Daytripper: Ingenious design in the Japanese House

  • Barbican Centre, London
  • The Japanese House, Miles Willis, Getty Images
  • The Japanese House, Miles Willis, Getty Images
  • The Japanese House, Miles Willis, Getty Images

The Barbican Centre’s ambitious exhibition presents us with a very different take on housing. Take a trip to London and step inside an architectural marvel - while you can

Here in the Cotswolds, we’re pretty well used to popping in and out of buildings that have existed for hundreds of years, unrocked by earthquakes. Not so for many of our Japanese visitors, who arrive in ever-increasing numbers to marvel at our changeless little villages.

In the case of Tokyo-dwellers, the attraction is easy to understand: the sprawling, rural spaciousness of the Cotswold landscape (and the historic stone sturdiness of its architecture) is a far cry from the teeming Eastern megacity, with its cramped living conditions and striking skyscrapers.

With half of Tokyo levelled by the firebomb raids of WWII, postwar Japan needed a lot of new housing - and fast. (The infamously destructive Operation Meetinghouse air raid alone left over one million citizens homeless). When economic growth picked up in the 1950s - beginning a dramatic ascent that saw the country positioned as the second largest economy in the world by the 1980s - Japanese urban living was changed forever. Prefabricated houses and
experimental design resisted creeping Western influence, creating a chance for modern Japanese city to re-imagine itself.

Now London’s Barbican Centre (itself an architectural marvel) invites you to explore the Japanese House. It’s an often surreal experience - most obviously in the full-scale recreation of the famous ‘Moriyama House.’

Designed by architect Ryue Nishizawaa (SANAA) and built in 2005, the Moriyama House is comprised of ten buildings, or units, divided by exterior patio gardens. (The Barbican version is furnished with books and music belonging to the reclusive collector/modern hermit Yasuo Moriyama himself, who has never left his home country).

The installers have the lighting rigged on an hourly cycle - fading and brightening to reflect the changing light of day. When the light is dim enough, you can see movie clips projected against the walls. Delightfully, you can even clamber inside a stilted fairy-tale teahouse, made from hand-charred timber by architectural Terunobu Fujimori and the students of Kingston University.

But the general idea is that you potter about gazing at radical interpretations of the domestic. Trail around the Barbican’s side galleries, and you’ll see the history of the Japanese house play out - and glimpse some very unusual buildings.

How about a house shaped like a face? Or fully-tiled, dollop-shaped houses? This curious and captivating exhibition showcases some intriguing alternatives to the minimalistic, straight lines of modernity. Indeed, there are some philosophies on display here that seem very alien from reverential British attitudes towards housing: the needs of residents have shaped some strange and inspiring solutions to pressing problems. This show presents us with snippets from a world where tower-like concrete homes sprout from absurdly narrow, nigh-useless plots; rural getaways rear on stilts; urban buildings are frequently torn down, started again.

Here, disruption and restriction are merely opportunities for growth, an excuse for looking at society anew. Ingenuity born from constraint - there’s nothing like it.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945
Barbican Centre, Barbican, London
23 March - 25 June 2017