Metabolism and the Unit

 

 

This research explores the origins of Japanese Metabolism through examining the movement's post-war social context and theory. Case studies are found in the work of Kisho Kurokawa and Kiyonori Kikutake, who designed its most significant built works.


Metabolism—a radical postwar Japanese architectural movement which saw the future of the city as networked mega-structures and formations of renewable dwelling units—was explored through speculative proposals, pavilions, and new housing from 1956 – 1973 (coinciding with Japan’s ‘economic miracle’). (1) Although numerous professionals contributed to the movement’s emergence, the Metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake initially conceived the defining proposals of their manifesto, Metabolism 1960, and the foundational concept of the interchangeable unit through built works such as Sky House and Tonogaya Housing. (2) Yet, Metabolism is now best exemplified in iconic projects such as Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower; which manifested the long-tested Metabolist domestic model that compressed living area into pre-fabricated modules attachable to a core superstructure. This brief though globally influential movement was borne out of a visionary reconstruction mentality and the new possibilities of emergent technology. It exploited the tabula-rasa created by the war and wrestled with questions of collective form, resilience, domesticity, and renewal over time.

The inception of this movement coincided with and fueled the development of global counterparts—Group Form, the Habitat, and Structuralism. Brainstormed primarily Fumihiko Maki, Moshe Safdie, and members of Team X—these architects also employed the architectural unit as a massing strategy to produce similarly aggregated urban configurations, but on a more horizontal (rather than vertical) datum. Although these less unified movements were, like Metabolism, a response to the critical need for post-war reconstruction and housing, they were ultimately concerned with the internal and external spatial configurations these aggregations could produce, and the relationships between each unit—not the aggregation’s overall composition or infrastructural provision. (3)

While the impact of Metabolism and these movements was consequential within the discipline, their real-world implementation was not widespread. Today, only traces of the Metabolist movement are seen in Japan, as many of its experiments were temporary, or since demolished.

(  Project Japan, pg. 406) Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972), Tokyo

(Project Japan, pg. 406) Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972), Tokyo

In the 21st century, further connections to Metabolism’s unit-based approach can be seen, and an interest in configurative schemes is now resurging in international academic and professional work in imitation of the style being developed in contemporary Japan.  Trendsetting Japanese architects such as SANAA, Sou Fujimoto, and BIG are contemporary figures reinterpreting the formal languages and theory of Metabolism and Group Form. Yet, where the former approaches relied on rational, connected configurations of the unit, these architects are developing a style where more scattered, disordered compositions are preferred to induce spatial variation and blur relationships between interior and exterior. Fundamental to their approach is the freeing of the unit from a rational grid or network, and the intuitive chaos of the plan. Their new approach evinces incredible social dynamics and spatial variety of the ‘in-between’, a key concept of both Metabolists like Kisho Kurokawa and Structuralists like Aldo Van Eyck.

The architectural unit and its aggregation—a recurrent and provocative theme in modern architecture—found an especially influential expression in the Japanese Metabolist movement. This research seeks to trace the trajectory of Metabolism and the viability of its unit-based approach through examining its post-war sociocultural context and theory. Case studies are found in the work of Kurokawa and Kikutake, who famously designed the most significant and original manifestations of the Metabolist movement.  


The architectural unit and its aggregation—a recurrent and provocative theme in modern architecture—found an especially influential expression in the Japanese Metabolist movement.



Postwar Conditions: Urban and Economic Development

Although Japan eventually emerged from its postwar devastation as an elite first-world economy, its cities had all but been erased due to relentless bombardment. When Allied Occupation began in 1945, homelessness was epidemic due to the destruction of so much housing, as well as the homecoming of some 7 million Japanese troops and civilians from abroad. (4) Survival necessitated the rapid reconstruction of cities and housing. Initially this foothold of stability was achieved with the help of America, who, instead of taking punitive measures against Japan, adopted a Cold-war policy of rehabilitation and alliance in order to gain an ally against Soviet expansion.

As reconstruction began, populations in Japan grew at unprecedented rates. Yet, the development of infrastructure lagged far behind, creating dysfunctional urban conditions in new postwar cities. A major issue in this new development was sprawl, as cities expanded into the surrounding countryside with reckless speed, therefore losing the coherent structure of a healthy organism. (5) Moreover, Allied Occupation forces atomized existing land ownership structures, creating a pointillist and inhibiting framework for cohesive urban development. (6) These issues were especially severe in the context of Japan’s mountainous topography—only one-fifth of which was suitable for building—while most of that fraction was dedicated to agricultural production.


As reconstruction began, urban populations in Japan grew at unprecedented rates. Yet, the development of infrastructure lagged far behind, creating dysfunctional conditions in new postwar cities.


(  Project Japan, pg. 83) Postwar Tokyo devastation

(Project Japan, pg. 83) Postwar Tokyo devastation

These urban and economic conditions combined with social, cultural, and technological changes catalyzed by the war to provoke an existential search for a renewed national identity. Traditional aspects of Japanese culture were undermined by emerging orders and democratic ideals in Japan. For example, Allied Occupation forces connected Shintoism with the country’s legacy of aggressive, wartime ultra-nationalism and imposed a separation of ‘church from state’—banning the teaching of Shinto in schools and institutions. (7) Meanwhile, world-changing technological advances such as the microchip & moon-landing (8) inspired both Japan and the world, and its trade partnership with America engendered a massive export and manufacturing boom. These factors shifted Japan’s economic paradigm towards industry and engineering from agriculture to unprecedented levels between 1955 and 1973.

New modernized industrial facilities, unhindered access to the U.S. market and technology, as well as massive Korean-war procurement orders made by America, all contributed to the shifting identity of Japan as an industrial and techno-manufacturing powerhouse. Japan scholar Jeffrey Kingston speculates that Japan’s growth; largely due to economic policies but also the sacrifice of its laborers, (9) reflects the potential of fully embracing cutting edge manufacturing and industrial technology. Whereas in more industrialized countries like America, workers balked and protested introduction of technology into their factories on the basis of job loss and worker obsolescence, Japan’s implicit standard of lifetime employment helped workers accept the introduction of labor-saving technologies. (10)


New modernized industrial facilities, unhindered access to the U.S. market and technology, as well as massive Korean-war procurement orders made by America, all contributed to the shifting identity of Japan as an industrial and techno-manufacturing powerhouse.


As Japan’s economy became increasingly export-oriented, government authorities placed higher emphasis on design in order to improve the value and desirability of Japanese products in the competitive global marketplace. (11) Not limited to products, this strategy paralleled efforts by influential architects and planners to master-plan Japan’s problematic postwar urban growth. Architects such as Kenzo Tange were instrumental in their efforts to re-position Japanese architecture in response to a Modernist international culture, and orchestrated development plans for infrastructure and cities along the Japanese archipelago. Yet, this process was fraught. Tange writes,
 

“When we saw our national land turned into scorched earth in which nothing remained but a sparse scattering of burnt concrete structures. We had a dream and hope of drawing a new city as if on a blank white sheet. But we soon learned that there is a thick opaque layer of political, economic, and social realities beneath the scorched earth of each city. In fact, the cities were reconstructed not according to an urban plan but political realities.” (12)

Although many of Tange’s postwar civic works were realized and helped establish a dialogue between the global architectural discipline and Japan, his urbanistic ideas such as Tokyo Bay (1960) remained theoretical, leaving critical postwar urban issues in speculative territory. However, his association with fledgling Metabolists during the 1950s fertilized the ground from which the movement would spring. (13)
 

(  Project Japan, pg. 108) Kenzo Tange Lab planning urban reconstruction

(Project Japan, pg. 108) Kenzo Tange Lab planning urban reconstruction

Metabolism’s Themes

The shinchitaisha—or ‘metabolist’ movement—first named by architectural theorist and critic Noboru Kawazoe and architect Kiyonori Kikutake—was fundamentally connected to the idea of renewal and regeneration. (14) This concept, naturally, arose in the post-war reconstruction-period from a nexus of related concerns. First, from issues connected to land scarcity and vulnerability.

As mentioned before, atomized land ownership in urban areas complicated an orchestrated vision of urban development. Moreover, land scarcity due to Japan’s mountainous terrain and agricultural fields constrained density to a fraction of the island. These barriers to actual development forced theoretical speculation on new frameworks for development. Yet, the larger issues of calamity and natural disaster also impacted the direction of the Metabolists. On an island known for perennial natural disasters—lamented by figures such as Kamo-Chomei from as far back as the 12th century—and recently a victim of the atom bomb, Both Kikutake and Tange are noted for their ocean-based urban proposals such as Marine City—one of the first Metabolist projects published—which was essentially an oceanic commune floating on sea-based platforms. Immune from the earthquakes bombing afflicting conventional land-based urbanism, the platforms also created their own land, circumventing the problems of scarcity and land-purchase. (15)


The shinchitaisha—or ‘metabolist’ movement—first named by architectural theorist and critic Noboru Kawazoe and architect Kiyonori Kikutake—was fundamentally connected to the ideas of renewal and regeneration.


(  Project Japan, pg. 238) "Metamorphosis of Tokyo" - 1966 illustration representing Metabolist renewal

(Project Japan, pg. 238) "Metamorphosis of Tokyo" - 1966 illustration representing Metabolist renewal

Second, an embrace of contemporary technology and utopianism influenced the architectural resolution of the Metabolists’ vision of a future city through their interest in systematic infrastructures and mega-structures, modern construction technology, and mass production. As Arata Isozaki—an observer of the movement’s development, writes,

 

“The image Metabolism deployed comprised a permanent core supplemented by a shorter-term growth module. The former was a mega-structure that may be likened to a tree trunk or spinal cord; the latter resembled the branches of a tree or organs of the body, constantly renewing its cellular metabolism. Especially remarkable was a mass-produced, interchangeable capsule unit for living.” (16)


Third, the Metabolists were fundamentally rejecting the conventional modernist scheme of mass-housing espoused by CIAM and the international discipline. Team X—generators of the Structuralist movement—broke alongside Metabolists from CIAM in rejection of their dogma and in favor of a more humanistic philosophy. (17) Metabolists envisioned a city constantly regenerating itself; like a tree—the trunk being fixed ‘infra’ or mega-structures and the leaves becoming individual residential units with a limited or ‘seasonal’ lifespan.


“By clearly separating parts of a building or city which have different rates of change, they allow certain structures to remain undisturbed while others wear out. Their ideal is town design a city so flexible in its connections that its parts could grow, transform themselves and die while the whole animal went on living.” (18)

 

This potential for exchange and movement of the individual capsule facilitates a new model for urban-dwelling and domesticity that went beyond the nuclear family to privilege mobility and individual liberty. This reflects a shift in the Japanese consciousness that decidedly belonged to the postwar generation. Japanese scholar Shunsuke Tsurumi mentions a noteworthy story from a Japanese ‘newspaper in 1929, of an old tramp, 95 years old, who carried as his only luggage 45 wooden mortuary tablets of his deceased ancestors. He would not throw them away for fear the ancestral ghosts would not only hound him but would haunt somebody else and make mischief.’ 1929 was two years before Japan embarked on a long war of conquest. Cohesive extended families and a sense of connection to ancestors has been eroded in the postwar period, probably due to the massive relocation of density from communal agricultural villages into more socially fragmented urban cities. (19)

Finally, there is an important precedent for Metabolism’s regenerative framework—Japan’s wood buildings and shrines, chiefly Ise Shrine; which has been rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century. In a way, this precedent is a prototype for Metabolism’s urban scheme. The basis Metabolists found in Ise Shrine can be read as a strategy to redefine a unique, non-oriental sense of Japan’s tradition, and as Tange put it—to create a new style of Japanese modernism rooted in distinctly Japanese concepts rather than forms. (20) Kurokawa contrasts the Metabolists’ recognition of Ise Shrine with the static, permanent notions of the West:

“We have in Japan an aesthetic of death, whereas you have an aesthetic of eternity. The Ise shrines are rebuilt every twenty years in the same form, or spirit; whereas (in the West) you try to preserve the actual Greek Temple, the original material, as if it could last for eternity… I can be Buddha (continually reincarnated), but you can’t be Christ (resurrected and eternal).” (21)


"We have in Japan an aesthetic of death, whereas you have an aesthetic of eternity. The Ise shrines are rebuilt every twenty years in the same form, or spirit; whereas (in the West) you try to preserve the actual Greek Temple, the original material, as if it could last for eternity..."

 

-Kisho Kurokawa


Metabolism’s Players

Although, according to Project Japan, the inception of the Metabolist movement really began through informal meetings in the ‘tatami salon’ of Kikutake’s Sky House, Tokyo coffee shops, and hallways of the International House, the historic marker of Metabolism’s beginning was the 1960 World Design Conference; organized by Tange to confront the rest of the world with the innovative Japanese avant-garde and emerging Japanese Modernism. Four architects and one theorist who had been collaborating and critiquing each others research and work, collectively published a small manifesto and portfolio of the radical Metabolist schemes they had developed: “Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism,” and presented their work to an international audience that included figures such as Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and Charles Jencks.

(  Project Japan, pg. 206)  Metabolism 1960,  the manifesto written by Metabolists for the 1960 World Design Conference

(Project Japan, pg. 206) Metabolism 1960, the manifesto written by Metabolists for the 1960 World Design Conference

Architect Kiyonori Kikutake’s work is featured first in the manifesto, and is comprised of seven projects exemplifying his original contribution of the fundamentally Metabolist capsule or living-cell concept. Many of his projects are land-forms or ocean-based; a reflection of his interest in the issues of land scarcity and ownership. It is recorded by Koolhaas in his Project Japan interviews that Kikutake developed his own proposals initially—the other Metabolists offering suggestions while he drew his plans. (22) Kikutake’s work is followed by critic & theorist Noboru Kawazoe’s essay “Material and Man,” as well as Masato Otaka and Fumihiko Maki’s “Toward Group Form.” Post-conference, Maki diverged slightly from the approach of the Metabolists, pursuing less radical architectural schemes in favor of a more contextual urbanistic model he termed ‘Group Form’, which departed from the concept of regeneration but retained a similar sense of compositional aggregation. (23)

(Project Japan, pg 204) Left to Right: Kikutake, Asada, Kawazoe, Kurokawa

(Project Japan, pg 204) Left to Right: Kikutake, Asada, Kawazoe, Kurokawa


Kisho Kurokawa

And last, Kisho Kurokawa’s work was represented—a graduate student at the time—who showed a range of different projects such as Space Cityand Agricultural City. It is evident that some of Kurokawa’s most metabolic work in the manifesto, such as ‘Wall City’ and ‘Bamboo-like City’, bear extremely strong resemblances to Kikutake’s work. Thus, although Kurokawa made substantial contributions to the discourse and built work of the Metabolists, it is possible he can not be credited with the original conception of the capsule – although he did take ownership of this concept through rigorous research and experimentation over the next decade. Additionally, he coined the popular use of this term—‘capsule’—for the interchangeable living unit. Kurokawa’s adroit surfing of this emergent area of research, passionate work ethic, and charismatic personality combined to launch an incredibly successful and publicized career—apparently at his career's peak he was ranked—generally—the 3rd most popular person in Japan.

Additionally, Kurokawa is wholly responsible for the most substantial and iconic architectural realization of Metabolism—the Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972). (24) In many ways, this project is a finale of the Metabolist movement, manifesting central themes and concerns of their theory—technology, flexibility, mobility and renewal, and individualistic domesticity. By considering this work from 1972—Metabolism’s ‘finale’—followed by Kikutake’s work in 1956—Metabolism’s ‘origins’—we gain a uniquely balanced understanding of the movement’s trajectory and its architects.


Metabolism's Finale: Nagakin Capsule Tower

In 1963, in part because of the proposals generated by Japanese modernists and metabolists, the height limits in Tokyo were up-zoned, allowing for vertical density. (25) Moreover, a massive construction boom in the 1960s facilitated the construction of pre-fabricated, capsule-based experimental models several years into the 70s. In 1973, this economic growth and activity in the development sector stuttered and stopped short due to the country’s oil crisis—the ensuing recession effectively halted construction activity and therefore the fledgling Metabolist movement in its tracks. (26) On the cusp of this event, the Capsule Tower was built.

(  Kisho Kurokawa: From Metabolism and Symbiosis)   Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972)

(Kisho Kurokawa: From Metabolism and Symbiosis) Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972)

Kurokawa’s project hardly needs an introduction. Through aligning the design of the tower’s capsules to take advantage of with manufacturing processes, industrial transporting, and simple assembly methods, the Nagakin Tower’s living units became extremely affordable—enough so to compete with the housing market. In today’s dollars, each of the 200+ capsules, furnishings and appliances included, cost no more at the time than a Toyota Corolla. Moreover, they were all bought within one month of construction, substantiating the prototype as a seemingly viable model for broader urban development. Furthermore, the Metabolist perspective on shifting domestic models was by now fulfilled. Only 30% of the capsules were used by families or even singles. 30% were used by traveling businessmen—and another 40% used for miscellaneous purposes, such as recreation rooms, extensions to other capsules, or small businesses. This diversity of uses was described by Kurokawa as a ‘time-community’ —a community of individuals based on the different activities the people performed over time; not their relation or place. (27) The project perfectly mirrored the changing currents and needs of Japanese domesticity. Scholar Nakano Osamu even adopted the tower-capsule as a moniker to describe the 1975 Japanese generation—a person of which he called ‘Capsule Man’, who,
 

“…feels most secure and relaxed when is shut up in his small room with his stereo, television, and comic books. They have developed a love and respect for privacy, a distrust of public causes, and have very little regard for the state. A survey of company employees showed that not a single one was prepared to give his life for the state in a time of emergency, in decisive contrast to the mentality of the prewar and wartime eras.” (28)
 

The two basic components of the tower—the service core and the living capsules—were differentiated by their metabolic cycles. The core was built to last 100 years; the capsules 25-30. This time-span was not a function of their construction or material but more their intended use; the capsules are still serviceable today (if you don’t mind their asbestos insulation). Their theoretically periodic replacement would create a shifting vertical landscape of capsules on the cores—what Kurokawa saw as ‘an aesthetic of time’ rather than randomization. (29) Each capsule was built from a lightweight steel frame; their interiors standardized with a bathroom pod, bed, and a variety of utilities and appliances, including a color TV.


The project perfectly mirrored the changing currents and needs of Japanese domesticity.


(  Kisho Kurokawa: From Metabolism and Symbiosis)   Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972)

(Kisho Kurokawa: From Metabolism and Symbiosis) Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972)

In typical Japanese fashion, the hyper-technical is connected to the traditional. The premise of the interchangeable capsule and mobile subject evokes comparisons to the ‘kago’ capsule or litter, a traditional capsule or litter for transportation. The circular window, reminiscent of washing machines and space-ships, is actually borrowed by Kurokawa as an original feature of traditional tea-houses—as is the tatami-like proportions of the capsule plan. Further resemblance to tradition has been seen in the tower’s formal similarity to traditional wood-block puzzles and the interlocking structural details of Japanese temples. (30) Similarly, Kurokawa frequently compared the Capsule Tower model to the additive ‘shoin’ pavilions of Katsura Imperial Palace, which was successively expanded, room by room, since the 17th century. (31)

Although Kurokawa went on to develop variations on this theme—such as the LC-30X leisure capsule, the culinary capsule, and a Tea Ceremony room capsule—the movement failed to gain further traction as a result of Japan’s recession and concerns over the negative environmental impact unchecked development was causing. However, Kurokawa did realize a number of smaller interventions in rural and mountainous contexts as a way to demonstrate the adaptability of his systems. 


In typical Japanese fashion, the hyper-technical is connected to the traditional.



Kiyonori Kikutake

Parallel to Kisho Kurokawa, Kikutake’s career was equally fruitful although less glamorized by the media. Complementing Kurokawa’s specialization in pre-fabrication and capsules, Kikutake continued to explore the threads he originally established in Metabolism 1960 of artificial land-forms and solutions to land scarcity. His theory was afforded the chance for realization in 1972—the same year as Nagakin Capsule Tower’s completion, when a government ministry, The Mechanical Social Systems Foundation, sponsors Kikutake’s ‘Stratiform’ project—a mega-structural tiered-platform for detached American-style housing, to be placed over roads and rail-lines. With the government’s financial backing, Kikutake pursues this architectural concept for over a decade; yet, it never culminates in a realized project. (32)

(Project Japan pg. 138)   Kikutake's Sky House

(Project Japan pg. 138) Kikutake's Sky House

Notwithstanding this outcome, Kikutake’s contributions to the Metabolist movement are foundational and original. These contributions preceded the Metabolists’ late work in the 1970s, and the 1960s, and, indeed, all the earliest work of his compatriots. His seminal Sky House, built in 1958, was presented at the 1960 World Design Conference (when Metabolism was officially instigated) as a proof-of-concept prototype. Its architecture was elevated on four robust concrete piers to resist seismic forces, and used its gridded concrete floor slab as an interface for hanging room-extensions to the space above. It perfectly exemplified the fundamental concepts of flexibility and plug-in modules through the unique invention of what Kikutake called the ‘move-net’—the direct forerunner of the iconic service-core and capsule model that he also invented in his Marine City proposal (1958), and which was subsequently taken up as a Metabolist signature by Kurokawa and others. (33) All in all, the Sky House underwent seven metabolic phase changes, or renovations to accommodate family growth or departures.

Kiyonori Kikutake’s precocity in contemplating these ideas of replaceable, Metabolic systems was due, perhaps in part, to his experience building postwar relief and collective housing beginning in 1953. Demand and limited resources prompted his research on wood structures that could be recycled, relocated, or expanded depending on need. (34) But if we trace back Kikutake’s Metabolist innovations to their source, as Koolhaas and Obrist did recently in an interview for Project Japan, we find that a long-neglected housing project, Tonogaya Apartments (1956), can be considered as the earliest beginnings of this movement. (35) It was here that Kikutake first explored defining Metabolist themes, and stumbled upon a strategy which would later become the plug-in capsule—the ubiquitous trademark of the Metabolist movement. And it was inspired by the most innocuous and everyday of things.

(Project Japan pg. 154)   Kiyonori Kikutake

(Project Japan pg. 154) Kiyonori Kikutake


Origins: Tonogaya Apartments

Tonogaya Apartments (1956) was designed by Kikutake and Associates for families working outside of Yokohama at nearby manufacturing facilities. The brief for this project is essentially low-rent apartment houses with a minimum number of facilities and building costs. Although this family-centric brief differs from the individual subject championed by Metabolists, Kikutake approaches this work in a clear, radical way based on the same strategies used by Metabolists: distinction of service and living, autonomy of the living unit, and emphasis on the core.

The building is structured as a series of vertical cores between which residential units are positioned. Instead of a conventional loaded-corridor, each unit is directly connected to a respective service core—while no passageways between units are afforded. This maximizes the area and exposure of the living unit, and forces circulation and social interchange to occur in the vertical cores and landscaped grounds of the project; a very metabolistic concept. A sense of dwelling-unit autonomy is reinforced sectionally; as each unit is staggered to accommodate a skip-stop core system. This sectional idea increases the cost-efficiency of Kikutake’s scheme and emphasizes the dependency of the unit on the service core—a hallmark Metabolist concept—versus units being connected to one another. The elevational result of irregularity and change, despite the fact that each unit is the same, alters the more uniform model of conventional housing in the same way as the Capsule Tower.

(Japan Architect   1956-57  , pg. 27,  photos Y. Ishimoto )   Tonogaya Apartment House

(Japan Architect 1956-57, pg. 27, photos Y. IshimotoTonogaya Apartment House

(Japan Architect   1956-57  , pg. 30,  photos Y. Ishimoto )   Kitchen core and living area

(Japan Architect 1956-57, pg. 30, photos Y. IshimotoKitchen core and living area

Furthermore, the plan of the living unit is consistent with this overall building strategy. The space of the living unit is organized into two distinct parts: service and flexible living space. The service components of the apartment—kitchen, bathroom, toilet, are packaged into a discrete, compact area that is held within the concrete service-core. Although these facilities are constructed in place, their compact configuration and consolidation suggests possibilities of pre-fabrication and more metabolistic organization of utilities.

Overall, Tonogaya sets up the themes that both Metabolists and Japanese modernists would explore; chief among them the distinction of program from service and the establishment of structural cores. Yet, despite these larger moves, it was a very small detail that led Kikutake toward the strategy of the attached capsule unit. In his interview for Koolhaas’ Project Japan, he states,
 

“The origin of the move-net (the replaceable capsule) harks back to Tonogaya Apartments. When we couldn’t find space for a shoebox, it instantly occurred to me to stick it out of the window. I wasn’t completely sure about the result, but it gave me tremendous inspiration…” (36)

Ironically, the Metabolists’ lofty vision of renewing Japan was predicated on a space-saving device for shoes. We see the evolution of this humble idea in Kikutake’s Marine City (1958) and throughout the Metabolist ouevre, reaching its apotheosis in the Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972).


Ironically, the Metabolists’ lofty vision of renewing Japan was predicated on a space-saving device for shoes.


(Japan Architect   1956-57  , pg. 30,  photos Y. Ishimoto ) Building elevation (white rectangular protrusions are attached shoe-boxes)

(Japan Architect 1956-57, pg. 30, photos Y. Ishimoto) Building elevation (white rectangular protrusions are attached shoe-boxes)


Metabolism and the Unit

Despite some isolated successes, the Metabolist model of the 60s and 70s ultimately failed to flourish and establish itself as the new paradigm for Japanese urban development. Economic and political factors did not align in its favor, and its basic architectural proposition of capsule + service core was not without flaws. For example, the process of refreshing dwelling units connected to service cores was conceptually plausible, but in practice highly problematic. The Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972) required the removal of all units above the single one on its elevation which needed replaced. (37) Instead of what Kurokawa imagined: a constantly changing mosaic of units; a massive renovation would be needed to replace all at once. Certainly, this flaw could have been eventually overcome if the vertical, high-density Metabolist project was further developed. Nonetheless, it highlights the interdependency and limitations of the Metabolist unit and the infrastructure which must always support it.

Fumihiko Maki, who stood near to Metabolist theory but distinguished himself as a proponent of ‘Group Form’, nonetheless picked up on exactly the Metabolists ambition. His insights, written in his 1964 manifesto, see clearly into the vulnerabilities of the Metabolist system:
 

“This suggests that the mega-structure… that can expand or contract with the least disturbance to others would be more preferable to the one of a rigid hierarchical system. In other words, each system which makes the whole, maintains its identity and longevity without being affected by others while at the same time engaged in dynamic contact with others.” (38)

Maki rightly points out that when systems of different scale and function (such as the Metabolist unit on a time-scale of 20-30 years, and the service core on a time-scale of 50-100 years) coexist in an urban scheme, a frictionless relationship is crucial to the overall viability of the urbanism. Yet, the paradox of Metabolism is that by striating architectural space and program – into ‘living’ and ‘service’, for example – one system always relies on the other, and is always mediated through the other.


Yet, the paradox of Metabolism is that by striating architectural space and program – into ‘living’ and ‘service’, for example – one system always relies on the other, and is always mediated through the other.


In contrast to this model, contemporary architects such as Sou Fujimoto and SANAA are reviving unit-based strategies in service of related aims. Sejima and Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (2005), for example, explores the potential of empty space between self-similar architectural units. Conceived as a communal house in an urban neighborhood for five renting tenants and one landlord, certain units of smaller scale contain shared domestic services, while others have a generic treatment that enables flexibility in occupancy and domestic relationships. (39) The architectural and spatial fluidity of the project matches its potential for different kinds of occupancies over time. It distinguishes itself from a dualistic Metabolist scheme by virtue that each of its massing units is structurally the same and separated from each other. In theory, this would enable frictionless modification or renovation to any single unit. While the difference in scale and density between the Moriyama co-housing project and a Metabolist tower is significant; as a comparison of architectural diagrams there is something provocative about the urban framework and communal ideology Moriyama House (2005) represents.

(openbuildings.com)  , SANAA, Moriyama House (2005) Plan

(openbuildings.com), SANAA, Moriyama House (2005) Plan

Short-lived movements like Metabolism have ingrained a belief in our discipline that architecture isn’t capable of solving society’s largest problems. The perspective that it can, however, led the Metabolists to a groundbreaking field of research and innovative architectural forms. They succeeded, if for a brief time, in translating their utopian visions into constructed realities. Today, the same issues that confronted the Metabolists exist: resource and land scarcity, obsolete and inadequate infrastructure, socioeconomic inequality, changing family and domestic structures, and environmental disasters. It is time to seriously engage political, social, and environmental issues of our day with architecture; even if, like Kikutake, we start in a very small place.


Today, the same issues that confronted the Metabolists exist: resource and land scarcity, obsolete and inadequate infrastructure, socioeconomic inequality, changing family and domestic structures, and environmental disasters. It is time to seriously engage political, social, and environmental issues of our day with architecture; even if, like Kikutake, we start in a very small place.


 

 

 

 

 

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        Record, 1978. Print.

10.   Schalk, Meike. "The Architecture of Metabolism: Inventing a Culture of Resilience." Arts 3.279-297
        (2014): n. pag. Web.

11.   Maki, Fumihiko. Investigations in Collective Form. St. Louis: School of Architecture, Washington U,
        1964. Print.

12.   Isozaki, Arata, and David B. Stewart. Japan-ness in Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print.

13.   Oshima, Ken Tadashi. "Morphoses of the Minimal Dwelling." Lotus 142 (n.d.): 13-17.

14.   Kitayama, Koh, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, and Ryūe Nishizawa. Tokyo Metabolizing. Tokyo, Japan: TOTO
         Pub., 2010. Print.

15.   Fujimoto, Sou. Sou Fujimoto: Primitive Future. Tokyo: Inax Pub., 2008. Print.

16.   Hozumi, Kazuo; Nishi, Kazuo. What Is Japanese Architecture? A Survey of Traditional Japanese
        Architecture. Kodansha USA, New York, 1985. Print.

17.   Hidaka, Jin. "Reconsideration of the Metabolist Model." (24th World Congress of Architecture) UIA
        2011 Tokyo Circular, n.d. Web.

18.   Elsner, Oliver, Christina Nägle, and Michael Rieper. Wohnmodelle: Experiment Und Alltag ; =
        Housing Models. Wien: Folio-Verl., 2008. Print.

 

Citations
 

1. Japan in Transformation 1952 - 2000-  pg 36

2. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks-  pg 128-157, 206-221, 336-370

3. Investigations in Collective Form-  pg 6-13

4. Japan in Transformation 1952 - 2000-  pg 36 - 44

5. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 69

6.  ^  –  pg 72

7.  ^  –  pg 37

8. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks – pg 89

9. Japan’s Postwar History – pg 83 – 124

10. Japan in Transformation 1952 - 2000-  pg 36 - 44

11. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 16 - 17

12. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks – pg 106

13.  ^  –  pg 12-13

14.  ^  –  pg 234 - 235

15. The Architecture of Metabolism: Inventing a Culture of Resilience – pg 1 - 2

16. Japan-ness in Architecture – pg 63

17. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 8

18. Metabolism in Architecture – pg 8

19. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945- 1980 – pg 120-121

20. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 12

21. Metabolism in Architecture – pg 10

22. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks – pg 235

23. Investigations in Collective Form-  pg 14-23

24. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks–  pg 12-13

25. ^  – pg 139

26. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 61

27. Metabolism in Architecture – pg 15 – 16

28. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980 – pg 120 – 121

29.  Metabolism in Architecture – pg 10 – 16

30. Beyond Metabolism: The New Japanese Architecture – pg 75 – 77

31. Metabolism in Architecture – pg 10

32. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks – pg 668 – 669

33. Lotus 142 – pg 3 – 7

34. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement – pg 40 – 41

35. Lotus 142 – pg 3 – 7

36. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks – pg 146

37. Reconsideration of the Metabolist Model – pg 1

38. Investigations in Collective Form-  pg 11-12

39. Wohnmodelle: Experiment Und Alltag – pg 136-155