Metabolism: Theory and Practice
More than half a century has passed since the publication of Metabolism and its distribution to attendees of the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo. Though frequently referred to as a manifesto, the pamphlet was in fact a collection of essays and urban design projects by architectural critic Kawazoe Noboru and four young architects then launching their practices: Kiyonori Kikutake, Kishō Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, and Masato Ōtaka. Their texts and design proposals revolved around a core idea: that the increasingly disparate rates of change in cities required new paradigms for architectural and infrastructural design. The pamphlet’s modest production values did nothing to detract from the potency of this message in the mid-20th-century context of rapid urbanization and mass production. Metabolism soon found its way into academic and professional discussions in far corners of the globe. In postwar Europe, avant-garde groups such as Archigram had already theorized the plug-in, or replaceable-part, consumerist city; but no attempts had yet been made to implement architectural projects to test these ideas. By contrast Japan, with its tabula rasa, top-down planning methods and fearless embrace of innovative construction techniques, was a fertile testing ground for the Metabolist philosophy. Indeed, the 1960s — and to a lesser degree the ensuing decades — saw a profusion of built and unbuilt architectural works that, one way or another, grappled with the implications of metabolic change.
This body of work has lately sparked renewed critical interest among contemporary architects, urban designers, and theorists — coinciding with a decade in which most of the group’s founding members and colleagues have died (Metabolist mentor Kenzō Tange, 1913–2005; Kurokawa, 1934–2007; Ōtaka, 1923–2010; and Kikutake, 1928–2011). Late in life, several of these architects agreed to be interviewed about their early works, enabling numerous critical studies, retrospective exhibitions, and monographs to take shape. Thanks to this scholarship — and supported by evidence from its protagonists’ long and diverse careers — Metabolism no longer appears to us as a uniform ideology but instead as a series of thought and design experiments by authors espousing very different sensibilities, philosophies, and even political affinities. None has attracted more intense critical focus today than the group’s intellectual leader and core instigator, Kiyonori Kikutake. Though arguably the media-savvy Kurokawa scored the movement’s greatest hit with the construction of his 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower, it was Kikutake whose more than fifty-year career most profoundly and persistently explored Metabolism’s central polemic on the lifespan of buildings and their systems. His writings and works invite further attention precisely because they are not glib or simplistic but rather fully articulated statements of a worldview encompassing aesthetics, politics and economics, land use planning, technology, and human psychology.
One of Kikutake’s great gifts as an architect was the ability to synthesize these diverse influences and to publish intellectually charged essays elaborating upon his built works; as a result of this close relationship between building and writing, no design decision seems arbitrary or unrelated to his stance on a spectrum of contemporary concerns. This was as true for his first small-scale built works as for the large-scale futuristic urban visions. In the context of Japanese architectural publishing in the late 1950s — when established architects such as Tange, Kunio Maekawa, Junzō Sakakura, Takamasa Yoshizaka, Yoshirō Taniguchi, and Kiyoshi Seike were at the height of their creative powers — it might strike us as odd that a prestigious journal such as Kenchiku bunka would invite a relatively unknown thirty-year-old architect to publish a full-page essay and two pages of model photos about a small and not yet built project called the Sky House. In fact Kikutake was early on recognized for the seriousness and eloquence of his message, which in turn raised the stakes for contemporary architectural discourse among his elders.
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