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Living history: the philosophy of the Japanese house

In a country where most homes are torn down after just 25 years, architecture is well placed to tell the national story.

Some time in the mid-1920s, Jimmy Doo­little, a stocky Californian aviator, fell out of a window and broke both his ankles. He was in Santiago to perform a demonstration flight for US aircraft manufacturers, and at stake was a large commission from the Chilean government. So, despite the fresh casts on his feet, Doolittle took to the skies and dazzled spectators with rolls and upside-down manoeuvres, sealing the deal.

Doolittle, however, is better known today as the man who commanded the Tokyo raid of 18 April 1942 – the first air strike on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier. With that raid began a series of bombing campaigns that killed at least 300,000 civilians and destroyed the homes of four million Japanese. Tokyo was razed by napalm-fuelled firestorms; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were flattened by atomic bombs. The destruction in some areas was comprehensive. On 18 August 1945, a Jesuit clergyman called Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge walked through the ruins of Hiroshima and saw, as John Hersey wrote in the New Yorker a year after the detonation, a “reddish-brown scar”, four square miles in size, surrounded by “range on range of collapsed city blocks”.

Visit Hiroshima now and you will find a few reminders of that annihilation – the museum, the peace memorial dome, but little else besides. (I lived there as a child and learned of what had happened only long ­after moving to the UK.) The same is true of Tokyo, where the city centre gleams with almost desperately futuristic displays of the latest technology. Yet the newness of the buildings in Japan’s once ruined cities is a testament to that often forgotten history. Before resurrection must come death.

At the Barbican exhibition “The Japanese House”, the work of more than 40 architects demonstrates the many ­contradictory forms that the resurrection took. The buildings here – in models, photographs, installations – are metonymies of wider changes in society, from the push towards internationalism that followed the US occupation to attempts to define a modern sense of “Japaneseness”. In a country where most houses are erected and torn down after just 25 years, architecture is well placed to tell the national story of the past seven decades – a period in which the “go-go” economic boom gave way to a managed stagnation, and the old structures of family and work began to crumble.

One area long contested by the country’s architects is privacy, which, in effect, is an imported concept: there is no Japanese word that fully corresponds to the term’s English meaning. Where an Englishman’s home was often built to last centuries, Japanese houses were historically more ephemeral and permeable, constructed out of wood and divided by paper screens. After the Second World War, however, the demand for new housing led to the mass construction of prefabricated concrete homes, and the accelerating economic growth of the era drew more people to the cities than they were originally designed for.

Innovators such as Takamasa Yoshizaka attempted to strike a balance between “individual freedom and collective benefit” and also worked to reinterpret concrete as a creative material. Yet that balance was too often thrown by the demands of urban life, and some sought hermetic refuge. Kazunari Sakamoto’s 1970 house in Minase was installed with a deliberately inconspicuous entrance and high windows above head height, as if in rejection of the bustle all around it. Meanwhile, Toyo Ito’s U-shaped 1976 commission for his widowed sister sought to be a protective sanctuary, its windowless exterior a shield from prying eyes. (But, to me, it evoked a prison.)

The centrepiece of the exhibition – a full-size, fully furnished re-creation of Ryue Nishizawa’s minimalist Moriyama House (2005) – makes the opposite case for immersion in city life. Designed for a Tokyo eccentric who rarely leaves his neighbourhood, the house is segmented into small units that can be endlessly reconfigured. Here, inside and outside are almost interchangeable: even the tunnel leading to the bathroom is transparent.

The experience of nosing through the facsimiled Moriyama House was vastly different from that of climbing into the show’s other full-size exhibit: a teahouse on stilts constructed for the Barbican by Terunobu Fujimori. Its charred-wood exterior and imperfect lines draw less on modern experimentation than on the traditional aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in transience and accidents of chance. Yet both the teahouse and the Moriyama complex felt distinctly Japanese. For a modern country that reveres the simplicity of the past – a nation collectivist by instinct, but which enthusiastically embraced Western-style individualism after the war – this sense of contradiction is perhaps only natural. 

Runs until 25 June. Details: barbican.org.uk

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Bold frogs, helpful dogs and teen spies: the best children's books for the summer

From toddlers to discerning teenagers, there’s something out there for everyone.

Like soft fruit, summer books can be rich and juicy – or dull and disappointing. Why pick from the glut of American teen romances, stories about running away to join the circus, or books by the ubiquitous David Walliams when you could enjoy something with more flavour?

For toddlers, Once Upon a Jungle (Words & Pictures, £12.99), with its vivid animals moving through brilliantly coloured flowers, is stunning; its dreamlike shapes for children aged two and above are inspired by Rousseau. Nikki Dyson’s Flip Flap Dogs (Nosy Crow, £8.99) is beautifully original, taking the idea of mix and match to describe crosses in dog breeding and temperament that would appal Crufts. Lively fun for dog lovers of three-plus.

The Giant Jumperee (Ladybird, £12.99) brings together two titans of children’s books, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, in a tale of animals being tricked by their own fears – and by a bold little frog. It’s perfect comedy for reading aloud to children of three-plus, and an instant classic. The sublime Emily Gravett is less gentle despite her exquisitely imaginative illustrations, and any child that’s ever had a hint of bullying will appreciate Old Hat (Two Hoots, £11.99). Harbert has a hat that other creatures deride as “old hat”, and his increasingly desperate attempts to fit in go wrong until, in a wonderful twist, he shows his inborn originality. Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (Nosy Crow, £11.99) concerns a chameleon who just wants to fit in, changing into a variety of colours before meeting his match. It’s joyously written and illustrated, for readers aged four and older.

Those too young for Pirates of the Caribbean will still enjoy Sunk! (HarperCollins, £12.99) by Rob Biddulph. With rhyming couplets and a rollicking story, its graphic elegance will inspire the over-fives. The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (Words & Pictures, £14.99) takes readers on a journey to the centre of the earth, layer by layer; it’s imaginatively conceived for budding geologists aged six and up. In the same age group, the late Michael Bond’s hero returns (before the second film) in Paddington’s Finest Hour (HarperCollins, £12.99). Our most endearing fictional immigrant resists a stage hypnotist, redesigns a neighbour’s chairs, and has a run-in with the police.

In Meg Rosoff’s Good Dog McTavish (Barrington Stoke, £6.99), a rescue dog saves the chaotic Peachey family from late dinners, grime and lost keys. Common sense has rarely been so charmingly conveyed to readers of seven up. An enchanting debut is Lorraine Gregory’s Mold and the Poison Plot (OUP, £6.99). Dumped in a dustbin as a baby, big-nosed, big-hearted Mold must save his adoptive mother from execution when she’s accused of poisoning the king. To succeed he’ll need the help of an unlikely friend and a working knowledge of the palace drains. I love this book, as will any sharp-witted reader aged eight or up – it reeks with talent, great jokes and characters.

Tanya Landman’s protagonist Cassia in Beyond the Wall (Walker, £7.99) is a British slave girl raised for her master’s lusts; when she maims him instead, she goes on the run with a bounty on her head and a slick Roman spy by her side. Interweaving elements of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the Carnegie-winning Landman has created her best heroine yet in a historical thriller that never releases its ferocious grip. Elizabeth Wein’s heroine also travels to Scotland, for a last summer in her family’s ancestral home. A prequel to the award-winning Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief (Bloomsbury, £7.99), set in the 1930s, is a vivid mystery from page one, when posh, fearless Julie is encouraged by her grandfather to shoot a poacher.

Reluctant teen spy Alex Rider makes a welcome return in Never Say Die (Walker, £12.99). In mourning for his housekeeper and mother-substitute Jack, Alex gets a hint she might have survived Scorpia’s vengeance. A heart-in-mouth pursuit of the rich and nasty begins. Anthony Horowitz is overdue for a gong as a writer who, like J K Rowling, has kept the nine-plus crowd reading long after lights out.

Acclaimed for her witty, topical teenage tales, Sophia Bennett has gone back to Victorian times in Following Ophelia (Stripes, £7.99). By day a scullery maid, Mary becomes after hours Persephone, the stunning red-headed muse of a handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter who takes London by storm. How long can she maintain this double life? Virtue battles vice, and sense succumbs to sensibility in a luscious story that readers aged 12 and over will devour. Keren David’s hero River is another deceiver, and The Liar’s Handbook (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) is both funny and suspenseful for 11-plus. His inventive excuses for flunking school are rooted in unhappiness about his absent father – but the truth, based on a true story, is stranger than you might guess.

My favourite young-adult novel for those aged 12-plus is by Sebastien de Castell (author of the superb Greatcoats fantasies). In Spellslinger (Hot Key, £12.99), Kellen’s dilemma is that he seems to have no magic in a world where teenage mages are required to duel. Brave, funny and vulnerable, he discovers that his true problems lie closer to home. With a talking squirrel and a fabulously hard-bitten trickster on his side, his steps into both magic and manhood are told with the conviction of Ursula Le Guin and the dash of Alexandre Dumas. It’s a peach of a summer read.

Amanda Craig’s new novel “The Lie of the Land” is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder