The lesson of the Japanese house

Léa-Catherine Szacka
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In Paris, the exhibition “Japon, l’archipel de la maison” offers an enlightening glimpse of the Nippon culture and a rich catalogue of tips and tricks for meditation.

The Japanese house has long fascinated Europeans and Americans. In his autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote: “At last I had found a country on earth where simplicity, as natural, is supreme. The floors of these Japanese homes are all made to live on – to sleep on, to kneel and eat from, to kneel upon soft silken mats and mediate upon. On which to play the flute, or to make love.”[1]

In 1943, Wright informed his occidental counterparts on the flexibility and versatility of Japanese houses, and praised their absence of ornament and the ‘beauty of the simple materials they used’. He continued describing the tatamis, the traditional rice straw three by six feet mats that determine all measures of the Japanese houses, and of which one should only walk bear foot. But beyond this common awareness, what else do we know about Japanese houses? What does the contemporary Japanese house really look like? And how is it inhabited and lived? The exhibition “Japon, l’archipel de la maison” presented at the Cité de l’architetcure et du patrimoine in Paris from June 24 through September 7 offers a beautiful, yet discreet, answer to those questions, taking us on a tour in and around more than seventy Japanese houses.

“Japon, l’archipel de la maison” reflects the impromptu meeting of its four curators: Véronique Hours, Fabien Mauduit, Jérémie Souteyrat and Manuel Tardits. After ten years of working experience as architects in Paris, Hours and Mauduit flew to Japan with the vague intention of studying a series of Japanese houses. Independently they met Tardits, a French architect and professor, and Souteyrat, a French photographer, both living separately in Japan but working complementarily both on the theme of the Japanese dwelling. Together, with the aim of investigating Japanese culture beyond mere private sphere – and in its relation to urbanity and society at large – created a 200 sqm traveling show that was previously presented in Poitiers, Rouen and Nice and soon be shipped to Lausanne before reaching Japan.

“Japon, l’archipel de la maison” is an exercise in style. It declines the Japanese house in many different ways, in the following three categories: ‘Houses of yesterday’, ‘Houses of Tokyo’, and ‘Houses of today’. It is through the interweaving of these three distinct parts complemented by a series of short film bringing the visitors inside houses, that the exhibition reaches its full potential and becomes a truly poetic experience, revealing the Japanese house as a field of experimentation. The house has an ephemeral appearance. Japanese houses are generally conceived to last approximately only 25 years and are built economically. “Houses of yesterday” provides the context: 14 significant Japanese houses built between 1933 and 1984 and presenting a panorama of the typology, an exceptional repertoire of forms and concepts that inspired contemporary Japanese architects. Without being exhaustive, the selection includes famous architects such as Kenzo Tange, Toyo Ito and Arata Isozaki, Kazuo Shinohara, but also less known figures such as Yoshida Isoya or Seike Kiyoshi. For example, it shows the work of Kikutake Kiyonori who realized, in 1958, the Sky House in Tokyo, made of concrete – rather than the traditional wood – and elevated on stilts, four meters above the ground.

“Houses in Tokyo” is a photo reportage by Jérémie Souteyrat including 36 portraits of individual houses in context – from Kengo Kuma to Architecton, ALX and Sou Fujimoto. Here, we discover not only the houses, but Tokyo’s life. All views are externals and capture amusing details of the Nippon capital: passer-by such as cyclist, families, policeman – surrounding vegetation, street signage and other idiosyncrasies of Tokyo’s landscape are here on display.

“Houses of today” encompasses 20 case studies of houses of approximately 100 sqm built between 1993 and 2013 by some famous and less know architects: from Shigeru Ban and Atelier Bow Wow to Mika and Daisuke Sugawara. View, threshold, economy of space and extreme functionality are some of the themes that are explored through this extremely rich catalogue of forms of dwelling conceived for families of one to five people. Each house, first approached through a schematic section, can later be discovered thanks to a detailed analysis in words and images. “Houses of today” is the heart of the show where efforts of the team converged, from the historical enquiry, to the esthetical exploration via film and photography, to the more architectural and scenography work.

Minimal and homogeneous, the exhibition echoes the simplicity of Japanese design. It was especially conceived for travel: with a lightweight display system based on the measurement of traditional Japanese tatami, and entirely made of poplar plywood (both a good economical choice and a reference to a material often used in Japanese houses.)

In addition to the exhibition’s three main sections, “Japon, l’archipel de la maison” includes a series of short films showing life inside the different houses. Beyond the well-done scenography and exhaustive research, the exhibition offers an enlightening glimpse of Japanese culture and a rich catalogue of tips and tricks for meditation.

In the 1940s, Wright was inspired by the traditional Japanese house that he saw as “a perfect example of the modern standardizing”. [2] Building on these principles, the contemporary Japanese house went beyond modern standardization: often nonorthodox it is an example of creativity and inventiveness, yet remaining simple and compact. Today, with 66% of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, we can certainly turn our gaze towards East and learn from the contemporary Japanese house

Top: House Maekawa by Maekawa Kunio. Photo © Jérémie Souteyrat. Above: House Tokyo by A.L.X. Photo © Jérémie Souteyrat

Top: House Maekawa by Maekawa Kunio. Photo © Jérémie Souteyrat. Above: House Tokyo by A.L.X. Photo © Jérémie Souteyrat


House KN by Kochi Architect's Studio. Photo © Jérémie Souteyrat