Page C1.2 . 14 December 2011                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Anatomy of Metabolism


Looking at the plans and models for Kiyonori Kikutake's "Prototype of Mass Housing" (1966), Kisho Kurokawa's DNA-inspired "Helix City Plan for Tokyo" (1961) or the large-screen animation of Arata Isozaki's "Shibuya Project: City in the Air" (1962) — all unbuilt projects, conceived as intellectual exercises — we get a sense of a brave new world that might have been as much dystopian as utopian.

Even those rare works that were built, such as Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, still have the power to shock with their assumptions about the easy regimentation of humanity. In accordance with Metabolist principles, this apartment building consists of a pair of central concrete cores to which prefabricated capsules are attached using only four high-tension bolts each. Designed as individual dwelling units that could be connected to accommodate families, the capsules have uniform dimensions — 4 by 2.5 by 2.5 meters, or about 13 by 8 by 8 feet — but with some variations in style and grade. (One of the actual capsules is on display outside the Mori Art Museum.)

Kurokawa's intention was to make the pods easy to replace and alter, but in practice the units have not been replaced in the four decades since they were installed, and in recent years residents of the building have campaigned to have it demolished. This presents a picture of a frozen, once-idealized future at odds with the demands of those actually required to live in it.

The unsettling aspects of this vision are not without their foundation. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is an exploration of the roots of Metabolism, which, according to the exhibit's curator, the architect and critic Hajime Yatsuka, stemmed from the architectural ambitions of imperial Japan.

"If you were to exclude excessive ideological connotations, Metabolism includes elements of Fascism as well as elements of Socialism inasmuch as both were extreme derivations of the idea of modernism," Yatsuka remarked in a recent interview for ArchitectureWeek.

Accordingly, the exhibition starts with some designs and images from Japan's expansionary imperialist phase of the 1930s and '40s. These include "Plan for the Emigration Village in Manchuria" (1933), by a quintet of designers; and Kenzo Tange's "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere Monument" (1942), a plan for a vast complex extolling Japan's hoped-for hegemony and designed to give traditional Japanese architecture some of the monumentality of Western modernism.

"I understand that the origin of modern city planning lay in the French achievement in their ex-colonies, where they delegated enlightened colonial managers or rulers," Yatsuka observes. "In the same way, the Japanese origin lay in Taiwan and Manchuria under Shimpei Gotoh." Gotoh (1857-1927) was an important figure in Japan's expansion on the Asian mainland, serving as the governor of Taiwan and the first director of the hugely profitable South Manchuria Railway Company, which went on to spend vast sums developing Manchuria and attracting Japanese immigrants there.

From an architectural point of view, the colonial experience was important because there was much more freedom to plan outside Japan than inside. This was because Manchuria and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan provided cheaper land, more greenfield sites, larger blocks of property, and weaker property rights vis-à-vis public or colonial-government-supported projects.

An interesting contrast is presented between Gotoh's ambitious work creating cities in Manchuria, including the capital Xinjing, and his work as head of the Imperial Capital Reconstruction Agency, which had the task of rebuilding Tokyo after the devastating earthquake of 1923. As opposed to Gotoh's schemes overseas, only a few features of his plan for Tokyo were implemented. This was due to the city being divided up into tiny, privately owned parcels of land that worked against more ambitious plans.

By contrast, the colonial sphere gave Japanese architects and city planners the chance to think big. According to the thesis presented at this exhibit, much of this ambition and grandiosity carried over into the work of the Metabolists.

Another important influence on the movement was the experience of Japan's defeat in World War II. On a basic level this deprived the country, which then had an extremely fast-growing population, of overseas Lebensraum, forcing it to deal with its population problem within its own cramped territory. Metabolism was to a large degree presented as a solution to Japan's overcrowding and lack of decent accommodation. As Yatsuka says of the Metabolists, "They decided to seek Lebensraum above the sea or over the ground instead of overseas."

But in addition to this practical need, the defeat in the war also created a spiritual reaction. "Japan was a country with an excessive pride in her spiritual legacy, but had lost the war against a country that seemed to lack this quality," explains Yatsuka. The national assertiveness of the imperial period transmuted into something more subtle but with a similar agenda of protecting Japanese identity.

In this area Tange was a key transitional figure, developing his concept of "overcoming modernity," by which he meant retaining a distinct Japanese identity in modern architecture without resorting to cliches. This is something that he perhaps achieved to perfection in his design for the Yoyogi Gymnasium (1964), an Olympic stadium whose main feature is a gigantic suspended roof that recalls Todai-ji, the great Buddhist temple in Nara. As Arata Isozaki describes in Japan-ness in Architecture, Yoyogi was "a landmark creation of substantial uniqueness, no longer relying on a subexotic Japonica, nor even upon identifiable brutalist themes borrowed from Le Corbusier at Chandigarh."

Yatsuka sees symbolism in the fact that Tange made his postwar debut with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Designed under Japan's postwar democratic ideology, the monument also reflects Tange's idea of applying "social human scale," rather than mere "human scale," to Japanese symbolic architecture — an idea he had previously developed for the unbuilt "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere Monument," designed under a military ideology.

The subsequent works of the Metabolists should be seen in similar terms, but according to Yatsuka's thesis, there is an even more essentially Japanese element at work in Metabolism. This is signaled by Arata Isozaki's "Electric Labyrinth" (1968), a large digital collage showing two large, metal frame structures superimposed on a photograph of the ruins of Hiroshima. The structures are non-geometrical, giving them a strangely organic feel.

One of the salient characteristics of Metabolism — possibly inherited from the wide open plains of Manchuria — is a desire for a clean slate and the eradication and even purification of the site. This is ironically echoed in Isozaki's image, but it also finds a resonance in one of the archetypes of Japanese architecture: Ise Jingu.

Known as Japan's holiest Shinto shrine, it is both a revered structure and a prospective building site. Once every 20 years, the shrine is demolished and an identical one built on the adjacent site, with the two sites alternating. In 1960, Tange theorized, with Noboru Kawazoe, that Ise embodied the Japanese people's "will to construct," giving it an identitarian significance. They later explored this idea in greater depth in their book Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture (1965).

This identitarian notion of Japanese architecture as a process rather than a static entity is a common theme in Metabolist architecture and helps to put much of the alienating sci-fi futurism at the exhibit in a cultural context. Some of the grand schemes on display may strike the Western visitor as soulless or awe-inspiring, but the subtle cultural undercurrents give these futuristic visions a deeply Japanese character.

The exhibit "Metabolism, the City of the Future" is on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, through January 15, 2012.   >>>

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

C.B. Liddell lives in Japan. He is the art and architecture editor of Tokyo's Metropolis, and also writes regularly for The Japan Times and a number of other publications.   More by C.B. Liddell



ArchWeek Image

The space-efficient individual dwelling units of the Nakagin Capsule Tower include a wall of cabinets and appliances, and a small bathroom. This unit is installed outside Tokyo's Mori Art Museum as part of an exhibit of Metabolist works on display through January 15, 2012.
Photo: Watanabe Osamu/ Courtesy Mori Art Museum Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

One large, operable portal window provides the only daylight access to each 10-square-meter (108-square-foot) module in the Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa.
Photo: Photo: URBZ Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Another project for Tokyo designed by Kisho Kurokawa was the unbuilt Helix City (1961), which comprised a series of towers, each of which was formed by interposing a pair of mirror-image double-helical structures.
Photo: Watanabe Osamu/ Courtesy Mori Art Museum Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Shown here rendered in a 3D digital model, Arata Isozaki's design for the City in the Air project for the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo emphasized a superstructure of tall concrete columns supporting relatively light multistory bridges of steel, concrete, and glass.
Photo: Shibaura Institute of Technology/ Digital Hollywood University Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Kiyonori Kikutake designed the unbuilt Marine City (1963), envisioning a series of cylindrical residential towers built on several constructed islands.
Photo: Courtesy Kiyonori Kikutake Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A fan-shaped array of steel and concrete fins defines the outline of the Miyakonojo Civic Center (1966) in Miyakonojo, Japan, designed by Kiyonori Kikutake.
Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The concrete-and-glass Hotel Tokoen (1965) in Yonago, Japan, was also designed by Kikutake.
Photo: Shinkenchiku-sha Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Kikutake designed the Landmark Tower, a modular space-frame structure, for the 1970 World Expo, held in Osaka, Japan.
Photo: Wikipedia user Whity Extra Large Image


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