Architecture

This Japanese House Has A Surprising Modernist History

At the Shofuso House and Garden in Philadelphia, a new exhibition emphasizes its cross-cultural connections.

Elizabeth Fazzare

Shofuso House and Garden,Photo Elizabeth Felicella, Courtesy the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia
Shofuso House and Garden. Photo Elizabeth Felicella. All images courtesy of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

In uncertain times, we are all searching for moments of respite. I found mine, virtually, in the 2020 re-envisioning of a 1954 hit exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “The House in the Museum Garden” was a series of shows inaugurated five years earlier, after the museum’s architecture and design departments merged. The premise was simple: commission the design and construction of a home and present it outside, in the courtyard, not as fine art, but as architecture: a building to be studied for its form, function, materials, social context and—yes, in a museum setting—cost. While “one of the most influential undertakings in the museum’s long history of exhibiting architecture,” writes former MoMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll in his 2009 article “At Home in The Museum?” for the winter issue of Log magazine, the highly popular project proved to be “rife with fascinating paradoxes as the series progressed from a bi-nuclear suburban home…to a full-scale replica of a Japanese temple, built by Japanese craftsmen in the heart of the shrine to the modernist machine.”

It is the latter that has struck my contemporary fancy, though not solely as the reverent structure so many MoMA visitors did revere in the midcentury. After its “House” display, the replica 17th-century “Shofuso” house was moved permanently to Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park, where it sits in its peaceful waterside landscape. Now, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia is reexamining the meaning of home and familial connection with the structure as its backdrop. Designed by Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura with precut timber planks shipped from his home country to New York, Shofuso is a shoin-zukuri home: modest in scale, asymmetrical in interior architecture, using both solid and shoji screen walls and including a shion, or study. While these building elements may have been the focus in 1954, today’s exhibit “Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia,” on now through November 29 both physically and virtually, looks to the creative exchange this form fostered: Yoshimura’s friendships and artistic collaborations with Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima, French Swiss designer Noémi Pernessin Raymond and Czech architect Antonin Raymond.

Artifacts and images of these intertwined relationships have been installed within the house, a frequent monastic style. At various points in their lives, the four creatives worked together, lived together and protected each other from American internment during the Second World War. Textiles, hand-crafted furniture and decorative objects are what remains. While buzzing with these intimate stories and cross-cultural connections, the installation seems still, arranged as if lived in by this melting pot family. I’m reminded that while the world may be large, our communities will always make it feel small.

"Shofuso and Modernism" installation. Photo by Constance Mensh.
Photo by Constance Mensh.
Photo by Constance Mensh.
Inside Shofuso, a replica of a 17th-century Japanese shrine.
Inside Shofuso, a replica of a 17th-century Japanese shrine.
The Shofuso house and garden in Philadelphia.
The Shofuso house and garden in Philadelphia.
Looking onto the garden during a rainstorm. Photo by Elizabeth Felicella.
Looking onto the garden during a rainstorm. Photo by Elizabeth Felicella.