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  • John Barr

Bullshit from the Barbican

The current exhibition at the Barbican, The Japanese House, is winning rave reviews. I have no issue with the exhibits, or the enthusiasm of the reviews. But I do take issue with the publicity released by the organisers, which says:

Our homes and personalities are intrinsically linked but nowhere more so than in Japanese architecture, where the needs of a building’s residents inform its very construction.

Really? The houses featured in the exhibition are variously described as radical or experimental but they, and others like them, form a miniscule percentage of housing in Japan. The vast majority of Japanese, certainly urban Japanese, live in developer-built apartment blocks and houses, the design, let alone the very construction, of which is informed by the personalities and needs of the residents no more than housing in many other countries. The block pictured on the right is located in a popular part of Osaka and almost certainly houses more residents than all the individual houses designed by all the architects featured in the exhibition put together. Some of these architects have also designed apartment blocks but, again, the total volume of these works is a drop in the ocean when seen in a national context.

Even if the organisers are making claims only for the houses being exhibited, those claims still need to be questioned. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a full-size replica of the Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa who, together with Kazuyo Sejima, works under the umbrella of SANAA. These are talented and inventive architects but their design drivers have been formal not social: the expression of individual rooms as separate volumes freely located within an enclosing field and the dematerialisation of the enclosing envelope have been amongst their preoccupations, both of which are shared by a number of contemporary Japanese architects. To be clear, I have no issue with the architects or works shown in this exhibition, nor with the exhibition itself, nor with the enthusiasm of the reviews. I know many of the works and some of them are fascinating pieces of architecture. But I do take issue with unwarranted claims made on their behalf.

To suggest that the houses shown in this exhibition are somehow representative of the general condition of housing in Japan is wrong. And to suggest that the design and construction of housing in Japan, including the houses in this exhibition, is uniquely informed by the personalities and specific needs of the residents is to ignore reality.

Maybe this wouldn’t be important if it were simply a one off that could be put down to over-enthusiastic hyping of the exhibition. Unfortunately it continues a long history of ‘alternative facts’ in the presentation of all things Japanese. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the re-opening of Japan to the rest of the world there has been a succession of commentators, mostly western but including Japanese as well, who have sought to ‘interpret’ Japan for the rest of the world. In doing so they have not only implied but actively promoted the view that Japan is somehow ‘other’ and that Japanese culture, society and politics are more opaque than in other countries and cannot be readily understood except by the Japanese and, of course, the interpreters. This has suited the interpreters but it has to be said that it has often suited the Japanese state as well. The difficulty with this situation is not so much that it presents a false picture of Japan (which it often does) but that it refuses to engage with any facts that do not fit the story that the narrators wish to construct. Valuable lessons that could be learnt by recognising the wider reality are ignored. It devalues Japanese culture and inhibits meaningful understanding.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I had no issues with the reviews of this exhibition. Actually I do have an issue with them: they accept the organisers’ descriptions without question and this again follows a well-worn pattern, where it suits the narrators to present Japan as ‘other’ and it suits the audience to accept that view, even to celebrate it and, in so doing, to continue to promote the mythologising of Japanese culture and the retention of attitudes that have not advanced from 19th century exoticism. Lazy commentary is compounded by lazy criticism and a huge disservice is done both to Japan and to anyone who truly wants to know about Japan.

In truth the architects featured in this show have had negligible effect in shaping Japanese housing, or any part of the Japanese built environment since the war. If we really want to know the architects (both in the general and the technical sense) that have had the greatest influence on the built environment in today’s Japan we must look elsewhere, and I’ll discuss that next time.

Kanazawa : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art : SANAA

Kanazawa : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art : SANAA

Kanazawa : 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art : SANAA

Tokyo : Yoshida Printing Headquarters : Kazuo Sejima. Facade of steel mesh and curtains.

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