There is something especially voyeuristic about peering into a Japanese house. Rarely will a Japanese family invite outsiders into their home. When living in Japan a few years ago, my most intimate glimpses into the inner sanctum of Japanese life came in tragic circumstances: when I walked among the ruins of houses torn apart by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Even then, the bereft owners would remove their shoes as they stepped amid the detritus of their former lives. Upon entering a Japanese home, you leave most traces of the outside world at the door.
At “The Japanese House”, a new exhibition at the Barbican in London, you can keep your shoes on while you peer behind the nation’s public façade. You can walk through a life-sized mock-up of an architectural work of art, Ryue Nishizawa’s “Moriyama House”; and stoop down to enter an Alice in Wonderland-style teahouse and garden created by the eccentric Terunobu Fujimori. Rooms packed with photos show the creativity and playfulness of Japanese architecture since 1945, a period of rampant urbanisation that has turned Tokyo into a mishmash of sleek modernism, cluttered side-streets and occasional glimpses into the wood-panelled past.
The historical backdrop makes the exhibition as intriguing sociologically as it is artistically. During the second world war, half of Tokyo’s homes were firebombed. To deal with the housing shortage, and to cater to people flocking to the city during the period of post-war industrialisation, the Japanese did not build the giant housing complexes that filled bombed-out European cities, but small, easy-to-replicate modular homes, made of lightweight materials. As the baby-boomers began to buy homes in the 1970s, large Japanese corporations like Toyota and Panasonic began producing prefabricated houses. Flimsy, cramped and identical, they helped to bolster the stereotype of a uniform society and contributed to the short lifespan of Japanese dwellings, which tend to be knocked down and re-built every 30 years.
Atelier Bow-Wow, a leading firm of Japanese architects, thinks this has caused a “spiral of intolerance”: homes have become introverted places severing people from the wider community and nature. The number of Japanese living on their own continues to rise. Today, 50% of Tokyo’s inhabitants live alone. Yet, as the exhibition documents, architects have repeatedly striven to break the mould. The House and Atelier Bow-Wow, built on a cramped plot in Tokyo, mixes domestic space with working space and uses lots of glass in the walls and interior partitions to break down the barriers between home and office and between colleagues.
Nowhere is this sense of openness more visible than in the Moriyama House (above) by Ryue Nishizawa, a Pritzker prize-winning architect. Created in 2005 for Yasuo Moriyama, a reclusive artist, it has been reproduced at the Barbican, where it somehow sits as snugly as the original does in suburban Tokyo. Here the line behind outside and inside is blurred to the point where it invites you to snoop. The house is broken up into ten units, separated by tiny gardens, with a shower in a glass case to be shared by Moriyama and his tenants, who can presumably look in and out on each other as they bathe.
Peer through the windows and each room is testament to the owner’s quirky inner life. Bottles of Pokari Sweat, a ubiquitous fizzy drink, sit in the kitchen alongside delicate wooden soup bowls. A Sonic Youth album is placed next to a tree casting shadows on the wall. The furniture hints at the world outside; on a chair carved with rabbit ears sits a book, “The Bumper Book of Bunny Suicides”. Nearby, a Godzilla-like toy creature is placed near a model of a charging elephant.
A documentary projected on the wall, by filmmakers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, shows the house in Tokyo as it is lived in by Moriyama, with scruffy gardens, clanking power lines overhead, plenty of clutter and the hum of Tokyo in the background. It is an endearing portrait of a homeowner and his house, which shows the side of Japanese society that is ad-hoc, amusing and irreverent. It is a privilege to walk through that world, which Japanese architects are striving to make ever-more accessible.