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Full size recreations rethink architectural shows and invite visitors in at The Japanese House exhibition

Moriyama House, Tokyo, 2005, designed by Office of Ryue Nishizawa. This will be reconstructed on a 1:1 scale within the The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 exhibition.
Moriyama House, Tokyo, 2005, designed by Office of Ryue Nishizawa. This will be reconstructed on a 1:1 scale within the The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 exhibition. Credit: Takashi Homma

The problem with architecture exhibitions is that rather than experience the buildings, you’re peering at models and images, however compelling these may be. Not so the Barbican’s enticing-sounding show on the Japanese house, which opens later this month complete with a full size recreation of a Tokyo house and a specially-commissioned tea house by Terunobu Fujimori, both somehow squeezed into the gallery.

‘I wanted to rethink the architecture exhibition,’ says curator Florence Ostende. ‘I wanted to have faith in the materiality of what the architect creates.’

The house she’s recreating is particularly special. Ostende describes the Moriyama House, by the Office of Ryue Nishizawa (2005), as one of the most important of the 21st century. Rather than a single house it could more accurately be described as an assemblage of 10 domestic units – one simply houses a shower – scattered in a garden to create an anarchic, mini-neighbourhood. Visitors to the exhibition can wander around its components and see a film about the house and its owner, Mr Moriyama, who commissioned it so he could rent out some of the units and retire.

‘He’s a very quiet man – he lives as a bit of an urban hermit. He has a beautiful way of occupying the units, like choreography,’ says Ostende, adding that the collection of buildings has become a portrait of Moriyama.

Moriyama House, Tokyo, 2005, designed by Office of Ryue Nishizawa as an assemblage of ten domestic units.
Moriyama House, Tokyo, 2005, designed by Office of Ryue Nishizawa as an assemblage of ten domestic units. Credit: Takashi Homma

This exhibition, created with the help of chief advisor Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Tokyo practice Atelier Bow-Wow, is the first major survey of the Japanese post-war house and features the work of approximately 40 architects. Told in 10 thematic sections that will unfold around the 1:1 exhibits, the show’s angle is the way that domestic architecture has responded to changes in societal and family structures over 70 years by proposing new, often radical types of domestic environment. It’s a story of experimentation, no doubt spurred on by the extraordinarily short lifespan of the average house in Tokyo – just 26 years. 

In the first decades after the war, as Tokyo was rebuilt and the urgent need for housing addressed, the architectural focus was on the debate between tradition and modernity. By the 1960s and 70s figures such as Kazuo Shinohara were beginning to question the focus on mass-produced housing and explore more adventurous forms, helped by a creative use of reinforced concrete. In his 1962 manifesto ‘A House is a Work of Art’ Shinohara explored the idea of a large home as a personal art form in opposition to the more compact and functional housing of the day. It is this concept in particular that Ostende hopes visitors to the exhibition will take away with them. 

  • House NA, Tokyo, 2011, designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects as a series of irregularly layered platforms.
    House NA, Tokyo, 2011, designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects as a series of irregularly layered platforms. Credit: Iwan Baan
  • Roof House in Hadano, Kanagawa, 2001, designed byTezuka Architects (Takaharu + Yui Tezuka). The roof is accessed by ladders from the ground floor and functions as the house’s primary space.
    Roof House in Hadano, Kanagawa, 2001, designed byTezuka Architects (Takaharu + Yui Tezuka). The roof is accessed by ladders from the ground floor and functions as the house’s primary space. Credit: Katsuhisa Kida/FOTOTECA
  • Leek House, Tokyo,1997, designed by Terunobu Fujimori. The roof is embedded with rows of nira (Chinese leeks).
    Leek House, Tokyo,1997, designed by Terunobu Fujimori. The roof is embedded with rows of nira (Chinese leeks). Credit: Akihisa Masuda
  • Leek House, Tokyo, 1997, designed by Terunobu Fujimori. The house includes a tea house with a wood block ceiling and white plaster walls.
    Leek House, Tokyo, 1997, designed by Terunobu Fujimori. The house includes a tea house with a wood block ceiling and white plaster walls. Credit: Akihisa Masuda
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The exhibition includes work from the metabolism movement of the 1960s – including by Kisho Kurokawa and Kenzo Tange – which explored the idea of architecture and cities as living organisms. By the 1970s, pressure on land led to ingenious solutions for slim sites. It also prompted ever-sprawling suburbs, and the rise of the capsule hotel for workers who weren’t able to return home every night. The exhibition will include some of the bunker-like homes of the time, such as Toyo Ito’s introspective White U (1976), which turns its back on the expanding city to create a highly insular environment. 

Other projects questioned gender stereotypes such as Ito’s Pao: Dwellings for the Tokyo Nomad Woman (1985). Designed for the liberated woman-about-town, this takes the form of a fabric tent containing three nomadic settings for ‘intelligence’, ‘styling’ and ‘snack’. 

The show also includes more recent examples of architects who have instead been exploring openness and lightness. Tezuka Architects’ Roof House (2001) uses the single storey house’s roof as one of the main living areas. And Sou Fujimoto Architects’ House NA (2011), is as far away from the bunker-approach as one could get – a completely glass-walled house with a stacked, platform-like structure that has minimal barriers between residents and the city, opening up their lives to the city, and the city to them. 

Privacy issues within houses are tackled in different ways. Kazuyo Sejima’s House in a Plum Grove (2003) for example, a small home for a three-generational family, is a series of nested spaces, one just large enough to contain one bed exactly, that meets the differing privacy needs of the various residents. 

The Japanese domestic house is still evolving in many directions. Looking ahead, there are even signs of interest in renovation rather than the usual new build, says Ostende.

O House, Kyoto, 2009, designed by Hideyuki Nakayama. The 59.71m2 house consists of a gabled central block flanked by two adjacent structures containing the everyday facilities. First floor bedrooms are accessed by an external staircase from the garden.
O House, Kyoto, 2009, designed by Hideyuki Nakayama. The 59.71m2 house consists of a gabled central block flanked by two adjacent structures containing the everyday facilities. First floor bedrooms are accessed by an external staircase from the garden. Credit: Mitsutaka Kitamura

While visitors will find much to engage with in the thematic displays, it’s the two houses that inevitably will initially grab attention. Within the gallery, the Moriyama House is being reconstructed at a 1:1 scale up to three storeys high but built in timber rather than in its original materials. Where it encounters an inconvenient structural element, the house is simply revealed in section. 

While the Moriyama installation is all about structure, the tea-house, created with students from Kingston University, is more concerned with materiality and craft. It will be clad in charred timber, the dark exterior contrasting with the white plaster of the interior. The tea house will be open to visitors, six at a time, with a number of tea ceremonies taking place throughout the exhibition to give visitors the full architecture + tea experience. Sounds like a good way to round off what promises to be a stimulating show – save a place on the tatami for me. 


The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, March 23 – June 25 2017, Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London. Adult: £14.50