The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view (all photos by Miles Willis / Getty Images unless noted; courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery)

LONDON — In 1962, Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara (1925–2006) declared that “a house is a work of art.” Shinohara, one of Japan’s most celebrated postwar architects, was renowned for his creative, reactionary structures — in the face of the rapid industrialism and mass production that swept 1960s Japan, he embraced the “chaotic city.” He found room to flesh out his ideas in single-family homes, exploring the poetic duality of small residential spaces in an increasingly disordered urban landscape.

Take Shinohara’s simple yet loaded edict, pop it on a museum wall, and suddenly the evidence of his postmodern genius extends to an entire generation of Japanese designers. The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 is the first major UK exhibition to focus on postwar Japanese domestic architecture. It’s an expansive and enthralling survey at London’s Barbican Centre, pulling work from more than 40 different architects, amplified by a range of models, photographs, drawings, and videos. Shinohara’s words apply throughout, but most obviously on the venue’s top floor, where a Y-shaped concrete beam, used to support his 1974 Tanikawa Villa in Nagano, now appears to hold up the Barbican’s upper level.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view

In recent years, the Barbican has built a reputation for its inventive, comprehensive architectural exhibition program, having hosted ambitious surveys of Le Corbusier (2009), Charles and Ray Eames (2015), and Bauhaus: Art as Life (2012). But where those exhibitions were just that — exhibitions — The Japanese House is a truly immersive experience. How better to understand the practicality of domestic architectural design than to sit in the bedrooms, wander the halls, and peek into the closets of someone’s home?

The Barbican answers this question in a clever way, utilizing its own unique Brutalist interior to maximize both experience and explanation. The exhibition spans two levels: an open-plan ground floor topped off by a rectangular, balcony-like gallery space. Upon entering, visitors are sent directly upstairs, getting a bird’s-eye view of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (Tokyo, 2005) recreated in its entirety. But to fully appreciate the urban context out of which Nishizawa’s design grew, a visit to the upstairs galleries is not only necessary, but incredibly illuminating.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view

In the devastating aftermath of World War II, the Japanese domestic landscape became central to the physical and emotional reestablishment of the country. Architects and artists were uncertain about returning to traditional methods and aesthetics in the modern postwar age, and the family home became a sort of laboratory for architectural experimentation. It wasn’t just about architectural design, however; family structures, the ups and downs of the national economy, the availability of natural resources, and even natural disasters played into the new architectural interpretation of “Japaneseness.”

Curator Florence Ostende, along with Pippo Ciorra from the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, Rome, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow Wow and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, examined the evolving, increasingly crowded cityscape through a variety of lenses. Sections like “Earth and Concrete,” “Beyond the Family,” and “Lightness” follow material and sensorial trends that developed as Japan’s population boomed.

Toyo Ito, Silver Hut (1984) (© Tomio Ohash)

Through photography and models, the suffocation of city living is played out in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Takamitsu Azuma’s Tower House (Tokyo, 1966) is a concrete reaction to the new verticality of Tokyo, a space in which his family lived stacked around a central spiral staircase on a small triangular plot of land. Toyo Ito (a student of Shinohara’s) planned White U (Tokyo, 1976) — a restrictive u-shaped home, with no exterior windows — as a retreat for his sister. In a counter to the serious limits placed on modern Japanese architects, a polished wooden model of Kazumasa Yamashita’s playful Face House (Kyoto, 1974) looks back at viewers, windows making up its facial façade.

Downstairs is the main attraction: Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, created for “urban hermit” Yasuo Moriyama in 2005, allows visitors to inhabit its 10 tiny, pristine white units, which have been recreated on a 1:1 scale. Decorated and strewn with traces of Moriyama’s life in Tokyo — French film posters, Japanese grooming products, collections of books stacked along the stairwells — the installation realizes the architectural constraints explored upstairs in real time. An accompanying film, Moriyam-san by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, is worth a watch; seeing the day-to-day life of the man who commissioned the home allays any voyeuristic feelings one might have investigating another man’s bathroom.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view

Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Moriyama House (2005) (© Takashi Homma)

Where most of The Japanese House is all about the interiors and life in the crowded city, the exhibition also finds room to breathe in a second monumental installation: Next to the Moriyama House, the Barbican commissioned Terunobu Fujimori to create a unique tea house, made of charred timber and white plaster. Its large round window looks out over a garden, where traditional tea ceremonies are explained to visitors by the Urasenke Tankokai UK Association.

Walking through the installations, one slowly realizes that the lighting in the gallery adjusts, light to dark to light again — a subtle, sped-up dawn-to-dusk simulation. But where the exhibition could fall into caricature, or a Western “Disney-ification” of Japanese culture, it doesn’t — the diversity of each structure and architect featured in the exhibition is examined in such detail that the installations are welcome opportunities for exploration. What could be seen as fantastical is grounded in the complicated history of Japan’s changing urban landscape, where tradition is not forgotten but refigured in countless ways.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, installation view

Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2009) (© Mitsutaka Kitamura)

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS) through June 25.

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Mary Pelletier

Mary Pelletier is an American writer and art historian specializing in early Middle Eastern photography. She is based in Jerusalem.