No. 543 . 14 December 2011 
ArchitectureWeek

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Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) in Tokyo, Japan, is the classic poster child of the Metabolist movement. Photo: Wikipedia user Wiiii

Anatomy of Metabolism

by C.B. Liddell

The exhibit "Metabolism, the City of the Future" at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo is a major retrospective looking at Japan's most widely known and perhaps least understood modern architecture movement.

Subtitled "Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-Day Japan," the exhibit throws up images depicting a sci-fi world of floating cities, metropolises in the sky, and soaring geometric shapes and patterns repeated over and over with little apparent correspondence to the psychological needs of humans.

All in all, at least in its broad visuals, the exhibition fits in very well with a certain Blade Runner-esque geek image of Japan that is very popular at the moment, a vision of something more suitable for manga and anime than real architecture. Unless, maybe, you're in one of a handful of special places in Asia, like Singapore, or one of the sprouting Chinese mega-cities.

While the geek eye-candy is plentiful, this exhibition also has a serious tale to tell, and one that ultimately tells us a lot about a certain Japanese mentality and about the country's conflicted relationship with modernism. Some of the things here simply wouldn't have made sense anywhere else, but they did make sense in Japan.

The Metabolists were a group of young architects who were united in 1960 behind a manifesto, at a time when manifestos had gone out of fashion. These men were inspired by Kenzo Tange, who, by that stage of his career, was already too elevated to be a mere group member. They included the architectural critic Noboru Kawazoe, the architects Masato Otaka, Fumihiko Maki, Kiyonori Kikutake, and Kisho Kurokawa, the graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu, and the industrial designer Kenji Ekuan. While not a direct member of the group, architect Arata Isozaki was a "fellow traveler" and peripheral participant in the movement.

As the biologically evocative name suggests, the Metabolists believed that buildings and cities should be designed to continually grow and change in the same way as organic life. In practice this meant moving away from the disorderly pattern of piecemeal construction and demolition then very common in Tokyo, towards the idea of architectural megastructures that could serve as an orderly framework for flexible, replaceable architecture.   >>>

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