Humble origins of great architectural photography

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The last couple of shows at the Shiodome Museum have been colorful and varied affairs, but the latest exhibition, showcasing Yukio Futagawa’s photos of traditional Japanese houses taken in 1955, strikes a very different note. There is an absence of color and accompanying objects, and in its place a sense of elegant simplicity and focus, in keeping with the subject and the medium.

Designed by rising young architect Sou Fujimoto, the exhibition reproduces large prints of Futagawa’s detailed monochrome photographs and hangs them from wires suspended from the ceiling in an irregular pattern that encourages viewers to randomly browse through them, rather than follow the set route so beloved of exhibitions in Japan. The effect of this is to remove distractions and the conveyor belt pressures that “one route” exhibitions impose on viewers, and thus to encourage deeper concentration on the images themselves.

Futagawa is a noted architectural writer and photographer, who, at the age of 80, still remains active. The 70 photographs in this exhibition are drawn from his early opus “Traditional Japanese Houses,” a prize-winning 10-volume series of 280 photographs of minka, literally “houses of the people,” taken in 1955. The term evokes humble, local styles of architecture in contrast to the grander and gaudier residences of the rich and powerful.

The exhibition has the feel of a journey of exploration, with Fujimoto’s layout enhancing a sense of being slightly lost. This helps to recreate Futagawa’s actual experience. When he set out, he had little information to go on, and he relied on his instincts and information picked up along the way to search out suitable subjects.

Unfortunately, the traditional Japaneseness of the show extends to a lack of detailed English information about the exhibition, but this is not all bad news, as it forces non-Japanese-reading visitors to focus more purely on the visual aspect.

There are a number of interesting things to look out for. Many of the shots feature straw-thatched buildings, evoking a kind of Hobbit-like world. Some of these show the roofs being smoked, with clouds of smoke percolating through the straws, to help protect them from the action of mold.

This also reminds us of one of the main messages implicit in minka: a reliance on local, natural, and renewable building materials, and thus a sense of harmony with nature. This is definitely one of their most attractive points, and one that Futagawa was fully aware of. One photo taken in Tokushima Prefecture fills the entire frame by setting a thatched roof against the backdrop of a forested hill, so that you realize that everything — including the man-made structure — is entirely organic and, in a sense, part of nature.

“Minka, the Essential Japanese House: Yukio Futagawa and the Origins of His Architectural Photography, 1955″ at the Shidome Museum runs till March 24; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥700. Closed Wed. www.panasonic.co.jp/es/museum.