When reviewing, in these pages, the 2015 exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, I observed how the building's heavy, windowless gallery had been imbued with some of the sunlight of Southern California.1 In the recent exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, curated by Florence Ostende and designed by Lucy Styles, the re-creation by Ryue Nishizawa (the N in SANAA) of his Moriyama House in Tokyo (2005) made the defamiliarization of the gallery almost complete.

Architecture and life started afresh in Japan after 1945 and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In architecture, this was demonstrated by the rejection of both teikan yōshiki, the Imperial Crown style that recalled the great disaster of the war, and Western modernism, which was the architecture of the conqueror. In their place, Kenzō Tange promoted the zakuri style of the imperial villa at Katsura, while Seiichi Shirai turned to the minka, the vernacular farmhouse architecture that stretched back to the ancient Jōmon period. Both themes reoccurred in photographs, drawings, and the occasional installation throughout the exhibition. More difficult to identify was “life,” a concept characterized at the beginning of the exhibition by the films of Yasujirō Ozu and Mikio Naruse, which considered major social change from a domestic perspective, using the home as a cinematic space for women's subjectivity and desire. In the same way teikan yōshiki was no longer relevant in postwar Japan, so Naruse's Late Chrysanthemums (1954)—its title a play, surely, on the fact that the chrysanthemum is the imperial symbol—told the story of four retired geisha trying to make a life in the new order of postwar Japan.

With the scene thus set, the exhibition explained but rarely questioned the various directions of Japanese architecture over the subsequent seventy years. Walter Gropius's enthusiasm for Katsura, for example, was demonstrated by the book that he published with Tange in 1960: Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture.2 Yet while for Tange Katsura presented a study of tradition and creation, for Gropius it offered an unexpected chance to revive the flagging hopes of Western modernism. But, as we know, there was no such revival. What did emerge from Japan, more than from anywhere else, was what Alison and Peter Smithson identified—in the “underlying idea, principles, and spirit” of Japanese architecture—as the New Brutalism.3 This was well expressed in buildings like Junzō Yoshimura's Mountain Lodge A at Karuizawa (1963) and Takamasa Yoshizaka's own house in Tokyo (1955), both rooted in the earth by the visceral nature of their exposed concrete. Yoshizaka built his house, a cross between the formalism of the Maison Citrohan and the roughness of the Maisons Jaoul, soon after returning from working for Le Corbusier in Paris, but the exhibition did not explore that possible connection.

Kazuo Shinohara's 1962 declaration that “a house is a work of art” highlighted the tension between the zakuri and the minka, the formal and the informal, the aristocratic and the plebeian. His assemblage of these contradicting factors was expressed in the anarchic irrationality of his house in Uehara, Tokyo (1976), which, as the exhibition's wall text put it, he used to “carve out a space of creativity and resistance within industrial society.” This was convincingly demonstrated in the exhibition by the installation of a treelike concrete structural frame that divided and confused the display space—or, in other words, simply got in the way (Figure 1). Tadao Ando, on the other hand, retreated from the city in his concrete row house in Sumiyoshi, Osaka (1976), as did Toyo Ito in the contemporaneous White U House in Nakano, Tokyo. Both buildings, shown here in models, internalized exterior space and ignored rather than confronted the chaos of the city around them.

Figure 1

Installation view of The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2017 (photo by Miles Willis, Getty Images).

Figure 1

Installation view of The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2017 (photo by Miles Willis, Getty Images).

This chaos was first explored by the anthropologist Wajiro Kon following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a lead taken up in 1986 by Terunobu Fujimori's Roadway Preservation Society, which undertook a photographic survey that, as an exhibition panel described, “embraced the seeming anarchy of the city.” Although identified here, in the work of Atelier Bow-Wow and Kumiko Inui, as “the vernacular,” this chaos was emblematic of what the exhibition called the “unmarketable.” The best example of this was Katsuhiro Miyamoto's ZENKAI House in Kobe (1997). The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 had left the building severely damaged, declared by the authorities to be zenkai, or completely collapsed, but Miyamoto revived it with a new, exposed-steel structure, thus both retaining the memory of the old house and resisting the will of the authorities.

Chaos and, indeed, anarchy were endemic in Ryue Nishizawa's re-creation of the Moriyama House—a series of seven or eight disconnected white volumes, one-story, two-story, or double-height, linked by small gardens and scaled by white steel stairs with tubular handrails. Populated variously with books, beer bottles, and Harry Bertoia chairs, each individual unit had its distinct function, often spilling out—as evidenced by the shaving bowl and mirror beneath a tree—to colonize the gardens in between. Beyond this domestic-scaled fragmentation of the Japanese city was a peaceful garden and a Japanese teahouse, designed by Terunobu Fujimori and built within the exhibition space by students from Kingston University under the direction of Takeshi Hayatsu. Here, amid this quietude, one was reminded of the constants of traditional Japanese domestic architecture: materials, scale, craftsmanship, and closeness to nature. Removing shoes and entering on hands and knees, one was soon cocooned from the surrounding confusion of the Japanese city.

If London audiences had been hoping for a convenient narrative, this exhibition did not provide it. Although each well-designed room offered a story, the stories were rarely connected. However, they did prepare visitors for the contradictory experiences of the Moriyama House and Fujimori's teahouse, the materials, forms, and spaces of which could not have been more mutually different. Yet such diversity is typical of the Japanese city; if it was the intention of the exhibition's creators to bring that across, then they surely succeeded. However, for a more informed discussion of the Japanese house, the visitor needed to read the catalogue, where essays by Hiroyasu Fujioka, Pippo Ciorra, Florence Ostende, and Kenjiro Hosaka conveniently fill the gaps.

Related Publication

Related Publication
Pippo Ciorra and Florence Ostende, eds.,
The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945
Barbican Centre
pp., 161 color and 109 b/w illus. £35/$50, ISBN 9788831725767


Neil Jackson, review of the exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames, JSAH 75, no. 2 (June 2016), 237–38.
Walter Gropius, Kenzō Tange, Yasuhiro Ishimoto (photographs), and Herbert Bayer (book design), Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960).
Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design, Jan. 1955, 1.