Minimalist, utopian, playful: The Japanese House

‘Life can’t be contained within a single slot. People’s sense of living expands beyond it, effectively erasing all borders,’ says Ryue Nishizawa. I’m thinking of this as I roam around the life-size model of the Pritzker-prize winning SANAA architect’s Moriyama House. Built in Tokyo twelve years ago, it is a kind of living organism, working on the concept of the house as a small city, of urbanity nestled inside a building.

The Japanese House, Barbican, Moriyama House Installation Miles Willis, Image ©Getty Images

Moriyama House, The Japanese House, Barbican, installation by Miles Willis, image © Getty Images

Moriyama offers a set of compact living quarters where cuboids of varying sizes are scattered seemingly randomly on a small stretch of land intersected with landscape and nature – a little like delicate water streams. The large windows give a sense of lightness and weightlessness to the complex. Here landscape, city and house become indistinguishable. The curators have imagined the environment around this house – the traffic, the peace, the sounds, the light. Each room offers an element of the unexpected, a strange plant, a music library of free jazz. There is a sense of timelessness here.

The Japanese House at Barbican Art Gallery. Teahouse y Terunobu Fujimori, Photo © Nargess Banks

Teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori. Installation at The Japanese House, Barbican

Alongside the giant teahouse in the second room, Moriyama makes up the centrepiece for The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery in London – a comprehensive and fascinating look at post-war Japanese domestic architecture. Nishizawa’s Moriyama is minimalist, whilst architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori’s teahouse is a bit of a fairytale construction with a hand-charred timber exterior and a white plaster interior. What it does is to reveal another side to Japanese architectural language, one that celebrates craft, the handmade; gives centre stage to materials, is at one with nature and loves an element of fantasy.

Toyo Ito, White U, 1976 – Photo © Tomio Ohashi

Toyo Ito’s White U, 1976 – image © Tomio Ohashi

In 1945 Japan had to deal with many of the issues we face today. Tokyo and the main cities were devastated by war. There was mass urbanisation and a shortage of housing. And environmental issues, caused mainly by earthquakes, had to be addressed. Added to this, designers were eager to forge a new language (or languages) that spoke of this new Japan. Some architects explored ways to fuse a traditional vernacular with modernism, whilst others used architecture and design to express their fast-evolving society.

The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945, Installation

Exploring minimalism, installation at The Japanese House

In the 1970s, enclosed housing became a bit of a thing and it spoke of a way of protecting habitants from the polluted and overpopulated city. A decade later the economic excesses of the ‘bubble era’ saw architects embrace the arrival of information technologies and produce houses that were exceptionally lightweight and open to the outside world. Today, new voices in design are creating habitats that will work in Tokyo, a metropolis, amongst the world’s largest – ideas that could also be applied to any other megacity in the world.

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 © Keizo Kioku

Keisuke Oka Concept drawing for Arimaston Building, 2000 – image © Keizo Kioku

The two floors at the Barbican speak of an on-going dialogue that involves realistic solutions to housing, to more abstract ideas, utopian visions and grand manifestos. What’s exciting is the canvas they paint of a society that is complex and evolving, but also willing to explore living away from the traditional single-family house. Some of the ideas such as the giant treehouse speaks of imaginative and unexpected dialogues.

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

Hideyuki Nakayama O House, 2009 © Mitsutaka Kitamura

The Japanese house feels transient. The life expectancy of a domestic building is short so they tend to be lighter and less formal, and they can take on the persona of artwork or become manifestos for the creatives. Some proposals, such as Sou Fujimoto’s 2011 House NA, question our European concepts of comfort and privacy. These 74-metre living spaces in Tokyo are stacked like LEGO one on top of another and are completely exposed.

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 - Photo © Iwan Baan

Sou Fujimoto Architects House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 – image © Iwan Baan

The Japanese House offers a narrative between history and modernity. Much like Japanese culture, the architecture is extreme too, from the NA’s complete nakedness to Concrete U by one of Japan’s best known architects Toyo Ito which was designed to shelter his widowed sister from the outside world. The exhibits here can be refined and rigid, then suddenly playful, kitsch even; some are like paintings, others like poetry.

Moriyama House still, 2017, image c Be?ka & Lemoine

Moriyama House still from film – image © Be?ka and Lemoine

The spirit of the show can perhaps be summed up by the brilliant documentary from Italian filmmakers Ila Be?ka and Louise Lemoine, commissioned for this exhibition. We watch Yasuo Moriyama, a 79-year-old ‘urban hermit’, a reclusive who has never left the city, at The Moriyama House where he lives. We spend time with him in his daily life, as he roams around the complex attending to his garden, chats to the beautiful actress neighbour, listens to the avant-garde jazz, ‘noise music’ as he calls it, and sleeps on the bare floor exposed to nature and the outside world. It is playful, funny and unexpectedly endearing. Domestic architecture is placed in context at the Barbican, with the life of the house is at its centre.

Nargess Banks

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life After 1945 is at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London until 25 June 2017


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Siobhan Davies explores body, movement, gesture

Dancers and artists move in measured motion around installations, projections and academic text in The Curve gallery at the Barbican Centre. It is the opening night of material/rearranged/to/be, an ambitious new performance work by Siobhan Davies Dance. The touring exhibition is a continuous moving landscape exploring non-verbal communication and gesture through a diverse group of choreographers, dancers, artists, designers and scientists. It is being called ‘investigative arts’ for it fits no rigid category.

This is the 70th project by contemporary dancer and choreographer Siobhan Davies. The artists here were asked to observe the work of Aby Warburg and his findings at the Warburg Institute. In the early part of the last century the German art historian and cultural theorist collected diverse images of gestures from different times and places and positioned them side-by-side to reveal previously-hidden relationships.

The collection at the Warburg Institute in London may at first glance seem disparate, yet over time you begin to see the connection. Davies says the dancers were struck by this idea of pre-and afterlife here. Dancers, she said later in an interview with BBC Radio 4, are interested in afterlife as a performance is such a temporary concept.

She involved scientists in the project to look at the narrative of science, explore neurological impairment. For instance, what it is like to live without certain movements. As language takes centre stage in our modern world, small movements and gestures are forgotten – here they find their own expression.

Dancer Andreas Buckley, for instance, isolates the movement of her feet. Elsewhere, Charlie Morrissey’s Actions from the Encyclopaedia of Experience is a speculative taxonomy of actions which has the dance choreographer performing in relation to categories, from the basic to the bizarre, he projects on a screen.

Collectively, the performances are asking us to look at the body, to look at movement and posture in another way. Davies says as the mind is so often the focus of celebration, we forget we’re in this body, ‘a body that radiates information outwards and brings information back in… it is an informative tool,’ she says in the Radio 4 interview, adding ‘the body is so deliciously complex’.

For three decades Davies has been broadening contemporary dance to include other art forms, continuously collaborating with those from outside the confines of dance. She is unlike so many others, seduced by the allure of the more sensational side of dance, and the crowds they attract. It means her work is not always easy to digest – you have to work hard here, gathering the ‘shards of ideas’ as Davies puts it. She calls her latest work ‘performative installation’.

The arts such as music, dance, design create the possibility to make us more human for they guide us to see things differently, to explore the world in unique ways – often ever-so subtly. As we enter this rather dark period in modern politics, it may seem trivial to discuss the arts as a vehicle for change. Yet more than ever it is vital to defend the right to free expression and use the arts to help make change happen.

Nargess Banks

material/rearranged/to/be will be travelling the UK until 9 July and should not be missed. Find out more here.

Nargess Banks

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Learning from the Eameses

‘Is design an expression of art?’ we hear a voice ask Charles Eames to which he replies ‘design is the expression of purpose’. The video completes The World of Charles and Ray Eames, a brilliant look into the life and work of Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames, two of the most celebrated designers of the last century.

With its timeless modernist aesthetic and utopian vision, London’s Barbican Centre is a perfect set for a discourse on the Eameses. For over four decades, the Eames Office, the ‘laboratory’ as it was often referred to, in sunny California produced an array of pioneering and experimental work.

Here architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multi-media installation and exhibitions were explored. New models for education were envisaged at the Eames Office not just for the US and the western world, but India and beyond.

For many Charles and Ray Eames are associated with their iconic furniture. Yet for them, ‘design was not simply a professional skill, it was a life skill – more than that, it was an essential attribute of life itself,’ says Eames Demetrios, director of the Eames Office.

The couple thus moved fluidly between the mass-production of objects for everyday use and the transmission of ideas through exhibition, film or installation. Much like the European Bauhaus contemporaries (many of whom had moved to the US after the war) their concern were to connect art, science and technology, to educate society, and to utilise good design as way of improving life.

It really is fascinating navigating these rooms, browsing through endless documents and videos, listening to ideas on the future, how to integrate craft and technology, embrace the coming global ‘information age’. Some of the concerns and ideas expressed here remain valid today.

Charles and Ray established their studio against the backdrop of the Second World War. One of their first mass-produced products was an emergency transport splint in moulded plywood and shaped to the human form. The project helped the team to find ways to mass-produce the moulded-plywood furniture Charles and his friend, the designer Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the previous year, and it enabled the couple to open the Eames Office on 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice, and Los Angeles, California, where it remained throughout its history.

We particularly like these notes, featured in the accompanying catalogue, and drafted by Charles in January 1949 to advice students. They describe the workings of the Eames Office beautifully:

Make a list of books
Develop a curiosity
Look at things as though for the first time
Think of things in relation to each other
Always think of the next larger thing
Avoid the ‘pat’ answer – the formula
Avoid the preconceived idea
Study well objects made past recent and ancient but never without the technological and social conditions responsible
Prepare yourself to search out the true need – physical, psychological
Prepare yourself to intelligently fill that need
The art is not something you apply to your world
The art is the way you do your work, a result of your attitude towards it

Charles and Ray Eames collaborated and associated with the leading artistic figures of the 20th century and their immediate circle included Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Eero Saarinen, Saul Steinberg, and Billy Wilder. And the 380 works displayed in the concrete halls of the Barbican are a legacy of post-war modernism.

The exhibition addresses the Eameses impact on concepts of modern living – the couple’s editorial eye and mastery of form and material yielded some of the most iconic designs of all time, not least their own home completed in 1949. Here modernist furniture live with old battered books, paintings, oriental rugs, antiques and effigies. This is a home that is as much about aesthetics as creating a warm, loving, liveable environment to encourage productivity, growth, pioneering thought.

The Eameses were forever challenging themselves to improve on their work. And they seemed to be having so much fun! Archive photographs depict this handsome couple smiling, laughing, interacting with their team at the Eames Office. This was a partnership in life, work and ideology… and it is hugely inspiring.

This is the first major UK exhibition of the work of Charles and Ray Eames in over 15 years, and it is not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

The World of Charles and Ray Eames will be at the Barbican Art Gallery until 14 February 2016.

The accompanying catalogue is edited by Catherine Ince and Lotte Johnson and published by the Barbican and Thames & Hudson.


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Book review: Lucy Williams

Lucy Williams takes mid-twentieth-century Modernist architecture as her inspiration to create softly shaded, intricate collages. Working with mixed media, the artist turns these often cold and brutal constructions into warm, human spaces. Even though they remain unoccupied, we can almost feel the presence of people in these diverse settings that include housing projects, government buildings, department stores and swimming pools.

‘I am interested in how the architecture was first imagined,’ says Williams, ‘working from grainy images, the reconstruction of the past, and in turn, the forming of a contemporary narrative, become an element of my practice.’

In Lucy Williams the British artist reveals the multiple processes involved with creating her work, displaying her collages alongside photographs of the buildings that have inspired it.

Her intricate work depict deserted scenes. Williams breathes life into these constructions – many of which are sadly no longer in existence. She’s fascinated by process, with craft, working with wool, gravel and cotton to ask us to stop and marvel at their detail and beauty.

Her work depicts the tension of the precision and masculinity of the stark utopian architecture and the painstaking and traditionally feminine domain of craft.

‘The illusion that I aim to achieve is an image that is simultaneously industrial and tactile,’ she writes of the House of Glass at Twilight collage in 2009.

The book covers the work of some of the key Modernist architects – Alvar Aalto, Philip Johnson, Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Eric Lyons – as well as less remembered names. In recent years her concerns have shifted to buildings constructed after the Second World War, and in particular the housing estates around the Barbican Centre in London.

Williams says she is fascinated by the utopian ideal. ‘The period of time that those buildings were made was a period of optimism and hope.’

Nargess Banks

Watch Lucy Williams talk about her work and the book.

Lucy Williams is published by Roads.

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Constructing Worlds: Architectural Photography

Should architecture photography look beyond documenting the built environment? This is the question raised by Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, the latest exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. Here the curators have set out to explore the power of photography to reveal wider truths about our society. And it is an interesting glimpse into our world.

The Barbican Centre, itself a utopian statement and so much more than just a set of concrete blocks, is the perfect venue for this kind of show. This is an inspired exhibition featuring over 250 works – some rarely seen and many shown in the UK for the first time – by eighteen leading photographers from the 1930s to now, who, the exhibitors believe, have changed the way we view architecture and think about the world in which we live.

Highlights include Berenice Abbott’s photographs charting the birth of the skyscraper in New York; Lucien Hervé’s subtle evocations of modernity as found in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier; the luxury lifestyle of Julius Shulman’s images of California’s residences; the moving nature of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum as seen by London based photographer Hélène Binet; the recent dramatic growth of Chinese urbanisation recorded by Nadav Kander; and the devastating effects of war in Afghanistan as expressed in the poignant images of Simon Norfolk.

‘Photography and architecture have a long and shared history and yet amazingly this is the first major exhibition in London to throw light on this relationship,’ says Jane Alison, head of visual arts at the Barbican. It is an exhibition, she says, not only for anyone interested in how we understand architecture but equally the dramatic global shifts in society in the post-war period.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 25 September 2014 – 11 January 2015

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