In its ongoing exhibition (until Sept. 17 2018) “Japan in Architecture : Genealogies of its Transformation,” the Mori Art Museum takes on a daunting task – to define the distinguishing features of Japanese architecture and illustrate their influence on the contemporary architectural scene.

Curated by Fumio Nanjo, director of MAM, and his team, along with two Japanese architectural historians, the exhibition assembles a vast array of superbly-crafted models and photographs of architectural sites, from the Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE) to contemporary projects still in the pipeline.

Architecture critics may disagree with the curator’s choice of the nine key concepts, or features, they believe are crucial to understanding Japanese architecture, such as the inspired use of wood, the key role played by roofs and the principals of co-existing with nature.

But this exhibition, which offers a treasure trove of Japanese architectural gems through the ages – elegant, inspiring, even quirky – is likely to delight anyone with even a passing interest in how architecture both shapes and is shaped by the way we live.

I must admit I was somewhat skeptical about an exhibition that seemed to claim it would show us what made Japanese architecture a uniquely influential force in today’s architectural world.

Not that I had any argument with the exhibition’s stated objective. I was simply unsure about how looking at models and photographs could in any way come close to the experience of actually visiting the buildings themselves.

To my pleasant surprise, I found that the exhibition did an excellent job of giving visitors a sense of the space of each building or site and of illustrating the particular features for which they were chosen.

This owes much to the scale and high quality of the models on display. The first thing that strikes you after entering the exhibition at the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower is a massive floor-to-ceiling model of stunning wooden joinery.

kigumi at Mori Art Museum Japan in Architecture

A reconstruction of Atsushi Kitagawara’s “KIGUMI INFINITY,” shown at the Japan Pavilion, Expo Milano 2015.

It is the first display in a room with the title, “The Possibilities of Wood,” that is full of breathtaking examples of wooden architecture, such as a model of the original main hall of Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture.

The model succeeds in conveying the scale of the original shrine, which is said to have been 96 meters tall compared with the currently existing main hall, which is 24 meters tall.

Although records are scarce, part of one of the original pillars which was excavated in 2000 indicates that the pillar itself was constructed of three cedar trees, measuring 1.3 meters in diameter each. The base of the pillar measured a massive 3 meters in diameter.

A contemporary example of the use of wood is Kengo Kuma’s Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum on the island of Shikoku.

A large model of this museum, which draws on the forms of traditional cantilevered “hane-bashi,” or drawbridge, allows visitors to marvel at Kuma’s use of stacked lumber to dramatic effect.

The section on “The Possibilities of Wood” contains some of the most beautiful models in the exhibition so it is easy to spend quite some time here. But beware – there are eight more sections to get through with almost too many examples of stunning architecture to admire.

One of my favorite buildings in the section on “Transcendent Aesthetics,” is Yoshio Taniguchi’s D.T.Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa. With its clean lines, pale tones and simple forms, the building seems to float effortlessly on the surrounding pool of water like a Buddhist deity meditating on a cloud.

There is an intriguing section featuring roofs – temple roofs, roofs of traditional rural homes and the roof of the iconic Olympic stadium designed by Kenzo Tange, among others.

It had not occurred to me that roofs played such an important and interesting role in Japanese architecture, but the roof is, according to the curators, both iconic and “a traditional expression of harmony between the individual and the community, the inner and the outer.”

The “Nishinomiya House,” which was designed by SANAA, provides an ingenious example of that harmony.

This is an apartment complex, rather than a single house, in which each of 10 apartments enjoys a certain level of privacy while the roofs connect them into a single whole.

The video interview with Kazuyo Sejima, a founding partner of the Pritzker Prize-winning SANAA (the other being Ryue Nishizawa), in which she explains how she came up with the design for this complex is a fascinating accompaniment to the large-scale model on display.

Japanese art and architecture inspired a diverse contingent of western architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to John Pawson and in a section titled “Japan Discovered,” the exhibition provides several examples of the ways in which elements of Japanese architecture were incorporated into western buildings and homes.

Throughout the exhibition there are several examples of how Japanese architecture strives to provide both shelter from the elements and privacy, while at the same time retaining a degree of openness and proximity to the community and nature.

A very large model of “Longhouse with Engawa,” by Kentaro Yamazaki captures visitors’ attention in the section entitled “Forms for Living Together.”

Traditionally, many Japanese homes had engawa, or long outside corridors where residents could sit and enjoy their garden or whatever was happening outside and welcome visitors as well as casual passers-by.

Yamazaki’s “Longhouse,” a nursery care facility scheduled for completion next year in Chiba prefecture, which will also include a cafeteria for children living in poverty, is a contemporary take on the way in which Japanese homes were traditionally open to the community and surrounding environment.

A major strength of this exhibition is the large-scale models, such as the “Longhouse,” that provide a close-up view of details that may not be readily noticeable in the actual buildings.

A highlight of the show is a model of Kenzo Tange’s house in Setagaya, Tokyo, which no longer exists.

Japanese architecture by Tange

This 1/3-scale model of Kenzo Tange’s house, built in 1953, is in one of 5 display locations where photography is allowed.

Japanese architecture by Tange

A rare example of a residential building by Tange, his house was raised on wooden stilts.

One room is entirely taken up by a life-sized replica of a chashitsu, or tea house, designed by tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu around 1581.

Tai-an at "Japan in Architecure"

Visitors can enter the tea house using the stepping stones that lead to the small “nijiri-guchi,” or “wriggle-in” entrance on the right.

An example of a tea house in Japanese architecture

The two-mat room inside feels secluded.

The tea house, “Tai-an,” in Kyoto’s Myoki-an Temple, which is designated a National Treasure, is the oldest example of chashitsu architecture and the only tea house by Sen-no-Rikyu that still exists.

While it is possible to peer into the real “Tai-an” and see it only from the entrance, at the MAM exhibition, visitors are able to enter the replica, three at a time, kneeling to pass through its low entrance and sitting in the two-mat room to contemplate what the curators describe as “cosmic loneliness.”


japanese architecture chashitsu

The chashitsu is the structural embodiment of the concepts of wabi and sabi.

There is so much to discover and experience here that the exhibition’s biggest drawback may be that it is almost too much to take in during a single visit.

But the wealth of material on display and the interesting analysis provided throughout makes this an exhibition that should not be missed.

Power of Scale – an immersive installation by Saito Seiichi + Rhizomatiks Architecture.

Be prepared to spend at least two hours there and even then, many will want to re-visit the show several times. I certainly did.

“Japan in Architecture – Genealogies of its Transformation”

Mori Art Museum

Until Sept 17th, 2018

*Note : Reservations for the bilingual catalog (Y3,672), which will be available at the museum shop in late July, are being accepted.

Address : 52/53Flr Mori Tower

Roppongi Hills

6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Phone :   03-5777-8600

Admission : Y1,800 (adults)

There are discounts for students, children and seniors

Open everyday from 10:00-22:00 except Tuesdays when the museum closes at 17:00