Home is where the art is: the visionary architects who shaped Japan

A new exhibition at the Barbican shows how the private house has inspired some of Japan’s most extraordinary architecture

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Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in Tokyo
Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in Tokyo / © Alamy

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 the Flying 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.” […]