You could pity the Japanese house. Its average lifespan is only 26 years. Or, you could revel in a culture of exuberant renewal that has made the Japanese house the crucible of contemporary architectural experimentation.

It is no accident that Japan has the highest number of architects per capita in the world — about five times as many as the UK and more than seven times as many as the US. Their country needs them. In 2015, Japan built almost a million new housing units.

What is it that makes Japanese houses so different, so appealing?

A new exhibition at London's Barbican attempts to explain. In the process, it presents a mouthwatering architectural feast of the sublime, the strange and the magical. There are houses in the shapes of faces and others with no doors or walls. There are houses with no windows, others that are completely transparent. And in the centre are two full-scale houses, one a full-scale reproduction of one of Japan's most seductive minimalist dwellings, the other a purpose-designed and built tea house clad in charred timber and with two copper-framed eyes for windows.

Toyo Ito's Silver Hut, 1984
Image: Tomio Ohashi Toyo Ito's Silver Hut, 1984

But back to those in a minute. This very particular culture of architectural experimentation needs a little background. Japan in 1945 was a country of flattened cities and deflated people. The war had stripped them of their faith in destiny and history, and the atomic apocalypse in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shaken not only the Japanese islands but the entire world. In an effort to rebuild the economy, the shattered urban landscapes and the morale of its people, the postwar government decided to make the owner-occupied detached house a physical, psychological and economic mechanism for reconstruction.

This transformation of the landscape, from an economy in which most urban residents rented to one of owner/occupiers was accompanied by an unregulated urban landscape with no aesthetic or material controls on what could be built and an addiction to newness, with the house conceived as a consumer commodity like a fridge or a car.

A schizophrenic attitude to history played a part. A culture that had been imbued with notions of decorum and a remarkable continuity in material, form and craft had been suddenly set free. History had become suspect. Japan would become a country of tech-fetishism. Yet the housing culture that emerged was far from superficial or merely fashionable, and nor did it lack a sense of history.

In an excellent essay in the exhibition catalogue, Kenjiro Hosaka calls the best of these buildings "critical houses". They stand in the city in conversation with each other and their surroundings, suggesting alternative ways of living and of understanding what a house means.

Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Moriyama House, 2005
Image: Takae Satoshi and Barbican Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Moriyama House, 2005

That dialogue is articulately expressed in the twin centrepieces of the Barbican show. One is a replica of the wonderful Moriyama House (2005) by Ryue Nishizawa, the sometime partner of Kazuyo Sejima (together they practice as SANAA). This amazing house is situated in a Tokyo neighbourhood in which the buildings jostle and nuzzle one another within a complex network of alleys and the usual incomprehensible streets (it never ceases to amaze me that the Japanese still haven't invented house numbers). Conceived as a kind of microcosm of the chaotic city, each of the house's 10 rooms is expressed as an individual building. Some, such as the living spaces, are generous and airy. Others — the bathroom, for instance — are barely big enough to turn around in.

Each white block is arranged in a courtyard, which becomes like a street network and to pass from one room to another entails going outside and entering another micro-building. There are no fences or walls. The spaces between the buildings are contiguous with the network of public streets. It is awkward and illogical but it creates its own landscape and skyline with roof terraces, courtyards, alleys and mini-plazas and each space is clearly defined and uncluttered with huge picture windows. It is as if the rooms have been liberated from the boxy constraints of the house — set free. The client has apparently adapted to the plan so that his life (lived between the rooms and between inside and out) becomes a kind of careful choreography, an artwork in its own right.

Hideyuki Nakayama's O House, 2009
Image: Mitsutaka Kitamura Hideyuki Nakayama's O House, 2009

The other charismatic building here is Terunobu Fujimori's tea house (built in conjunction with London-based architect Takeshi Hayatsu), an eccentric, seemingly half-timbered house raised on thick wooden stakes. Fujimori is, in many ways, the diametric opposite of Nishizawa and his ethereal technical perfection. He never trained as an architect but is rather a historian, fascinated by the eccentricities of the vernacular, who believes the history of architecture reaches way beyond that designed by architects.

His houses, often raised in the trees or on columns, are very visibly handcrafted, irregular, slightly clumsy and almost childish. They often look wrong, taking wabi-sabi to an extreme, yet they are also seductively inviting with womblike, intimate interiors. Tiny windows and wonky lines make them look like manifestations of children's drawings and this little tea house, with its two egg-shaped windows like slightly sad eyes and its charred timbering, is no different. Deliberately cramped and difficult to access (via a step ladder), the intent is to make you think about space, about the tea ceremony and about how you engage with the building, which is imbued with a kind of spirit. It is an idea that reaches back to animist traditions. If it looks familiar, it is probably because Fujimori often worked with Studio Ghibli, the producers of the dreamlike, sometimes hyper-kitschy anime that pervades Japan's contemporary culture.

Film is a constant presence here. There are clips from Yasujiro Ozu's intimate domestic dramas, in which the house is as much a character as the protagonists. There is also the blue-neon glow of Sogo Ishii's psychotic (and very funny) post-punk The Crazy Family. The range of architectural expression is breathtaking. There are the calm hybrids of history and modernity such as Kiyoshi Seike's House for Professor K Saito (1952), Czech American émigré Antonin Raymond's own beautiful house (1951) and Makoto Masuzawa's Minimum House (1952), a tiny yet seemingly generous timber structure.

There are the prefab experiments of the 1970s, embodying the idea that a house could be manufactured like a car and there are the Brutalist-era concrete houses including Junzo Yoshimura's gorgeous Mountain Lodge at Karuizawa (1963) and Takamitsu Azuma's fiercely raw Tower House (1966) in which every internal surface is cast in heavily board-marked concrete.

Kiko Mozuna, Model of Anti-Dwelling Box, late 1970’s
Image: Keizo Kioku. Collection of Norihito Nakatani Kiko Mozuna, Model of Anti-Dwelling Box, late 1970’s

There are postmodernist houses and sci-fi houses — I particularly like Kiko Mozuna's bright yellow Anti-Dwelling Box (1972), in which nests of boxes sit inside each other like a surreal puzzle.

There are haunting houses like Toyo Ito's White U (1976), designed for his recently bereaved sister, a building with no exterior windows and, inside which, eerie drama is created by the casting of shadows on the curved, white walls.

Toyo Ito's White U, 1976
Image: Tomio Ohashi Toyo Ito's White U, 1976

There are houses that look like dolls' houses (Hideyuki Nakayama's O House) and houses that look like shelving units (Sou Fujimoto's brilliant but surely unlivable House NA). And there are houses that are clearly and brilliantly nuts, such as Keisuke Oka's unfinished Arimaston Building in Tokyo, a crazy concrete collage.

Sou Fujimoto Architects, House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011
Image: Iwan Baan Sou Fujimoto Architects, House NA, Tokyo, Japan, 2011

The panoply of invention is astonishing. What seems even more surprising is that all this imagination is expended for a building lasting perhaps only 20 years. So many of the best examples featured here have been demolished, often to make way for far duller incarnations. The hard-working salarymen spend their lives at work to pay for a house that, by the time they own it outright, has probably become worthless. The Japanese house, threatened by earthquakes, by punitive inheritance taxes and by a culture of consumption and newness exists in a peculiarly precarious zone. Yet perhaps it is precisely that condition of precarity, which invests it with such intensity of meaning for the few short years of its life.

'The Japanese House, Architecture and Life after 1945', runs at the Barbican, London, from March 23 to June 25 2017

This article was originally by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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