Madame Butterfly

Japanese people don’t all live in houses like the one above but how are we ever going to know? I left the recent Barbican exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 wondering what anyone can ever know about anything but decided to defer judgment until I’d gone through the catalogue.

Pippo Ciorra told of Bruno Taut’s first trip to Japan in 1933. I imagined Taut taking off his shoes, being amazed at the shoji slid open for him, sitting uncomfortably on a zabuton around a low square table in the centre of the reception room. Later, he would have been offered a yukata, instructed in how to use the furo, been appalled by the benjo and, unused to futon, sleeping fitfully. In the morning, he would have looked in the kitchen and seen mackerel being grilled and misoshiru and rice prepared for breakfast back at the same low table now set with plates of nori and (as it was Kansai) bowls of nattō.

The novelty of things new and foreign would have compensated for much, but Taut was having to adapt to every single one of the basic activities of living being satisfied in ways totally different to what he was used to. That next day, his friend took him to see Katsura Imperial Palace and Taut had some sort of epiphany, seeing proto-modern architecture and clarity and beauty everywhere. It was the beginning of our love affair with Japanese architecture. Even now it has little to do with the houses in which people actually live.

Two years prior, Japan had invaded and annexed Manchuria but that’s not another story because, if there hadn’t been a 1931 there wouldn’t have been a 1945 for this exhibition to pick up from and show us what happened after modernity arrived in Japan in the form of Western influence. This exhibition is about our history of the Japanese house and its relationship to architecture and life. It is about us. We never get to find out what Japanese houses were like before 1945.

Just as Taut saw Modernism at Katsura, Japanese people saw Japan in Kenzo Tange’s 1953 own house. Everyone else saw something a Japanese acolyte of Le Corbusier might design. The same could be said for Kazuo Shinohara’s first house, the 1954 House in Kugayama but, using steel as it did, more with respect to Mies. We’re predisposed towards liking things that suggest how we should understand them.

These most widely circulated photographs of these houses conceal their pitched roofs from us. As for the Shinohara house, we have only this illicit photograph of a model.

Both houses were completed within a year of each other and this closeness in time suggests we understand them as the Farnsworth House and Glass House of the Far East. The two are always presented together as having equivalent historical importance despite Tange never designing another in his long career and Shinohara doing little else for the first thirty years of his. In 1962 Shinohara made the claim that “Houses are Art” and we’ve being seeing Japanese houses as art ever since. This exhibition did nothing to discourage us.

There was much architecture on display but little life apart from some vintage photographs of non-Japanese inside houses,

and a photo of Tange in his garden, encapsulating the exhibition title in a single staged shot. [It doesn’t look like Tange was very good at throwing balls – at least not in the proximity of early Tarō Okamoto sculptures.] 

The absence of people and traces of living is nothing new in architectural photography but Shinohara was also to make that into an art. This book claims it was to recreate the same degree of abstraction as Japanese life and the syntax of Japanese architecture he had extracted.

houses are art.jpeg

Maybe. I just remember him saying he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. This statement doesn’t travel as well, but it’s not a contradiction. Either way, it’s a shame because interesting things happen when real living collides with some of Shinohara’s houses. Architecture and life shouldn’t be incompatible, but nor should they be forced to become an interior representing both while being neither.

Such an attitude doesn’t fit our image of what Japanese architecture should be and Shinohara (left) and later architects (right) have obliged us ever since with photographs such as these.

Our history of Japanese architecture was presented back at us, such as the story about Toyo Ito’s U-House for his sister after the death of her husband. Can Architecture Heal Loss? Apparently it can, because the family moved out when it was time, the house was demolished and an apartment block built in its place.

Poor us though! We’ve been grieving for this house ever since, keeping it alive in our memories and, last year, even reincarnating it for this same exhibition when it appeared at MAXXI.

It’s enough to make one think architecture has little to do with actual buildings, that people’s lives and architecture exist independently of the buildings that once nurtured them, and that the purpose of buildings is to enable lives to be lived as a footnote to the goal of generating architecture. Other suspicions we have of Japanese houses were also confirmed.

Japanese houses are small

Japanese houses are different

Attempting to extract the wisdom of vernacular and anonymous architecture is now a hot topic East and West. For example, the 2017 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize intends to “study the traditions and methods that enable formal architecture to operate within the paradigm of projectless environments, sensitive to the potential cultural frictions associated with restructuring problematic settlements.”  I hope this turns out to be part of a genuine movement to apply the embodied intelligence of vernacular architectures and not some quest akin to combing the rainforests for patentable products instead of cures.

Japanese live in unorthodox ways

The exhibition had animations and movie clips with houses and people moving around (or not) but the takeaway was fuzzy. Soon after, I watached Ozu’s Tokyo Story that has much sitting and moving around. I saw the [“うらら“] beauty salon Koichi’s wife runs from the ground floor of their house, with occupants and clients sharing the same entrance. Having a home business on the ground floor was the norm with machiya [c.f. The Japanese Machiya] but also extremely common in houses in the post-war years.

Once, I went to the house of a friend and, in the space where I expected the reception room to be, his wife was pouring buckets of plastic pellets into a huge injection molding machine that made orange plastic stays to keep the tone arms of record players in place during transit.  

A single anecdote of mine isn’t conclusive but saying Atelier Bow Wow’s combining of office and living functions recalls traditional urban building types doesn’t say much either. Even the tradition being alluded to is that of machiya and not the heroic live/work units that existed well into the 1980s.

Japanese appreciate Purity of Form

No they don’t – we do! The model of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House on display was the same one last seen at the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

It was still perpetrating our belief that Japanese appreciate purity of form rather than letting us accept the as-built reality of the house. [c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form] Our understanding of the Japanese house is what we want our understanding of the Japanese house to be. Japanese architects understand that but we still don’t.

Japanese people live with their stuff artfully arranged

Japanese would see the bathroom below as a Western-style bathroom but to us it’s just a bathroom, albeit a spartan one. Even if this mock-up does approximate the bathroom at Moriyama House (towards the centre of the plan below), it tells us nothing of Japanese bathing habits, or of any shift in bathing habits that may have occurred since 1945.

Similarly, the kitchen tableau (of the room at the top left in the plan above) confirms our belief Japanese live with not much stuff and in a super-organized way. I have my own doubts as to its fidelity but won’t nitpick. I feel for the curators – it must have been like trying to improvise a Henry VIII costume using only things in your living room and wardrobe.

SANAA’s Moriyama House is neither representative of Japanese houses or even how they’re lived in and, because of that, was an excellent choice to reinforce what we like to believe about both. People moved in and around the downstairs mock-ups as if they were in IKEA bemused at how “A family of six lives in this 30m² house!”

Japanese have an aesthetic non-Japanese are incapable of understanding

Balancing the selective mock-ups of SANAA’s Moriyama House was a setting, the primary purpose of which was to make real some kind of mythical Japan-land that exists in the Western psyche. A rock garden is suggested by an abundance of coarse gravel islands bounded by rope. Curious mossy mounds suggest Chinese landscapes. For such a major element of Japanese living, tatami were oddly absent, even in Terunobu Fujimori’s charred-timber clad tea-house-esque construction.

And so it was I wondered if it was really possible to know anything about anything unless it’s presented to us as what we know already. It’s cliché to say travel writing tells more about the traveller than the place but so do travelling exhibitions.

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I’ve written all this as if the exhibition were still on at The Barbican – it’s not. Here’s a preview from before the exhibition opened on March 23,

high tea

and here’s another from The Guardian, after the opening. This review on Archinect, is best of the three.

9rmsg2p8ork0tscj.jpg

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The catalogue turned out to be very interesting, covering topics and providing information the exhibit could only hint at.

Apart from the four introductory essays at the beginning and some architect biographies at the end, the same content will appear as this ja+u special issue.

 

Seventy-five houses are organized into themes that are somewhat arbitrary but, (if they’re not going to use sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, sitting and shitting) then they’re as good as any others. Japaneseness is an important one, and illustrated by the Tange and Shinohara houses already mentioned. Mass Production was perfunctorily dealt with. Lightness might have told us more if it’d stuck to physical lightness rather than overstretch it to include Kikutake’s concrete-y Sky House. Truth is though, there’s so much diversity in these modern architect-designed Japanese house that no set of categories is ever going to suffice.

The invention and diversity in Japanese houses post-1945 can be thought of as the Japanese idea that houses are Art coupling with the Western notion that houses are for the display of Individuality. For non-Japanese, the idea that a house is art is an extremely seductive one and, for Japanese, the idea that a house can be used to express individuality is equally powerful. This marriage of convenience gave us the Japanese house as a conceptual post-war baby and we’re endlessly fascinated seeing ourselves in the fruit of this union.

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