EXHIBITION REVIEW: ‘The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945’ Barbican Centre

This landmark exhibition exploring post-war Japanese architecture demonstrates that architecture is a multi-dimensional and messy process. Architecture is neither black ink on white paper nor a sterile monument. It is composed of structures lived in and walked through, altered and repaired, open as much to commodification as to creativity. It is the locus of debate and politics.  Like the various beings it shelters – plants, animals, people – it exists, develops, falters.

Japan, like all countries after the war, underwent seismic social and cultural shifts, provoked not only by the devastations and opportunities created by the war, but also by the quite literal seismic shifts of catastrophic earthquakes. The exhibition is careful not to streamline the muddle of this post-war moment into a uniform conception of ‘post-war Japan’, neither in terms of architecture nor of life. Instead, in the breadth of its survey, the exhibition shows how the discourses surrounding architecture, and indeed life, were often contradictory, fuelled by radically different dreams and demands: houses and ways of living inspired by the wandering, unregulated trails of weeds (Kiyonori Kikutake); an architecture of efficient, lonely pods to meet the demands of business and capitalist productivity (the Nakagin Capsule Tower, 1972)

Drawing together a depth and clarity of research with a theatrical and experiential display, the Barbican’s exhibition makes it compellingly clear that architecture is part of life and politics, not merely their backdrop and container. Architect Kazuo Shinohara summed this up in his essay, “A House is a Work of Art” (1962): ‘I believe that it will further become possible for the homes we create to offer a total view of what it is to be human.’

Each exhibit is sensitive to the totality of human experience in all its consummate messiness. The entrance to the exhibition is dominated by a 1:1 reconstruction of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (2005) made up of a series of pavilions distributed throughout the exhibition space. The building is filled with plants, furnishings and all the debris of everyday living; even the toilet seat is left up as if its eccentric occupant, Yasuo Moriyama, has just left the bathroom. The lighting changes throughout the hour, moving from morning to night, emphasising the basic, but curiously often forgotten fact that how we experience architecture is contingent on multiple factors; light, sound and toilet seats amongst them.

The architects showcased in the exhibition all foreground this fact of architecture’s basic contingency.  Moriyama himself insisted that ‘life can’t be contained within a single lot. People’s sense of living expands beyond it, effectively erasing all borders’, something echoed by several Japanese architects, including Takamasa Yoshizaka, whose house eschewed gates and fences to let animals wander in and out. He insisted that ‘a house must exist on the borderline of individual freedom and collective benefit.’  In this vein, the exhibition demonstrates how architecture not only exists at the threshold of personal creativity, habits and socio-political dynamics, but also acts as an agent of their expression and often their control.

By showing the full gamut of architectural practice –  sketches, buildings, models, films, texts – this exhibition interrogates the nature of architecture and the house, crucially highlighting their essential hybridity and dynamism.  Carefully considering post-war Japanese architecture as an ongoing negotiation of a host of factors, from earthquakes to the influence of Western modernism, the exhibition rightfully resists any attempt to offer a single definition of what Japanese architecture ‘is’.  Instead, it asks us to think about where architecture and the home lie: in those spaces between walls and shelves, in the multiple trajectories we pace through kitchens and basements.  Architecture here is nomadic and insecure. Through it, we become who we are; with it, we might resist dominant systems and find alternative ways of living and being together.

By Yates Norton, Artist Liaison, ARTIQ

Exhibition details:
The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945′
Barbican Centre
23rd March – 25th June 2017