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The Visionary Architects Who Shaped Japan

In a forest clearing in West Sussex, a tall wooden chimney stands propped up on timber scaffolding, a fierce jet of fire roaring from its top. All of a sudden, the flaming flue crashes to the ground with a loud thud, splitting open in a cloud of smoke to reveal a scaly blackened surface of charred planks within. “No trained architect would use this material,” says the 70-year-old Terunobu Fujimori, as he scuttles away to douse some more newspaper in a bucket of petrol. “Which is exactly why I like to use it,” he adds with a broad grin.

The mischievous architectural historian turned builder has made a name for himself in Japan by crafting beguiling little buildings that refuse to follow any of the usual rules. His hand-made structures look like the nests or cocoons of curious creatures, woven, whittled and thatched with organic, earthy materials that could have been scavenged from the forest floor. He has built a tiny teahouse for himself in Nagano, vertiginously perched at the top of two tree trunks (“because one leg is dangerous and three legs are too stable and boring”), and another – named theFlying Mud Boat – that hangs from wires like some floating seed pod. His buildings are sculpted with the fairytale allure of a child’s drawing, topped with oversized roofs and wonky chimneys, dotted with little hatches and porthole windows, as if transported from a manga animation.

This woodland charring factory is part of Fujimori’s preparations for an exhibition at the Barbican on the Japanese house since 1945. He is building a teahouse in the gallery, using his trademark burnt wooden cladding. Entering the space through a low doorway, visitors will follow a winding path through grassy mounds to reach his black cabin, characteristically raised up on legs and accessed through a small opening at the top of a ladder. “The teahouse should always be slightly awkward to enter,” he explains. “The architecture should make you crouch, or crawl, so you show some respect for the tea ceremony.”

The Barbican’s gnarled concrete walls will provide a pleasing contrast with the crackled black crocodile skin of Fujimori’s charred boards. The ancient Japanese practice of yakisugi was used for hundreds of years to seal wood against rot and rain, before weatherproof paint was invented. And it is just the kind of primitive technique that captures Fujimori’s imagination, coming from outside the traditional architectural canon.

“The history of architecture is much older than the history of architects,” he says, explaining how his training as a historian led him to try to shed any influence of what had gone before. “I made a rule that my work shouldn’t reference anything else in the history of architecture.”

Delighting in his role as a professional amateur, Fujimori builds his structures with the help of an enthusiastic band of friends known as the Jomon Company, taking their name from the Neolithic period of Japanese history. A motley group of volunteers that includes a novelist, painter, sake brewer, publisher and priest, they use basic tools to give buildings a warm, roughly hewn feel, their sideways approach leading to such eccentric details as leeks planted on rooftops and knobbly lumps of charcoal pressed into plaster ceilings.

Fujimori, who got his first commission at the age of 44, is just one of more than 40 architects whose works will feature in this ambitious exhibition. Featuring more than 200 works, it reveals the Japanese house to be a site of unparalleled architectural invention over the past seven decades. It will show the products of postwar optimism and the promise of mass production in a country rebuilding itself from the ground up; the reaction against this brave new world and the longing for craft and tradition; the eco-experiments of the 1970s, followed by the lavish dreams of the 80s bubble economy; and, more recently, the ethereal urge to float away in whiter-than-white houses.

The private house in Japan has been a fertile laboratory for new ideas because there has always been such high demand for new dwellings. Never mind the fact that much of the urban fabric was obliterated by bombing in the second world war, or that the country suffers from frequent earthquakes – the house itself is seen as a temporary asset, lasting 30 years on average before a new one takes its place. It keeps the country in a perpetual building boom, and a continual churn of innovation.

“It might seem a strange idea in the west, but in Japan the house is a disposable thing,” says Barbican curator Florence Ostende. “Because of inheritance tax, people are much more likely to demolish their parents’ home and rebuild their own, and there isn’t the same attitude to preservation and heritage. Many of the houses in the exhibition are no longer standing.”

With virtually no market for “pre-owned” homes – one of the reasons that Japan has the most architects per capita in the world – the house is a vehicle for personal expression. The exhibition is full of crepuscular concrete bunkers and diaphanous light-filled lanterns, homes that turn their back on the city and others that try to bring the city into the house, opening up the theatre of domestic life for all to see.

In the 1970s, cosmological enthusiast Kiko Mozuna conceived his home as a “nested universe”, composing a series of different sized cubes with triangular openings to form what he called the “Anti-Dwelling Box”. When creating a dwelling for a graphic designer, meanwhile, po-mo prankster Kazumasa Yamashita played on the idea of a facade by arranging its windows and light shaft into a Face House.