Harriet Sergeant

Home is where the art is

The impermanence of Japanese homes explains the exuberant experimentation on display in the Barbican’s exhibition, The Japanese House

The house in which I lived in Tokyo was built by my landlady, a former geisha. It stood on a plot of land given to her by her last lover. It was small, full of light and positioned to enjoy the large ginkgo tree in the garden next door. It was easily the best designed house I have ever lived in.

Nostalgia for that house and my former life in Tokyo overwhelmed me as I wandered through the new exhibition at the Barbican — The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945. Exhibitions on architecture are notoriously hard to pull off but this succeeds triumphantly.

Japanese domestic architecture has consistently produced some of the most influential examples of modern design. By the end of the second world war B-29 bombing had destroyed a third of Japanese housing stock. In some cities 85 per cent of buildings had been burnt out. In the urgent scramble to build, the family house became the focus of architectural experimentation and debate.

The houses in this exhibition, revealed through film, photography and models — two life-size — reflect an attitude to house building very different from ours in the West. Japanese domestic architecture is less about legacy and more about the here and now. These are quixotic homes highly personal to their owners. A courtyard of bare earth designed for a grieving widow; a house of little more than suspended platforms and plants encased in glass; a concrete tower, rooms stacked one upon the other around a spiral staircase — you cannot imagine anyone but the original owner living in them.

This is because no one else usually does. In Japan houses lack value. You do not buy the house, you buy the land. In a country of extreme conditions, only the land is permanent.

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