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Review: The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945

A show in its last weeks at the Barbican Centre is not to be missed, writes Christopher Jackson

‘How we live measures our own nature,’ wrote Philip Larkin, in that very Hull-bound poem ‘Mr Bleaney’. The least likely of British poets ever to visit Japan, he wouldn’t need to today, if he were curious on the point.

That’s because the Barbican has brought Japan to the centre of London. It has done so with a series of photographs and architectural models by all the major architects of the post-war period. More astonishingly, it has also done so in actuality in the form of Ryue Nishizawa (1966-)’s Moriyama House – a ‘modern house with the character of an unpredictable living organism’, which is the centrepiece of this exhibition.

Japan’s post-war story is, of course, one of profound aftermath. It’s probably true to say that not even the world, let alone Japan, has fully come to terms with the decision of the Truman administration to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a psychic wound not just for Japan but for all humanity. This exhibition therefore has much to teach – it tells the story of humankind toiling to comprehend the nuclear age which we still inhabit.

It was the great missionary Frances Xavier who said that the Japanese were ‘the delight of his heart’. A similar estimate emerges from this touching and inspiring show, which describes in such vivid terms the pragmatic willingness of the post-war Japanese to carve out a viable future in the wake of such atrocity. Japan, in seeking to comprehend what happened to it, reverted to deep habits, and its profound aesthetic inheritance. Faced with the national trauma of defeat in World War Two, it found a way forward which was also a way back.

Here then are Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s photographs of Katsura Imperial Villa, which pick out with a scrupulous eye the Mondrian-like abstraction of the Heian period: these marvellous images show the consolation of the Buddhist calm which has been such a part of the Japanese story. Meanwhile Seiichi Shirai’s photograph series The House in Kureha looks further back towards the minka, or rural houses of the prehistoric period. In the past was a pre-nuclear perspective which helped the country delineate a way forward.

But the present couldn’t be wholly ignored. After World War II, Japan was also faced with a critical housing crisis: 50 per cent of Tokyo, for instance, had been destroyed. Many architects began arguing for a rapid homogenisation to solve the housing crisis, and this could easily have led to a sort of Stalinist disaster of grey sameyness.

By good fortune, the rapidity of this process called for concrete and, in short order, Japanese architects began to realise its plastic properties, and were soon busy applying a judicious sense of proportion to the new material. Junzo Yoshimura (1908-1997), for instance, built a lodge just outside Tokyo – shown here also in a photograph – whose concrete foundations are continuous with the forest floor: it has an almost natural validity, with its living spaces high up in the canopy levels of the trees.

By 1962, Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006) was declaring that ‘a house is a work of art’ – and he was doing so against a backdrop of economic excitement, as Japan accelerated into becoming the world’s second largest economy. Shinohara was sceptical about the economic boom: he saw the house as a valuable opportunity for creativity, distinct from the world of commerce. His strict attitude to his art foreshadowed a certain dissatisfaction with the city which would be fully realised by the likes of Toyo Ito (1941-), who began to incorporate the disjointed outside world into his designs. In Ito’s work, steel bars and concrete shapes have migrated from the building sites and scaffolding of the city to the home’s interior.

It is this same principle which animates Nishizawa’s great Moriyama House: for Nishizawa, a house ought to be in harmony with the city around it. In these unfolding rooms, bookshelves and tables of empty bottles of Asahi are neighboured by urban trees on which shirts are hung out to dry. It is a permeable space: one is never sure if one is walking through a house or a neighbourhood. This work – for the purposes of this exhibition woven into the brutalist architecture of the Barbican – is an image of the community made homely.

Indeed, it might be said that this exhibition shows a people coming together, reconciling themselves to recent trauma. The Hiroshima blast created a psychic wound that could in the end only be healed by creativity. The pleasure of this exhibition is to learn how brilliantly Japan responded to a crisis which might have exhausted a less inspired nation.

If, as Larkin thought, how we live does indeed measure our nature, then Japan comes out of this exhibition very well indeed.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 is at Barbican until 25 June 2017

Christopher Jackson is Head of the Spear’s Research Unit



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