Kiyonori Kikutake, Marine City 1963, ca. 1985. Model. From “Metabolism: City in the Future.”

Kiyonori Kikutake, Marine City 1963, ca. 1985. Model. From “Metabolism: City in the Future.”

“Metabolism: City in the Future”

Kiyonori Kikutake, Marine City 1963, ca. 1985. Model. From “Metabolism: City in the Future.”

This exhibition is the first ever to provide a comprehensive overview of Metabolism, the internationally acclaimed Japanese avant-garde architectural movement of the 1960s. With a spectacular installation of more than five hundred objects and documents representing some eighty projects, it provides plural contexts for interpreting the movement. The exhibition’s main thesis is that Metabolism inherited the “nation-building” spirit from prewar land-development projects and postwar reconstruction plans for Japanese cities, including Kenzo Tange and others’ master plan for Hiroshima and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1955. This primarily suggests Metabolism’s renewed relevance for the restoration of Japanese national life after the Tohoku earthquake of last March, though the generous showing of primary materials also offers many alternative ways of understanding Metabolism’s contemporary significance.

Metabolism, formed by seven members—critic Noboru Kawazoe; architects Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, Masato Otaka, and Fumihiko Maki; industrial designer Kenji Ekuan; and graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu—was launched on the occasion of the World Design Conference in Tokyo in May 1960 with the aim of redefining architecture as a means to construct a new urban space. In “Metabolism/1960,” the manifesto distributed at the conference, the seven announced their purposes specifically as (1) to provide a vision of a future society, (2) to treat design and technology as extensions of the generative power of human life—as part of the universal process of becoming, and (3) to promote the “metabolic transformation of history.” In the same manifesto, the architects presented their urbanist plans. Kikutake gave details of architectural projects such as Tower Shape Community, 1958, presenting the basic Metabolist architectural model that combines a core structure (often called a megastructure)—in this case, a gigantic pillar—with movable units that could be added or taken away to expand or condense the city. He also showed its minimum embodiment in Sky House (Kikutake’s own one-room dwelling, built in 1958) and his proposal for “Movenets,” raised high above the irregular ground with pillars. Kurokawa presented Agricultural City Project, 1960, in which clusters of built structures hover over agricultural areas; Maki and Otaka’s collaborative project for the redevelopment of the Shinjuku Terminal train station led to their proposal “Toward Group Form” (1960), which envisaged urban development through the flexible relations of loosely grouped buildings.

From the original members’ drawings, statements, architectural plans, and models, one can infer the progressive nature of Metabolism’s ideas and methods. They embraced mutability as a conceptual principle, assuming both architecture and cities could coalesce and dissipate like living organisms; the accumulation of cell-like units represented by Kikutake’s housing projects and Kurokawa’s capsule buildings, and the organic development of Maki and Otaka’s group buildings reflect the city’s growth out of people’s activities, defying modernist architecture’s symbolic monumentality, and suggest that the architectural design is determined by use, not by the architect’s ideal or aesthetic taste. The apparently futuristic look of Metabolist architecture was a by-product of the practical demands of the postindustrial city, as in Kikutake’s Marine City, 1963, an autonomous community on the sea combining collective housing and urban facilities, which was envisioned as a solution to population growth; and in the elevation of Kurokawa’s Agricultural City over rice paddies, in order to minimize damage from natural disasters like typhoons.

Metabolism’s conceptual and formal affinity with contemporary European avant-garde architectural movements is evident: The spirit of drift and nomadism of Marine City is also apparent in Walking City, 1964, by Archigram member Ron Herron. The emphasis of another Archigram collaborator, Warren Chalk, on the user’s creativity and conception of architecture as a nexus of situations—as well as Guy Debord’s claim that unitary urbanism could be realized through the force fields formed by people’s activities rather than conventional aesthetics and functions—resonates with the Metabolists’ flexibility, pragmatism, and fundamental focus on human life. Above all, however, Metabolism’s proposals provoke us to imagine new forms for living.

Midori Matsui