Japan was devastated by the Second World War. Over four million houses were destroyed, and after the war there was a major rebuilding effort. With so many homes needed as quickly as possible, there was a lot of experimentation with modular buildings, prefabrication, and new materials. There was also a revolution in style. Traditional Japanese forms were associated with the nationalism that had led the country to war, and there was a renegotiation between traditional ways of life and modernism.
The result of this cultural overhaul and rapid reconstruction was an architectural vibrancy that is quite unique to Japan. It is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at the Barbican, and I went along this week to see what I could learn about sustainable homes.
Despite the ancient Japanese values of harmony and connection with nature, the architecture on show here also contains a big warning about what not to do. That’s because there’s more to the story than reconstruction and modernisation. First, many of those 1940s and 50s homes weren’t very good quality, so they were quickly replaced. Then there were earthquakes, and progressively rising building standards that made previous buildings unsafe by comparison. And on top of that was a boom, rocketing land prices, overcrowding, and lots of speculation. Today Japan has a housing market unlike any other country. Homes are demolished and replaced after an average of 25 years, and new homes are much more valued than old ones. There are five times more architects per capita than in Britain, there are far more new homes built, and there is much more innovation in architecture.
Of course, treating buildings as an almost disposable commodity is wasteful and disruptive, and some Japanese architects have objected to this. The exhibition showcases homes built by hand over decades, as a direct and personal response to a throwaway architecture. Another uses a steel frame to prop up an earthquake-damaged wooden house, refusing to let the building and its memories be lost. Other architects created deliberately awkward and impractical buildings, imposing themselves on their residents in ways that must be a complete pain to live with – sloping floors, pillars that are in the way so that you have to duck and weave through your own home. Some of these houses look completely unliveable, which serves the client right for hiring architects who say they want to explore “the potential of uselessness and incoherence in architecture”.
Environmentally and socially perverse as that may be, it looks great in the Barbican, which is itself a bold and iconic piece of architecture. The exhibition uses photos and films and lots of architectural models, but particularly clever is the central space. It hosts a newly commissioned Japanese tea-house, and a 1:1 recreation of the remarkable Moriyama House, which divides all its rooms into separate cubes set in a garden. Visitors can wander in and out of it, and the stark white cubes contrast beautifully with the Barbican’s brutalist concrete lines.
There are all sorts of positive things we can learn from Japanese architecture too of course. There are lots of innovative techniques and designs to pick up on, thanks to the high turnover of homes and the sheer number of architects working. There are ways of dealing with construction waste, or recycling materials. There are some interesting ideas around modular homes that can be upgraded rather than demolished. Traditional Japanese homes value lightness, and sit lightly on the land, in contrast to the heaviness and solidity that we value in Britain. Space is used differently, with much more fluid approaches to room divisions and how one moves through a house. Because space is at a premium, it isn’t wasted. Homes are often smaller than we’d go for, but with multi-purpose spaces and open views through the house that makes them feel bigger. There’s also more thought given to how indoors and outdoors blend, and to connection with nature. I will explore some of these things in future posts, and look at some specific houses in more detail.
For now, The Japanese House is on at the Barbican until the 25th of June and is well worth seeing if you’re in the area.