Reconstructing the Japanese house

by

Special To The Japan Times

After very successful runs in Rome and London, “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945,” an exhibition of maquettes, photographs, plans and drawings, is now in the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

For providing an extensive look at varied and eclectic forms that architects have created in postwar Japan, the price of admission is fully justified, but the exhibition is more than that. The design of Japanese houses is explored here as a series of inquiries and arguments as to how life may be defined or transformed by the space of the home.

It’s not, however, the story of how the majority of Japanese people live. One of the main objectives of the exhibition is to celebrate the awkward and contrary, the exceptions that collectively provide an inverse image of postwar mass society in Japan. As MOMAT curator Kenjiro Hosaka puts it in his catalogue essay “On the Geneologies of the Japanese House after 1945,” “Japanese houses criticize.” Taking the term “geneology” from Michel Foucault, who in turn took it from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dismantling of Christian morality and Western philosophy, the exhibition as a whole is presented as an extended exploration of the house as a form of discourse, with propositions, rebuttals, anecdotes and jokes.

The first section, “Japaneseness,” offers visitors examples of Japanese modern, such as Kenzo Tange’s 1953 house, which was laid out in shinden-zukuri style, an aristocratic Heian Period (794- 1185) design. Seiichi Shirai’s single-story estate featured borrowed scenery through the opening of shoji, a library with tokonoma (a built-in recessed space in a reception room) and a gatehouse. Black-and-white photography and the ordered minimalism of these hybrid traditional/modern spaces is a match made in utopia, giving us a vision of paradisiacal social organization in harmony with nature. However, the text that introduces the section provides a lively demolition of “Japaneseness” as a normative term.

The story of Bruno Taut coming to Japan in 1933 and lauding the austere rectilinear spaces of the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto is not retold, although several stunning images of the villa by Japanese-American photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto do appear in this section. “There’s no such thing as the Japanese house,” the introductory text panel states, pulling the tatami out from under our feet.

After the luxurious bespoke spaces belonging to and designed by architects, the second section looks at mass housing and the development of prefabs. Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower makes an appearance. Beloved by brutalists, metabolists and futurologists around the globe, but less loved by residents who collectively elected to have it demolished, the concrete cubes are impractically hot in the summer and freezing in winter. Archival images of its development, combined with a promotional video showing a 1970s hep cat salaryman relaxing to jazz in the tiny capsule, help build the exhibition’s case for considering the Japanese house as pre-eminently a form of critique or act of creative imagination, rather than a practicable living space.

The same section of the exhibition includes a display from household goods retailer Muji on its recent move into house design. With the benefit of hindsight, Muji’s aesthetic of simplicity is being used to address issues of affordability, limited floor area and short building life span. Town house designs by Kazuhiko Namba + KAI Workshop and Kengo Kuma aim primarily to be user-friendly rather than manifestations of esoteric reasoning. Muji House Director Koji Kawachi says that the primary question behind the venture is “What is a really pleasant life for a resident?” On the more general social and ecological problem of extending the useful life of the house past the 20 or 30 years that is considered the norm in Japan, Muji houses are designed to “adapt to the changing form of the family and to change the inside flexibly.” The building structure, however, should be “a long-lasting solid body.”

In contrast to this user-centered pragmatism, the sections “Earthy Concrete” and “Unmarketable” provide examples of extreme experimentation. In the first of these, Takamitsu Azuma’s 1966 Tower House appears as an exploration of concrete as a “raw” material. The intentionally slap-dash quality of Azuma’s family home, where the interior and exterior surfaces bear the imprint of the timber used in the casting molds, questions the distinction between natural and artificial. The building has also attracted praise for its small footprint-defying spacious vertical interior.

The “Unmarketable” section appears near the end of the exhibition, after the display space has opened out impressively from being a relatively restricted corridor into a large hall where different themes jostle with each other to tell us that God is dead and our situation is both apocalyptic and also full of potential. Kenji Kawai’s “unmarketable” 1966 house has no foundations as a way of avoiding fixed asset tax and reducing damage from earthquakes. In the same section is fashion designer Kosuke Tsumura’s 1994 Final Home; a multipocketed shroud that is stuffed with survival gear.

The section “Family Critiques” challenges the orthodoxy of “salaryman plus housewife plus children” as the default social unit for which housing is designed. Osamu Ishiyama’s 1995 Dorakyura no Ie was designed for a gay couple, and does not have a “master bedroom” with correspondingly smaller bedroom for children. Several examples of combined work and living spaces, such as the 2005 House & Atelier Bow-Wow, promote the idea that living together can be based around shared creative activity rather than familial relationships.

Radical and interrogatory, it’s not hard to see why this exhibition should be a big hit.

“The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945” at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs through Oct. 29; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays); closed Mondays (except Sept. 18 and Oct. 9); ¥1,200