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Issue 145

Past Futures

Amelia Groom considers the Japanese architecture group Metabolism, while Nick Currie talks to Rem Koolhaas about organic cities and flexible buildings

BY Amelia Groom, Nick Currie AND Rem Koolhaas in Features | 01 FEB 12

The young Japanese architects who launched themselves with the manifesto ‘Metabolism 1960’ at the World Design Conference in Tokyo that year had all been teenagers in 1945, when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped out by atomic bombs. Devastatingly aware of the impermanence of built spaces and the destructibility of cities, they responded to the widespread housing crisis of postwar Japan by calling for more flexible and dynamic urban models. Promising to design spaces for living bodies that would be more in line with the metabolic processes of those bodies, they conceived of cities as living, moving and evolving creatures. Buildings would be adaptable organisms perpetually rejuvenating themselves; the metropolis would be a verb rather than a noun. Mentored by the great Modernist architect Kenzo Tange at Tange Lab, his experimental architecture studio at Tokyo University, their imaginative and sometimes impossibly ambitious proposals advocated kinko tochi or ‘artificial ground’ (to be built on the sea and in the sky), plug-in megastructures and prefab modular capsules. 

As it happened, the first major exhibition of Metabolism opened at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in September 2011, not only half a century after the movement’s genesis, but also half a year after the first nuclear catastrophe Japan had suffered since the destruction from which Metabolism was born. The earthquake-triggered tsunami of 11 March 2011 swept away homes, schools, hospitals, motorways, trains and aeroplanes, leaving behind 25 million tonnes of debris that will take years to clear. With flattened cities and towns along 400 kilometres of Japan’s coast, this was the first time since the Tange Lab that Japanese architects had been forced to think about building entire municipalities from scratch.

Kiyonori Kikutake, Marine City, 1963, acrylic and plaster model. Courtesy Kiyonori Kikutake

As the country faces these dire post-disaster planning and reconstruction challenges, the boldly inventive thinking to which ‘Metabolism, The City of the Future: Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-day Japan’ paid homage was particularly apposite – and with the remaining Metabolists now all octogenarians, a retrospective of the movement was both pertinent and pressing. But from the outset, the exhibition’s large team of curators and advisors faced a number of quandaries: how to faithfully reconstruct ideas that were so much of their time? How to exhibit something founded on being unpredictable, transient, anti-fundamental and anti-monumental? How to avoid historicizing the group in a way that pins it to a moment in the past and cuts off potential ties to the present? Perhaps most crucial of all was the question of how to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the movement, which was so riddled with internal contradiction and dissent that ‘movement’ may not even be the right word.

Happily, the exhibition was well researched and presented multiple voices and ideas without constructing any false continuum or coherence. Models, drawings, posters, texts, photographs and archival films were arranged in a suitably jumbled manner that avoided consensus and rewarded careful viewing. An easily missed drawing by Takashi Asada, for example, pointed to an important proto-Metabolist experiment originally published in Shinkenchiku (Japan Architect) in 1955. Titled ‘Asada’s Scale’, the diagram proposes a system of measurement that could be applied to anything in the physical world – from atoms to nebulae – bringing to mind Metabolism’s advocacy of continuous modular growth from rooms to buildings to cities.

Kenzo Tange, Yamanashi Culture Hall, 1966. Courtesy DAAS; photograph: Shinkenchiku-sha

Working together throughout the 1960s, the Metabolists (the official members included four architects, an industrial designer, a graphic designer and a critic) had their apotheosis at Expo ’70 in Osaka. Successfully branding Japan as a technocratic trailblazer (TIME magazine’s cover story read: ‘No Country Has a Stronger Franchise on the Future Than Japan’), it was the first World Expo to be held in Asia, and the largest and best attended in history. It was here that the ongoing contention about the country’s aesthetic heritage and its place in Japanese modernity came to a head – most visibly with the artist Taro Okomoto’s 70-metre-tall statue, Tower of the Sun, piercing the middle of Tange’s colossal space frame, titled Big Roof. Since returning to Japan after living in Paris (where he studied under Marcel Mauss in the 1930s), Okomoto had pushed for modern Japan to embrace what he considered to be the dynamic, primitive spirit of the nation’s Jomon legacy (c.14,000–300BCE), as opposed to what was perceived as the refined, reductionist and aristocratic aesthetic of the subsequent Yayoi era (300BCE–300CE).

Okomoto’s tower was allegedly named in reference to Season of the Sun, the 1955 novel by the disreputable current governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, in which the protagonist breaks through a shoji paper screen with his erect penis. The Metabolists’ disapproval of it is encapsulated by Arata Isozaki’s histrionic condemnation in his 2006 book Japan-ness in Architecture: ‘Alas, when at last I saw Okomoto’s tower (looking like a giant phallus) penetrating the soft membrane of the roof, I thought to myself that the battle for modernity had finally been lost. The primordial […] ended up as bombastic kitsch, in all too candid a manner […] a black mask faced the Festival Plaza with a rough and eerie grin. We must heed the bitterness projected by that mask, for Japan-ness readily descends into sheer vulgarity, to the extent of the horrifying.’

Isozaki was Metabolism’s great ambivalent non-member. After declining an invitation to be involved in writing their manifesto, he went on to share ideas and collaborate with the Metabolists throughout the 1960s, while maintaining a clearly stated conceptual distance from the group. In a recent interview with Rem Koolhaas (in the excellent 2011 book, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, which sheds light on Metabolism’s political, philosophical and stylistic divergences) Isozaki recalls his hesitation in the face of the Metabolists’ optimism, and his desire to inject some doubt into their Utopian naivety. He was opposed to what he saw as their linear model of time and progress, feeling the need to point out the destruction concomitant with all construction. The first room of the retrospective at the Mori exhibition (for which Isozaki was on the advisory committee) contained a re-creation of his photomontage Re-Ruined Hiroshima (1968), in which images of crumbling Metabolist megastructures are superimposed onto the razed landscape of postwar Hiroshima, intended as a reminder that even the most magnificent techno-futurist cities will one day become ruins. 

Kiyoshi Awazu, Poster for the Works of Kisho Kurokawa, 1970. Courtesy Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates

The most famous Metabolist building that was actually realized is the late Kisho Kurokawa’s ill-fated Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Taking its cue from the modularity of traditional Japanese interiors (particularly the adaptable tatami flooring), it was made from 140 pods that were prefabricated with built-in furniture and wall-mounted appliances like typewriters, reel-to-reel tape decks and really big calculators (the future!). Inadvertently fulfilling Isozaki’s prophecy of Utopian ruination, the Nakagin Capsule Tower currently lies in a decrepit state, and was controversially slated for demolition in 2007. There has been widespread support for the building’s preservation from the international architecture community, but given that Kurokawa was particularly vocal about the impermanence of Japanese architecture (and even proposed buildings be made with dynamite in their walls so they would auto-destruct after 30 years, since no building should last longer than that), there might be some irony here. In any case, while the building has been completely evacuated, the current financial malaise in Japan has created ambiguity about its fate. A refurbished unplugged capsule was presented in the Mori Art Museum exhibition, though no clear indication of the tower’s future was offered.

Metabolism has often been compared to the London-based group Archigram, who proposed megastructures and hypothetically adjustable urbanism around the same time, but the Metabolists’ futurism always borrowed heavily from their cultural past: as they set out to construct and define Japanese-ness, they turned to selected aspects of Japan’s architectural legacy that coincided with their emphasis on material transience and periodic regeneration. Particularly important for them was Ise Jingu, the shrine that has been completely dismantled, burnt and rebuilt from scratch every 20 years for over a millennium. In 1960, the year the Metabolists published their manifesto, Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe (editor of Japan Architect and founding member of Metabolism) published a book on the Ise shrine, enthralled by the idea that through a predetermined cycle of destruction and reconstruction this ancient Shinto site remains perpetually new.

It was fitting that the Mori exhibition expressed a number of temporal paradoxes as audiences navigated their way through largely unrealized past visions of the future – visions that were very consciously informed by imagined traditions of Japanese architecture from the past. As with Isozaki’s wry superimposition of future ruins onto the present, multiple times and chronologies were built up and woven in and out of each other throughout the retrospective. And, in a way, it is precisely by virtue of their having never been manifested that these retro-proposals are most relevant today: as unbuilt, speculative futures, they can interrogate our present with a sense of untainted potentiality.

World Design Conference Bulletin, No.6 designed by Gan Hosoya, 1960. Courtesy Gan Hosoya

Nick Currie speaks to Rem Koolhaas about his book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks

Nick Currie     I was just watching your recent appearance on the talk show Charlie Rose and I was interested in something you said about the Osaka Expo in 1970: that it was, in a sense, the high point of humanity and that things have been going downhill ever since.

Rem Koolhaas     Yes. You don’t feel that way?

NC     I absolutely agree, but I don’t hear many people saying it!

RK     I was referring more to the spirit of the world’s reaction to both the launch of Concorde and the Moon landing than to the Expo itself. But it’s not only about technical prowess: it’s more to do with what can be imagined and what dimension imagination has in serious life. An organization like NASA was, essentially, 4,000 people seriously entertaining fantasy; that scale of working on visionary elements is now incredibly reduced. At the moment we all want to achieve goals that are very imminent, very realistic. Few organizations are able to define an unconventional aim and then to engineer its implementation, even over a period of ten or 12 years. These days, projects often have a maximum of only four years in which to be realized, as that’s the typical period that a politician is in power.

NC     Was this the reason that you went back to Japan, back to the Metabolists and – as you describe it – to ‘the last movement with a manifesto’?

RK     It’s not so much the manifesto that fascinated me as this combination of imagination and government action, of architecture and bureaucracy. The public sector is the sector with vision, and I think this is something that, for whatever reason, we haven’t had for a very long time. Compare Archigram [the British experimental architecture group active during the 1960s and early ’70s] in the UK to the Metabolists in Japan: in Europe similar ideas were doomed to remain unrealized; in Asia those very ideas were implemented by an industrial culture that really believed in them.

NC     Could you tell me when you had your first encounter with the work of the Metabolists?

RK     In the mid-1960s, I was working as a journalist. I wrote occasionally about architecture, and was aware of them during that period. But this wasn’t, let’s say, due to a great interest in Asia or an exploration of the perimeter of Modernism. The key thing is that I lived in Asia from the age of eight to 12 so, from that moment on, I was convinced that Asia would become the centre, if it wasn’t already the centre. About 15 years ago, I wrote a small book on the history of Singapore in which I mentioned the importance of the Metabolists, in terms of defining what a contemporary city could be at that point. In the Western imagination, the accent of Singapore is on sterility, so I was trying to prove that it’s much more than that, and has much more intelligence than that. 

Kiyonori Kikutake, Ikebukuro Plan, 1962, collage on black and white photograph. Courtesy ​Kiyonori Kikutake

NC     Slavoj Žižek, paraphrasing Peter Sloterdijk, once wrote that: ‘If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now […] it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a “capitalism with Asian values”.’ Do the Metabolists operate in the context of this authoritarian capitalism?

RK     The authoritarian kind of thing is obviously the environment in Singapore, but what is interesting in the Japanese situation is that, on the contrary, it was at that point structurally democratic. The Americans had just implanted democracy, and a lot of the energy unleashed in and by Metabolism was also the discovery of the potentials of democracy. My colleagues and I assumed that most Metabolists would be raving leftists, but we discovered that there was quite a variety – feudalists as well as Marxists. But on the whole I would say that the flourishing of Metabolism was more the flourishing of a democratic bureaucracy than an authoritarian sickle.

NC     Are architects improved by forming into groups?

RK     I would say that any enterprise is improved by working in groups. Even writing. I write, and from time to time it’s necessary to work with or talk to or basically engage with other writers. But what is unique here is how different the Metabolists’ personalities were; they remained friendly over a long period, which is genuinely unique. There is none of the falling out, drinking and brawling, seducing each other’s wives, and all of the other typical signs of Western temperament. 

Kenji Ekuan, Dwelling City, 1964, collage on silver gelatin print. Courtesy ​Kenji Ekuan

NC     But for Project Japan: Metabolism Talks you asked them quite divisive questions – who was the most intelligent, who was the most handsome, who was the most talented – and you got answers which are quite honest and forthright.

RK     But the beauty of the whole thing was that, after a while, we began to realize that the fact that we were not Japanese – as well as that the interview was taking place quite late in their careers, or even in their lives – lent a confessional quality to some of the statements. In certain cases, we felt that we were stepping into their need to unburden. It was exciting to realize that we were inadvertently there at exactly the right moment and also with exactly the right technology. The accounts given by Shimokobe, the civil servant, about how the Metabolists were sometimes even supported with suitcases of money, were in particular a major revelation.

NC     Can you describe why, with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, you decided to begin Project Japan?

RK     I think it was an initiative of Kayoko Ota, who is a Japanese curator, and friend. She worked for a while with Italian architect Stefano Boeri, who was the editor of Domus. I think that Kayoko was the first to realize that this was the right moment. So she took the initiative; Stefano supported her.

NC     Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo is currently in very poor condition and under threat of demolition; the readymade plug-in modules that were supposed to regenerate the structure cheaply were too expensive to hand-make, so the organic growth which would have qualified it as ‘metabolic’ never happened. The building’s originality was intended to be structural, but proved to be merely visual. Was the manifesto just a means to reach an iconic visual status?

RK     Try to keep the word ‘iconic’ out of it, because what we have today is icons without manifestos – you could even say without ideas. A certain degree of ideological madness is necessary to really get density. With the Metabolists we have pure ideas that are realized in the world, and that therefore retain a compelling density of meaning. This is actually a kind of beautiful contrast to consider at this moment in which the term ‘icon’ is bandied about and applied to things that simply don’t deserve it.

NC     Published in 1978, your book Delirious New York is a ‘retrospective manifesto’, a city ‘ghost-written’. If you had to go back and ghost-write in retrospect the manifesto of the Metabolists to describe its actual effects and results, what would you change?

RK     I think that the Metabolism book is exactly that. The book answers that question.

Arata Isozaki National Library of Qatar, Doha (project currently on hold), digital rendering. Courtesy Arata Isozaki

NC     The destiny of Metabolism in the Middle East is a very surprising twist in the tale. What is your feeling about that as the ultimate destiny of Metabolism?

RK     I think it was not the ultimate destiny, it was simply one of the aspects of the world after the oil crisis of 1973. In my view, that was the beginning of the end of the West, but not the beginning of the end of the Rest. For certain regions, such as Africa and the Middle East, it was actually the beginning of a new phase and a new energy. Therefore, the Metabolists get to work for them, and to articulate the worth of African democracy and of kingdoms and emirates. It’s not, for me, evidence of a kind of decline but of a common realization again of Asian initiative.

NC     So you don’t see that as the passing of the baton of the so-called International Style – which was in fact a relatively Western style – to Japan and then, in turn, to the Middle East and Africa?

RK     In a way that’s my whole point – maybe that passing of the baton actually happened 30 or 40 years ago. The fact that the West’s moment has passed was not a secret for the Middle East or for Africa or for Japan – even in 1973. We in the West are now discovering it quite belatedly. 

is a writer and PhD candidate in art history, based in Sydney, Australia.

Nick Currie is a Scottish-born musician and writer based in Osaka, Japan. Recording as Momus, he has released 23 albums and is also the author of The Book of Scotlands (Sternberg Press, 2009) and The Book of Jokes: A Novel by Momus (Dalkey, 2009). He is currently working on a film script.

Rem Koolhaas is an architect, theorist and Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University, USA. He founded the architecture practice OMA and its research-orientated counterpart AMO. Koolhaas’s book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, co-edited with Hans Ulrich Obrist, was published by Taschen last year. He is based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.