Sou Fujimoto's House Na
Iwan Baan Sou Fujimoto's House Na

Not-so-fun fact: The first time Japan was featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was in 1944, in an exhibition by photographer Ansel Adams called Manzanar. Subtitled Photographs of Loyal Japanese-American Relocation Center, the show documented the daily lives of thousands of people of Japanese extraction interred in the California desert during World War II, presenting them as a cheerily pliant race engaged in wholesome pursuits while confined to their de facto concentration camp.

The temporary Japanese pavilion exhibited at MoMA in 1956
Michael Rougier/LIFE The temporary Japanese pavilion exhibited at MoMA in 1956

In the seven decades since that lamentable exhibition and the debut in March of A Japanese Constellation—a review of the key figures in the country’s contemporary design scene—MoMA has made slow but definite progress on all subjects Japan-related. Japanese architecture first arrived at the museum in the shape of a 1956 temporary pavilion in the museum courtyard; the show was similarly tinged with cultural condescension, the pavilion itself a traditional medieval structure rather than one of the modern types then quickly proliferating in Japan.

That’s symptomatic: “Japanese architecture” has often been figured abroad mostly as source material for Western Modernism, rather than as an entity unto itself; even latter-day developments, like the boldly experimental Metabolist group of the Sixties, have too often been perceived as a charming homegrown offshoot of global trends.

With A Japanese Constellation (which runs until July 4), MoMA, the flagship institution of modern design in America, finally gets it right, showing the architecture of the island nation not as an inspiration for developments elsewhere but as adhering to a cogent—though not overly prescriptive—logic of its own.

Exhibit detail (model of Na House on left)
Thomas Griesel Exhibit detail (model of Na House on left)

With a much less unnerving subtitle than Adams’ show had—Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond—the current exhibition chronicles the work of those two practices and of Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and Junya Ishigami, as well as reserving separate space for the solo work of SANAA’s founders Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Some observers may complain that this does not go very far “beyond” at all, as it omits such prominent figures as Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA, Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, Atelier Bow-Wow, and a whole host of offices of lesser renown that probably could have used the PR boost.

But Pedro Gadanho, the show’s curator, wasn’t aiming to be comprehensive. Aside from their rough generational alignment as children of the postwar period, the architects Gadanho selected also share a genealogical connection to Ito, Hon. FAIA, who turns 75 this year, being descended from him by various degrees of apprenticeship; thus Ito begat Sejima, Sejima begat Ishigami, and so on. Even those who fall outside the direct line of inheritance have in common with the headliners a set of preferences: lightweight materials, an antic minimalism, a certain feeling for the natural world as being in some ways interchangeable with the artificial—a view which would seem intrinsic to the Japanese experience in the last century.

Akihisa Hirata's Foam Form
Akihisa Hirata Architecture Office and Kuramochi + Oguma Akihisa Hirata's Foam Form
Exhibit detail showing the model of SANAA's Grace Farms
Thomas Griesel Exhibit detail showing the model of SANAA's Grace Farms

SANAA’s Grace Farms in New Canaan, Conn., completed last year, is an exemplar of that tendency, a rolling coil of a building that houses a multipurpose community center and that snakes down its rural hillside site, buckling and widening at specific functional nodes (an underground gymnasium, a cafeteria) and then narrowing again to form interstitial porticoes to connect the various parts of the facility. Hirata takes a rather more figural tack with his unbuilt harbor building for Taiwan, “Foam Form,” creating a horseshoe structure around the bay pierced by countless irregular apertures that resemble a ring of ocean spume washed ashore.

Perhaps the best and most compelling example in this genre is Ishigami’s project for a house and restaurant, still ongoing at an unspecified locale in Japan: The scheme calls for digging a series of holes in the ground and filling them with concrete, then digging out the spaces between the holes to create a subterranean burrow of seemingly organic origin. The building technique alone seems symptomatic of a uniquely Japanese capacity not just for subverting but inverting the whole idea of what constitutes the built environment, and visitors can’t help but be eager to see the results.

Exhibit detail
Thomas Griesel Exhibit detail

Unfortunately, there’s not much to see. One of the curatorial hiccups is that the only images of completed projects on view are projected on scrims that act as partitions between the different sections of the exhibition. It might have just been a technical kink (I saw the show the day before its official preview, when installation was still ongoing), but the renderings and photographs were so dim and diaphanous that it was difficult to decipher what they were. The exhibition communicates primarily in models, and sometimes these are only slightly more suggestive than the projections: Ito’s Brugge Pavilion in Belgium (2000), in life a gleaming metal lattice, is signified here by a little blue candy bar, while SANAA’s New Museum in New York City (2007) appears shorn of its textural surface and reduced to a formal one-liner, a literal stack of boxes. Of course, that’s what the building almost is, and the decision to exclude more detailed representations of that and other projects has a legitimate museological objective—a desire to convey, to a nonspecialist audience, the very ethereality of this brand of Japanese architecture, and the (almost) unbearable lightness of its creators’ conceptual disposition. In that objective at least, the exhibition succeeds.

Toyo Ito's Brugge Pavilion
Nacása & Partners Inc. Toyo Ito's Brugge Pavilion

The show’s more important accomplishment, however, is almost lost, stuck in a small cul-de-sac off the main entrance. There, one finds a map and video and one more model, which together hint at the shared trauma that truly puts this Japanese constellation into alignment. Home-For-All is a response to the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that wrecked countless coastal communities in the Fukushima prefecture and nearly led to a nuclear meltdown. Months after the quake, at Ito’s instigation, a group of young architects joined together to create new hubs for communal life in the affected villages; Ito’s own building, in the town of Rikuzentakata, is a kind of tree house for adults, a functionally indeterminate civic building for a place still trying to find its way in the wake of disaster.

Carried out collaboratively, on a regional scale, by a still larger network of young architects, the House-For-All initiative underscores the physical peril that seems an underlying condition of Japan’s national life, and the ingenuity and common purpose with which its people have always—remarkably—been able to respond.

Model of Toyo Ito's Home-for-All house in Rikunzentakata
Akihisa Hirata Architecture office, Tokyo Model of Toyo Ito's Home-for-All house in Rikunzentakata
SANAA's model of the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany
Thomas Griesel SANAA's model of the Zollverein School of Management and Design in Essen, Germany
Akihisa Hirata's Showroom H
Akihisa Hirata's Showroom H