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Gems from Japan

Review 4 x 4: Apartment Avant-Garde

At the RIBA, Portland Place, London W1; Architecture Centre, Narrow Quay, Bristol; CUBE, Portland St, Manchester; and The Lighthouse, Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, until 28 November

When the Emperor Akihito succeeded his father Hirohito in 1989, Japan passed from an era of 'Illustrious Peace' to one of 'Achieved Peace', or so the designations of the reigns as 'Showa' and 'Heisei' suggest. Hirohito's biographer, Herbert Bix, argues that the Showa era was even less illustrious than peaceful. And during the past decade Japan's achievements have created economic conditions which might suck us all into a black hole if Osama bin Laden does not do it first.

Ideal conditions, a cynic might think, for architecture, but curator Kisho Kurokawa and his British collaborator Dennis Sharp are not obviously cynical. They fall back on the old clichÚ of contrasting Japanese tradition - here represented by mats of faintly farmyard smell - with the technology of televisual devices made by Sony; but if '4 x 4:

Apartment Avant-Garde' shows anything, it is that contemporary Japanese architecture has not achieved peace.

It brings together the work of 16 younger architects and focuses on domestic space. Its most dramatic representation here is Kengo Kuma's glass house, apparently floating in a still pond overlooking an ocean. The serenity and fetishistic perfection of the immediate surroundings contrast with the wildness of nature, which is only just held at bay.

Ken Yokogawa invites us into his own house, which seems similar to affluent architects' homes across the world. Coping with the demands of family life as children age is a common theme. Shigeru Ban recalls a client's plea: 'If we could only have a house where my kids do not spend all their time in their private rooms, and we could share time and space together.' The result is a simple volume with moveable boxes inside (see picture).

Other trends come across more strongly.

Japanese cities, we know, are extremely dense, and several architects contribute projects for packing urban housing. For Kazuhiro Kojima, living in a white, singleroomed flat has 'enabled me to understand the Japanese city', an understanding he has transferred to a concept he calls 'space block', which he describes by analogy with 'a bowl of goldfish swimming in water among water weeds, minus the glass bowl'.

If the resulting accretions of cuboid volumes bear very little resemblance to goldfish and their domestic quarters, his description evokes another familiar aspect of Japanese architecture, the axiom which loses something in translation.Hiroshi Naito is another whose insights have similarly suffered. In his family house, he apparently 'coordinates time with architecture', because he values 'quiet pools of space and the physical presence of time'. He calls it 'the house of symbiosis', a term which recalls Kurokawa's theoretical strivings, but Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando exert stronger influences overall.

Ito's concept of 'blurring architecture' finds several echoes. Tadasu Ohe proposes 'liquid space', where home is a passing point and not a starting point, a laptop can be plugged in anywhere, and the hotel becomes analogous with the city. Hitoshi Abe also sees the boundaries of architecture becoming less rigid, allowing for fluidity between physical, cerebral and virtual realms.

Ando-esque concrete panels are almost ubiquitous. On a building such as Takasaki Masaharu's Zero Cosmology (house and atelier) - something like a Keith Critchlow design for a nuclear power station - it is used as consciously as by the master himself. But in Naito's conversion of an apartment, these concrete panels were already in place, and peeling their vinyl cloth covering away revealed them as 'an attractive material with a strong presence'.

Atelier Bow-Wow wants to turn the home into 'a tool for observing the world', something its Nakame flat seems to do - though its contribution to another aim, of increasing variety in housing types, is less evident; it has all those grunge elements we know so well from Shoreditch lofts.

This is a useful exhibition in bringing together a reasonable sample of work from the next generation of Japanese architects - born between the late '40s and late '60s.

Japan may not have achieved peace, but it has plenty of architectural invention.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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