TOKYO -- There is a model 17th century Japanese house squatting in the middle of a park in Philadelphia. It has been there for 63 years, but not many knew why until the city's Japan America Society staged an exhibition called "Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration Between Japan and Philadelphia." Meant to highlight the JapanPhilly2020 campaign -- an Olympics-related celebration of nearly 150 years of transcultural exchange between Japan and the city -- the exhibition ran from September through November 2020.
The story of the Shofuso (Pine Breeze Villa) house and grounds brings together four artists from Europe, the U.S. and Japan: Antonin Raymond, an architect from Prague; his French wife Noemi, an interior decorator; famed prizewinning Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura, designer of International House of Japan in Tokyo and the Japan Society building in New York; and George Nakashima, a Japanese-American wood craftsman and furniture designer.
Raymond, who worked under Frank Lloyd Wright but had little respect for his boss's grasp of Japanese aesthetics, eventually became the go-to Western architect in Tokyo, where he founded his own company. The four met in Raymond's Tokyo office in the 1930s, working to design private homes and public buildings for the city's richest patrons. Their collaborations and friendship spanned half a century and survived a world war.
The history of the house itself is also a wonder, as recounted in an elegant documentary film, "A House in the Garden: Shofuso and Modernism," produced by the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia with Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib, both fellows of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia.
The house was built at a workshop in Nagoya in 1953 using the traditional hand tools, materials and joineries of classic shoin-zukuri (residential architecture) of Japan's Edo period (1603-1868). A year later, it was dismantled and reconstructed in New York City, where it was opened to the public at the Museum of Modern Art as a gift from Japan to America symbolizing postwar friendship and peace.
Two years later it was moved again, this time only 160 km down the coast to Philadelphia, where it has stood since 1958.
The 1954 Shofuso exhibition at MoMA was a watershed in the West's nascent understanding of Japanese art, according to Harvard University architecture professor and historian Yukio Lippit.
"That was such an interesting event because it fixed and promoted this idea that traditional Japanese architecture was somehow modern at the same time," says Lippit. "Western observers had tended to view traditional wooden houses in Japan as inferior and even primitive. This image was inverted with the MoMA house and exhibition. It was a seminal moment. Nothing could be stranger than a museum of modern art showcasing a traditional architectural culture."
If that were not odd enough, a Japanese presence on Shofuso's current site in West Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, actually dates back even further -- to the 19th century.
In 1876, two decades after Japan opened to trade with the West, Philadelphia welcomed the earliest wave of Japanese cultural emissaries when it hosted the Centennial International Exhibition, held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. A small Japanese bazaar selling native crafts occupied part of the main hall, surrounded by a few modest replicas of Japanese farmhouses, with their carpenters wearing traditional tobi (loosefitting) work clothes, which reportedly caused a sensation among the locals.
The architectural display also created a stir, especially among Philadelphia's wealthiest class, for whom the fetish for all things Japanese was blooming into what became known as "Japonisme." Thirty years later, in 1906, one of the city's upscale collectors bought a Japanese Buddhist temple gate from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition (informally known as the World's Fair) in Saint Louis, Missouri, and erected it on the former Centennial International Exhibition grounds in West Fairmount Park, surrounded by a landscaped Japanese garden.
Thirty more years brought on World War II, prompting the Raymonds to decamp to the U.S., where they purchased a farmhouse outside Philadelphia in a town aptly called New Hope. Yoshimura joined them for a while, and they eventually succeeded in sponsoring Nakashima's release from a U.S. internment camp where the Americans had incarcerated him.
In the early 1950s, the modernist American architect Philip Johnson sent a letter to John D. Rockefeller III, then-president of the Japan Society of New York. Johnson had been developing a series for MoMA called "House in the Garden." He understood the connection between traditional Japanese design and modernism and urged Rockefeller to hire Yoshimura for Shofuso.
"This site combines the history of architectural design, the war, and the personal histories of artists around the world," says Yuka Yokoyama, associate director of exhibitions and programs for the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia. Yokoyama co-curated the Shofuso exhibits with William Whitaker, collections manager of architectural archives at the University of Pennsylvania. For her, its opening has been 20 years in the making. She was attending art school in Tokyo in 1999 when she first learned about Shofuso through an offhand encounter with a chair designed by Nakashima. "I just said, 'This is really comfortable. Who made it?'"
She would later work for artist Sori Yanagi -- the son of renowned designer and founder of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Soetsu Yanagi -- who taught her about the unlikely community of transcultural figures behind Shofuso and the camaraderie they shared.
While Yoshimura's historic house, with its gardens and waterfall designed by Tansai Sano, have existed in downtown Philadelphia since 1958, the new exhibition is the first to tie together three interconnected locations: Shofuso, the Raymond farmhouse and studio in New Hope, and Nakashima's house and workspaces, which he constructed within walking distance of the Raymond compound just after the war.
All three properties are linked by Japanese aesthetic concepts transplanted onto the vastness of American soil and sensibilities -- open sunlit spaces with views of broad landscapes, and interiors that blend minimalist tastes from Japan, modernist Western artistry and the craftsmanship of resident Quakers, members of a Christian denomination that settled in rural Pennsylvania in the 17th century and led efforts to help Japanese Americans in the region during and after World War II.
As eighth generation Kyoto gardener Tomoki Kato noted when he visited Shofuso to provide consultation in early 2020, the plants native to Philadelphia may be different from those found in Japan, but the core spiritual values can be cultivated anywhere, and in any era.
The variety of juxtapositions in the Shofuso exhibition makes it uniquely timely, and not just for globalists. Visitors to the site during its brief window of accessibility in 2020 (it opened in early September but closed shortly after due to COVID-19 restrictions) celebrate the calming effect of the environs and their meticulously arranged objects, which include Nakashima's furniture, Noemi Raymond's interior designs, and photographs both archival and recent, curated by landscape and architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella. A soothing, contemplative experience of any kind can be healing in these times.
The convergence of cultures in the making of a single site is also particularly relevant to today's debates over whether appropriation, the borrowing and refashioning of nonnative cultural artifacts, can ever be appropriate. If these four artists from divergent backgrounds had resisted exchanging and applying ideas from one another's cultures (and most likely committing errors of disrespect along the way to excellence), would Shofuso even exist?
"It's a transcultural project and it's not an easy sort of adaptation," says Yokoyama, admitting that Shofuso's history could invite charges of Orientalism. "We were so aware of what's going on in the art world with institutional racism, and what we really want to do is start discussion, not cut it off."
The program will resume in early 2021. Until then, virtual tours are available on the JapanPhilly website, the environs can be sampled via the documentary film, and there is a Shofosu Modernism and Curators Talk on YouTube.
Roland Kelts is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S." and a visiting professor at Waseda University.