101-111 Kensington High Street
The Japanese Government has already initiated two other Japan House operations in Los Angeles and São Paulo, with the third opening in London this summer. With around 70,000 Japanese nationals living and working in London, this new venture could become a cultural and social hub for them, as well as offering Londoners a chance to see what’s new in Japanese retail, food, aesthetics, crafts, creativity and performance. As soon as one walks in, one is struck by the cool, measured interior design, with objects, artworks, kitchen utensils and books all displayed in a very Zen-like manner. From the hand-made kawara floor tiles from Japan’s Awaji Island, pleasingly laid diagonally to the main axis of the building, to the squeaky-clean white walls, black fretwork screens, square-cut ash tables and comb-back Windsor chairs in the Akira restaurant, everything has been meticulously thought through, as one would expect. Named after the restaurant’s chef, Akira Shimizu, the bowls, glasses and dishes have all been designed for Japan House by artisans across Japan. The aesthetic is said to be taken from the concept of the doma, which is a space that sits between indoors and outdoors in a Japanese house and has various purposes, namely part kitchen, part social space, where family, friends and neighbours gather together. Certainly, the kitchen is in full view of the diners, chomping away on their sea urchin, salmon and tuna egg crêpe roll with truffle cream sauce for a modest £18, or spicy fried chicken karaage on the bone for the same price.
Japan House sits on three floors of what used to be the Derry and Toms Grade II* listed Art Deco building, and then became Biba in the 1970s, with the famous Kensington Roof Gardens, also listed, still at the top. In the basement, there is a clinically-designed theatre, which will be used for film shows, theatre productions, presentations and product launches, as well as a large exhibition space, which is currently filled with architectural models and photographs of Sou Fujimoto’s projects, called ‘Futures of the Future’, some realised, others only visions. Fujimoto is a leader among Japan’s new generation of architects, and designed the Cloud Pavilion in 2013 for the Serpentine Gallery. His designs range from wacky to fantastical, with some so audacious, one wonders how they will ever be realised, until one reads the captions, and finds out that some have been.
Fujimoto also presents ‘Architecture is Everywhere’, an exhibition on the ground level, which illustrates the concept of discovering architecture within the forms of everyday objects: as he puts it, ‘the serendipity of finding numerous possibilities for new architecture’. He cites Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to legitimise one of these concepts. Some of this is total nonsense “utter bollocks”, but fun anyway. Tiny figures are seen juxtaposed with everyday or found objects, such as a sponge, paper clips, staples, ping-pong balls or an upturned ashtray, and he continues, ‘we would soon start to read these objects as architectural spaces. The discrepancy in scale in these pairings is serendipitous, and what lies beyond them is a prelude of new architecture. Within this concept should underlie the question of discovery by chance vs. creation with intent. Architecture could come into being from anywhere. I believe fostering that architecture-to-be into real architecture itself is also architecture. Onward architecture continues.’
In addition to these confections, is “The Shop”, or ‘cultural retail experience,’ and a bookshop, called “The Library”, in which the curator is said to have revolutionised the way books are displayed, but not noticeably. The whole experience is minimally recherché, if not a touch precious, but we are dealing with a totally different culture here, and one which the West still has problems in understanding its nuances and philosophy. The shop has some exquisite items on sale, from attractive stationery to beauty products, and it is difficult to differentiate where “The Shop” ends and the exhibition begins. But maybe that was the intention?