey white cubes and experience the details that make the house so functional for living yet inherently entwined with nature for themselves.
In keeping with other recent exhibitions, such as ‘Do Ho Suh: Passage/s’ at the Victoria Miro gallery, ‘The Japanese House’ offers an altogether on-trend and immersive exploration of an important period in architecture, presented in a manner suited to the digital age.
This ambitious exhibition underlines how ideas surrounding architecture in the second half of the 20th century are still very much relevant to 21st century urban environments, resonating with modern city-dwellers who seek to live in balance and harmony amid the chaos of the metropolis.
‘The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945’ is on show at The Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, London until 25th June 2017.