Japanese architecture, craft and Modernism meet in Philadelphia

Japanese architecture, craft and Modernism meet in Philadelphia

A new exhibition in Philadelphia explores the relationship between Shofuso House, a piece of 17th century-style Japanese architecture located in the city’s West Fairmount Park, and Modernism through the connections between architect Junzo Yoshimura, woodworker George Nakashima, designer Noémi Pernessin Raymond and architect Antonin Raymond

Walk past Philadelphia’s Museum of Modern Art, past the zoo and deeper into West Fairmount Park’s blanket of woods and you will eventually happen upon a traditional piece of 17th century Japanese architecture.

Shofuso Japanese House and Gardens, a shoin house (a type of traditional Japanese residential architecture) subtly infused with modernist details, was built in Japan in 1953 by the Tokyo-based architect Junzo Yoshimura, before being shipped to America’s East Coast for a 1954 outdoor exhibition titled ‘The House in the Museum Garden’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

Shufuso, which is now the setting for an exhibition titled ‘Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia’, came into existence, then, only a few years after America had decimated two Japanese cities via the use of atomic bombs after months of sustained firebombing from the air.

The house, as it stands today, embodies the abilities of both nations to foster, in the years directly following the war, and as Japan began to rebuild itself from under the rubble, a new tradition of mutual respect – not to mention an enduring cultural fascination and cross-pollination.

shofuso exterior
Photography: Courtesy Of The Japan America Society Of Greater Philadelphia

Shofuso, which moved to Philly in 1957, is an expression of Yoshimura’s interpretations of the Japanese classical shoin-zukuri style of architecture. ‘If you want to study Japanese architecture, don’t study the sukiya style,’ he once said. ‘Begin by studying the shoin style.’

Yet Yoshimura spent his career at the heel of one of Europe’s great architects of the time, learning how to fuse shoin principles with rationalist and modernist thinking. Shofuso, then, is the child of a historic connection between Eastern and Western cultures, and a hinge between nationalist tradition and internationalist modernity.

But the exhibition on show in Shofuso today, and, indeed, the architecture of the building itself, also tells a very intimate, very personal story between Japanese, Japanese-American and European architects.

The show is curated by Yuka Yokoyama and William Whitaker. Yokoyama says: ‘When I got a job at Shufuso about a year and half ago, I started researching the house in which I worked. I didn’t realise the connections and friendships between Yoshimura, Nakashima and the Raymonds. Shofuso came to represent these connections. You can see this friendship in the house’s design.’

shofuso house looking out
Photography: Elizabeth Felicella, courtesy Of The Japan America Society Of Greater Philadelphia

‘For more than fifty years, Shofuso has been a centre for Japanese culture and its interpretation as understood through this house and garden,’ says Whitaker. ‘But it has this complicated history. It’s a building built in the modern era, but, for most people who visit here, they see what appears to be a 17th century Japanese house. But there’s a lot more to it; the stories of the people who made it, the historical times on which it was created. It encompasses the vicious times of war, and the inhumane experiences of Japanese-Americans in this country. Whilst it’s a place of calm, serenity, life and joy, the project hopes to open a dialogue by opening up an interpretation of this circle of artists.’

The Czech-born architect Antonin Raymond and his French wife, Noémi Pernessin Raymond, first moved to Tokyo in the late 1910s as employees of Frank Lloyd Wright. Together, they worked on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. But Raymond became frustrated with the experience and split with Wright to set up, in February of 1921, the American Architectural and Engineering Company in Tokyo with Leon Whittaker Slack.

In December 1928, while a student at Tokyo’s Fine Arts College, Yoshimura began part-time work at Raymond’s office, becoming full-time after he graduated in 1931. Through the teachings of Wright, and through their own encounter with and study of Japanese culture, the Raymonds were able to integrate the theories of modernism with classical Japanese architectural principles.

This fed down into the processes of their precocious young assistant Yoshimura. As such, a perfect harmony was formed between traditional Japanese construction methods and the emerging canons of modern Western design.

Mira Nakashima Chairs
Photography: Courtesy Of The Japan America Society Of Greater Philadelphia

This storied journey of Yoshimura, as well as his Japanese-American contemporary George Nakashima, from lowly employees to co-collaborators to, eventually, cohabiters of the Raymond’s home, serve as the nucleus around which the exhibition exists.

In Pennsylvania, on the rural outskirts of Philadelphia, lies a bucolic farming town on the banks of the Delaware River called New Hope. In the 1930s, the town became the home of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, and then Yoshimura too, who purchased the land next door to the Raymond’s farm. New Hope also became home to George Nakashima, a Japanese-American who was born in Washington in 1905 to Japanese parents and, after living a Bohemian life in Europe, came to work for Raymond as an architect in Tokyo.

At the onset of the Second World War in 1940, Nakashima returned to America before, in March 1942,  becoming forcibly interned by the American government. He was sent to Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho. There he met Gentaro Hikogawa, a man trained in traditional Japanese carpentry, who taught Nakashima to carve and create with wood using traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. 

In late 1943, the Raymonds sponsored Nakashima, rescuing him from the camp and taking him home to New Hope. In a studio on the farm, Nakashima put his new skills to use, turning local trees into stunning furniture pieces that now fill Shofuso’s rooms. Beautifully simple as they appear to be, they are creations born of a profound sense of optimism; that what binds us is always greater than what pulls us apart. §

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