Review: Barbican’s Japanese House provides a warm welcome

We might be a little late to the party, but after a busy period of Easter holiday fun, we finally gave ourselves the time to visit Barbican’s first major UK exhibition of Japanese domestic architecture.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, promises a feast of modern and contemporary design. The exhibition features over 40 renowned architects as well as a centrepiece in the form of a full-size recreation of the 2005 Moriyama House, designed by award-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa.

If like us, your knowledge of contemporary architecture could scarcely fill the back of a matchbox, do not fear. The beautiful thing about this exhibition is its accessibility. You definitely don’t need any prior knowledge to appreciate what’s on offer, all you need is a love of design, an interest in the built environment around you and a keen sense of adventure to let yourself and your companion explore.

So, what should you expect?

A brilliant activity sheet
Anyone who has visited Barbican Art Gallery before will know that it is a sizeable space. On this rare occasion, however, the team have played an absolute blinder and devised a fantastic activity sheet to guide you through the more technical upper floor. Starting in the upstairs gallery Inhabiting the Experimental, there’s a chance for little ones to choose their favourite house, peer inside curious models and take some inspiration to draw or design their own.

Plenty of video installations
For my young companion, any screen based installation is a big draw, and there’s plenty of this on offer to keep wide eyes mesmerised. There’s film snippets of Japanese home dramas – devised with minimal plot to simply show off abodes, and a host of beguiling manga cartoons, with video cleverly peppered throughout the exhibition, allowing you time and space to take-in the panels on the wall.

An awe-inspiring Japanese House
Downstairs, the exhibition centrepiece will be met with a shriek of excitement, followed by an opportunity to weave a curious path through Mr Moriyama’s house and garden. Whether marvelling at his well stocked kitchen, perusing his extensive belongings or giggling at his tiny bath, there’s more fun than Ikea to be had here. Move from room to room and ponder the incredible use of space, as well as exploring its garden pathways, hidden terraces and private courtyards.

A tea house as good as a tree house
Set within the garden of the Moriyama House, the tea house is a new commission designed especially for the Barbican by architect and historian Terunobu Fujimori. Featuring a beautiful hand-charred timber exterior, visitors are invited to play ‘house’ through climbing up inside its stark plastic interior and peering out of the circular tinted windows, waving at fellow visitors below.

The gallery environment is also transformed every 30 minutes by lighting that mimics dawn to dusk, ensuring that every visitor can experience the magic of these buildings across any one day.

What should you be aware of before visiting with young children?

Rules are rules
Although very family friendly and highly interactive, the ‘no touching, just looking’ rule should still apply. Yes, you can weave through the arches, climb stairs and explore rooms, but discourage little ones from touching the models or moving items found within the house. If cushions, futons and bunny chairs are devoid of items, you’re welcome to try them out for size, but steps obstructed with books and nik-naks stuck down with glue, give a good indication of what’s acceptable here.

Stick to the paths
The garden area has some fun pathways marked out by stones and interesting doorways to pass through. Be mindful not to walk on the stones, or open and close doors, to protect little fingers and delicate exhibits.

Lose the shoes
When entering the tea house, shoes have to be removed and set aside, but should be hastily put back on as you exit. It’s also one way in and one way out, with numbers limited at busy times.

With such a wealth of space beyond the gallery itself, from the foyers to the fountains, the conservatory and the Curve, the Barbican is such a fantastic destination for families. It is, however, easy to be put off by the often over-zealous front of house team, or the unfavourable reactions of the regular patrons. The experiential nature of this exhibition, however, appears to have turned this temporarily on its head, attracting far more younger visitors and with it, a slightly more relaxed approach from the hosts. Add this safety in numbers aspect, together with the peace and serenity that ensues from exploring a home unscathed by tut and toys, and this house will feel like a home in no time, and one you’ll want to return to again, and again, and again.

The Japanese House Architecture and Life after 1945 is at Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre until 25th June.
Admission Adult £14.50, Children 14+ £10, Children under 14 Free.
Sat to Weds 10am to 6pm, Thurs & Fri 10am to 9pm.
Bank Holiday times vary. See website for details

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4 thoughts on “Review: Barbican’s Japanese House provides a warm welcome

  1. Great to see a review with families in mind. Sounds like with the activity sheet it might work for kids aged 5+ but my 2 year old doesn’t understand that rules are rules! Am keen to take the teenager but might have to leave younger ones with Dad!

    • I appreciate it’s harder with the very little ones, but both mine have been in galleries since they were babies and have just gradually learned not to touch. The more you take them into the space, the more they get used to it. There will always be devil days though, that’s toddlers, but this exhibition is more relaxed than Barbican’s usual fayre. Just as an FYI, my daughter/companion is 3 and loved the worksheet, and although she didn’t complete it all with me, it helped me guide her through the less interactive elements.

      • That’s great to hear. Mine have also gone to museums and galleries frequently since babes in arms but still learning not to touch! I usually visit with two young ones and would not be able to give my nearly 5 year old the attention he needs to do the worksheet. It’s great they have created something for children though, and although in my case I don’t think it would help make the exhibition more family friendly, for those with one child/older children it sounds like a good tool.

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