Neave Brown’s extraordinary legacy reflects a progressive social agenda that is lacking in many of today’s architects, says Catherine Slessor. Read more
January 17, 2018 all, Architecture, Barack Obama, Charles A Birnbaum, Chicago, Cultural, Illinois, Landscape and urbanism, Landscape Architecture, Obama Presidential Library, Opinion, parks, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, USA
The Obama Presidential Center will be presented to the Chicago City Council today. But its proposed siting in the city’s Jackson Park will both remove acres of public land and blight Fredrick Law Olmsted’s historic landscape design, argues The Cultural…
A movement is growing against cultural appropriation, but could it spell the end for historical references in architecture? asks Phineas Harper. Read more
Globalisation isn’t killing the USA’s backwater cities and rural areas, but rather turning them into escapes for wealthy “digirati” who are pumping money into regeneration projects, says Aaron Betsky in response to a New York Times article. Read more
A brutalist megastructure in Seoul is undergoing a major revamp. The result may not be photogenic, says Owen Hatherley, but it offers a promising model for regeneration without gentrification. Read more
What were the key themes that emerged at Dutch Design Week 2017? We asked six graduates on Design Academy Eindhoven’s design writing masters course to give their takes in essay form. Their answers include gigantism, post-humanism and absurdism, the lat…
If architecture firms cannot embrace gender, racial and ethnic diversity in their own workplaces, then it’s unlikely that they will be able to do so with their buildings, argues White Arkitekter director Alexandra Hagen. Read more
If sprawling desert metropolises like Phoenix, Arizona, are going to survive an increasingly scorching climate, they will require a different kind of sustainable urbanism than typical cities, says Aaron Betsky. Read more
The UK may be full of talented architects and designers, says Finn Williams, but not enough of them are working on the mundane buildings of our everyday environment. Read more
In the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Brodsky was the only national architect to offer a response. That says something about Russian architectural culture, suggests Owen Hatherley. Read more
A simple house features on the cover of Reinier de Graaf’s new book, Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession. In this extract, the OMA partner reveals the building’s secret, politically fuelled past. Read more
The sanitisation of shop signs in Walthamstow, northeast London, is a mistake that mustn’t be repeated anywhere else in the capital, argues Owen Hatherley. Read more
Bringing back postmodernism, a style of architecture that thrived on irony, could be dangerous in today’s political climate, argues Sean Griffiths. Read more
Architecture has a culture of quietly condoning sexist behaviour, just like Hollywood, argues Anna Winston. Read more
The Pacific Standard Time exhibitions in Los Angeles show that arts and culture from south of the border have shaped an architectural identity for the region that is much more interesting than what’s found in the Northeast US, says Aaron Betsky. Read m…
By making tobacco companies follow strict packaging restrictions, we’re paving the way to a future where brands no longer reflect our lifestyles, argues Stephen Bayley. Read more
Rounding off our celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, Aaron Betsky dissects the American architect’s array of buildings to prove why his body of work remains unmatched in the USA. Read more
The Japanese House exhibition at London’s Barbican doesn’t offer solutions to the housing crisis, says Owen Hatherley, but it does show what’s possible when architects respond to extreme change and instability.
In most places, certainly in Britain, the point of the private house is stability and predictability. Increasing in correlation with the rise of the house as an overvalued investment vehicle is an extreme conservatism about what that commodity actually looks like. So in order for the confidence trick that a mediocre mass-produced house should cost, say, £250,000 to be effective, the house has to look like a house in the most obvious and tedious way – bedrooms, garden, load-bearing walls, pitched roof, non-functional chimney, all need to be in the expected place.
One of the many interesting things about Barbican’s The Japanese House exhibition is that the houses resemble cultural commodities such as cars, stereos, films and cartoons, with an apparent indifference to what a house ought to look like.
A British architectural writer and TV presenter described the exhibition on a social network as containing “more ideas to solve the housing crisis than will ever come out of Whitehall”. It doesn’t, although crisis is all over these houses nonetheless. But it isn’t the house as a solution to crisis, it’s the house as crisis – the private house reflecting and responding to extreme change and instability, rather than serving as a means of reassurance.
Crisis is all over these houses
The timescale of The Japanese House reflects this well. Japanese cities were destroyed in 1945 to a degree that makes the effects of the Blitz look minor by comparison. Yet, rather than being about utopian communal housing or heroic reconstruction efforts (both of which were part of the post-war Japanese story), the exhibition begins with the country’s attempt to use modern architecture as a means of national branding, reinventing Japanese tradition in a different way to the uses it was put by Japanese Fascism.
The first thing you see is a three-screen film by Kogonada, Way of Ozu. It shows interiors from the famous film director’s work, precise scenes of domestic life in elegant lightweight grid-like spaces, which are increasingly filled with consumer goods as the films move into colour. These traditional interiors were re-classified by Japanese architects and writers as proto-modernist, modular, fixed around a complex play of interior/exterior, and made up of replaceable parts.
“Katsura is Mondrianesque!” says Yashuhiro Ishimoto in his photo-book on the titular wooden 17th century palace, with its contributions by Walter Gropius and Kenzo Tange. The first houses we see are in the Katsura vein, wooden, modern, cubic and raised from the ground in country settings. A telling caption on most of them tells the visitor that they’ve already been demolished.
After that, we’re mostly in a world of inner-city housing, of a very specific type – the single family house on a dense lot in giant cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, often very close to heavy infrastructure, with power lines above, private and often tailored to a specific client. This isn’t a typology common in Europe or the US, but it dominates this exhibition, with only a couple of blocks of flats or country houses.
Many of the houses are responding in some way to a hyperactive urban landscape of adverts and signs
Most either attempt to protect or advertise the owner. Some of this is thuggish, almost paranoid. The mid-60s Tower House by Takamitsu Azura is brutalism at its most blunt and unromantic, a cave crammed into a tiny space between flats, vertical and with cheaply finished, abrasive concrete, with even the stairs cast out of the same mould as the main structure.
Similarly, Tadao Ando’s 1976 Azuma House is bluff and aggressive to the street, windowless and bunker-like, with concrete fetishist interiors totally unimplied by the street facade. Even apparently playful work like Yamashita’s 1974 Face House has a dark underside, a farcical response to these blunt concrete blocks that turns their motifs into comedy. Coming across something like Aida’s early 1980s Toy Block House is a relief by comparison, a house-system making reference to the country’s phenomenally successful toy industry, evoked here without angst.
Many of the houses are responding in some way to a hyperactive urban landscape of adverts and signs, a saturated world that comes into these sealed houses of the 70s and 80s only obliquely.
In one room, a series of films succeed each other, showing mass-produced modernity becoming increasingly irrational. An advert for Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower asks us to “imagine one of these capsules taken in a container ship across the Pacific”, over a free jazz soundtrack. The 1984 short film Crazy Family depicts a family smashing up their own house; when it’s over and destroyed, the pan shows you the “normal” urban landscape, of American-style system-built suburban houses crammed into far-from-suburban densities. This is then followed by a clip from the anime series Dragonball, in which a character shows off an instant capsule house. All of these were made during a property boom almost as insane as ours at the moment – mass-production did not mean affordability in 1980s Japan.
You can read disaster in the houses themselves
These historical sketches are on the upper floor of the Barbican’s heavy Brutalist galleries. Below, are two full-scale recent houses. The first is Moriyama House, designed by Ryue Nishizawa for an ageing hipster who asked for extra modules which he could rent to pay for his very specific lifestyle. Rooms are never quite where you expect them to be, with glass gardens on either side, and a passage you have to duck to get into, with a minuscule bath. Fragments from his very 90s film and record collection are left around, with Built to Spill albums presumably left as a reference to the principles of the house.
Second is a Teahouse to the designs of Terunobu Fujimori. Standing on stilts, it is a fantasy out of Miyazaki, with Studio Ghibli films playing in the background.
Both of these houses show a shift towards display and fantasy, while at the same time remaining in the strict plot-size limits already established. Along with some of the post-crash work here, they have a certain indulgent whimsy. The likes of Sou Fujimoto’s partly un-glazed modular House NA, complete with its vintage car in the tiny driveway, look more like they’re designed to be showcased on this website than actually lived in.
Other recent work shows an increased interest in houses on the edge of chaos, as if about to collapse – or just saved from collapse, as with Katsuhiro Miyamoto’s Zenkai House, salvaged from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like everything else here, it’s not about viable ways to survive disasters, or prevent them from happening. But what there is instead is something honest and unusual – you can read disaster in the houses themselves. Fear, imagination, aggression, dreams, all of them can be read clearly on the surface.
As automation places millions of us at risk of losing our jobs, now is the time to rethink how humans and robots will coexist on this planet, says designer Madeline Gannon in this Opinion column. Read more
Awards should not be bestowed on buildings that boast sustainable credentials but lack other design merits, says Aaron Betsky in this Opinion column. Read more
If today’s architects abandoned their modern vocabulary in favour of populist traditional or classical styles, they could achieve more progressive social goals, says Phineas Harper in his latest Opinion column. Read more
For some architects, the decision not to bid for Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border wall is easy. But Aaron Betsky questions whether working the project is as unethical as it first seems in this Opinion column. Read more
In light of plans to bring the neoclassical Penn Station and Frank Lloyd Wright’s lost pavilions back to life, Aaron Betsky argues that architects should focus on renovating existing buildings rather than replacing new with old, in this Opinion column….
Last week we launched an ideas competition calling for a redesign of the UK passport after Brexit. It offers the chance to radically rethink the contemporary idea of nation, says Sam Jacob in this Opinion column. Read more
“Architecture that constructs a better world, not better bubbles, is the true task in this new year”
With Donald Trump’s presidency looming, Aaron Betsky’s latest Opinion column stresses the need for architecture that will bring America’s isolated communities together, and not just benefit the world of pick-up-truck drivers. Read more
Patrik Schumacher’s vision for a deregulated and privatised city is nothing more than a rehash of failed establishment ideas, and we shouldn’t pay any attention, argues Phineas Harper in his latest Opinion column. Read more
Hillary Clinton’s plans to improve infrastructure in the USA weren’t ambitious enough, but at least she had plans, says Aaron Betsky in this Opinion column. Read more