The Barbican has been converted into a theoretical and practical playground. Half-filled with exploration of post-war architecture, design, and history, and the other half filled with a replica of existing housing in Tokyo. The set-up allows the viewers to take in the necessary knowledge to better understand the way of life in Japan, before it invites them to discover a typical Japanese home. The exhibition goes through women’s presence in the household, the stern measures applied towards the rebuild of post-war Tokyo, and the lighter structures constructed to accommodate a growing population, all while keeping a creative dimension to the builds.
The exhibition takes us from photographs and sketches to films, to illustrate the growing urgency to rehouse the population, while struggling to compromise the respect of tradition and the renewal brought up by the western world. The reconstruction of the country after the war had a direct impact on the existing proportion of the mass produced modular houses. Architects Kenzo Tange and Seiichi Shirai redefined the Japanese home in the 1950s, elevated the house from the ground, and imposed vast open spaces enhanced with tatami-floors. The balance between the western influences and tastes, and traditional and minimalist interiors made of tatamis, semi-mobile partitions and geometric structures is emphasized in the first rooms.
From there, we are invited to focus on details, and to appreciate the underlying intentions of Japanese architects to use concrete as an “earthy” medium; this material being resistant to earthquakes, it was therefore used profusely in the post-war reconstruction period. As a logical thread, we go on to explore Kazuo Shinohara, an influencer whose aim was to create small single-family houses amid an ever-growing city. In this interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Shinohara elucidates his theories and vision on the confusion and disorder in the city. According to him, a street is defined by its houses and not the other around. The panel of architects presented in the exhibition is interesting, and entices my curiosity to dig into the culture and the western architects of the same period.
Important names of Japanese architects are mentioned next to the photographs and sketches as we progress into the rooms. Toyo Ito and Kazunari Sakamoto are two of them. As I am not an expert in Japanese architecture, I wouldn’t know if there is more to add to these names, but I understand this is only an overview, as the “Bubble” era is too quickly shown. In this short movie, Japanese businessmen dwell in what appear to be tiny hotel rooms during the working week, before returning to their families at the weekend. Culture is ubiquitous in the development of Japanese cities and housing, and this is where I hoped Japanese culture could have been approached in a larger spectrum.
We continue to walk on the pathway of renowned architects, from the 1970s through the Metabolism movement, which envisioned architecture and technology blended together towards an unrealizable utopian project. The last room of the exhibition ends with the architect’s desire to make the Japanese home a nest to protect them from outside pressures and aggressions. As the theoretical passage of the exhibition comes to an end, I find myself surprised by the realization that the housing constructions seem only to be created to face, interact, and get away from the city itself. Individual’s needs are not part of the equation, like they are in Western societies. Japanese culture functions as a whole, always privileging the city’s productivity over the inhabitants’ well-being.
Downstairs, we walk through the representation of Moriyama House, a multi-building residence open to the community by one unique garden. This project blurs the boundaries between what is private and what is considered public space. The blocks of buildings, which were created by Rye Nishizawa for Mr Moriyama, at times open to the outside via large windows, and at other times closed by permeable walls. If we pay attention to the structural organization, we notice that it is not possible to see the neighbours from any of the windows. No curtains are needed, and one must accept living freely, in an open space, without the fear of being watched. Each of the rooms have been enhanced with typical Japanese products, from books, records and foods, to bathroom utensils. Realistically speaking, everything looks cuter and more tasteful at a smaller scale. Also, there is no space for clutter.
As a Londoner, I tend to think that there is a claustrophobic nature resulting from the small surfaces of our flats. From a Tokyoite perspective, I realize that our conditions are not so bad after all.
The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 at Barbican (23 March – 25 June 2017)