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            06 / 06 / 13

            Metabolism: City Of The Future

            • Every now and then, a show that you’ve glimpsed in your dreams comes true. Luckily, I was in Tokyo recently to see ‘Metabolism: The City of the Future’ at the Mori Art Museum. Dreams are an appropriate apparition – as even now, in 2011, the visions of Japan’s most pre-eminent architectural movement that formed in the 1950s seem more oneiric than real. The subtitle to this exhibition is “Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-day Japan.”

              The exhibition covers the ambitious projects of a group of architects collectively called the ‘Metabolists’ – from their individual careers that began during the post-war rebuilding of Japan, through to contemporary examples of their work, to contemporary projects inspired by the philosophy of the Metabolists. The movement sits between the parentheses of the the World Design conference held in Tokyo in 1960 and the Osaka World Expo of 1970.

              The future-facing concepts of this group of artists are phenomenal. Whilst the apparitions can now appear anachronistic and even obsolescent – there remains a timeless utopianism to the ideas; a positive futurism that views urban planning as an organic, socially benevolent edict – where creativity and daring lead to fantastical solutions. Over 500 exhibits from 80 projects are on display, and many of them come from architects and private collections rather than through museums. Other delights include archival footage and a reading  lounge dedicated to relevant texts. The newly commissioned CG renditions of projects such as the unrealised ‘Reconstruction of Tokyo,’  are most powerful in asking us to re-evaluate the Metabolist oeuvre as we deal with the growth of cities and urbanism around the world.

              The group centred around Kenzo Tange, and was given a critical voice by Noboru Kawazoe. Apart from the need to ‘fukko’ (re-construct) after the war, the metabolists were faced with the concomitant problems of a large and burgeoning population, increasing urbanisation, and intense industrialisation. The Metabolists sought to address the flux and disorder through architecture and planning that was both malleable, flexible, adaptable and durable, structured, organised. Thus, megastructures were combined with capsules, and plans attempted to provide spatial organisation for work, play, agriculture and living

            • Capsule Interior, Tokyo, Kisho Kurokawa

            • Hotel Tokoen, Kitukake Kiyonori, 1964 (completion)

              The Metabolists contended that ‘”buildings and cities should be designed and developed in the same continuous way that the material substance of a natural organism is produced”. As a result, many designs are built around naturally occurring patterns that tesselate into giant organic shapes – the double-helix of DNA, or other cell-like forms.

            • Helix City Plan for Tokyo, Kurokawa Kisho, 1961 (unbuilt)

              Although models and drawings dominate the exhibition – there is an original capsule unit from the Nagakin Capsule Tower building (by Kurokara Kisho). As the Director of the Mori Art Museum, Fumio Nanjo says:

              Though futuristic in vision, this object is now a historical object, as well as a real piece of architecture

            • Nakagin Capsule Building, Tokyo, 1972 (completed)

              So in the designs of the Metabolists – we see land and sea reclamation, solutions for optimising space for inhabitation, and innovative approaches to flexible urban planning. But more than smart design solutions – what’s at the heart of the Metabolist movement is an attempt to create a specifically Japanese vision of modernity. Even now, over-familiar civic experiences in Tokyo – such as being on the complex but faultless metro network, or part of the ebb and flow of the crowd at Shibuya crossing, feel like they’re an evolution of the metabolism manifesto – a city that interconnects, pulses and lives. It’s alive.

              Many of the most radical projects never came to fruition. Perhaps the most dramatic vision of the future city was Kenzo Tange’s ‘Plan for Tokyo, 1960.’ Here, the body of land becomes literal, Tokyo jettisons out of the land and into the sea. Design notes within the plan include diagrams of bodily parts – here the city is based on corporeal elements.

            • Based in part upon an analogy with nature—”the various architectural works will form the leaves, and the transportation and communications facilities the trunk of a great tree, ” Tange wrote—the plan envisioned a vast radial overlay of buildings and roadways above and beyond traditional Tokyo. Although somewhat terrifying in scale, the buildings, structures of concrete, shown in photographs and models were physically impressive, even beautiful.


              None was ever built, although Tange’s stupendous Yamanashi Press and Broadcasting Building (1966) in Kofu, a medium-size city in central Japan, inherits something of the plan’s monumental vision. The building comprises an array of horizontal units plugged into, and supported by, 16 huge concrete columns whose hollow cores contain the needed support services (stairwells, elevators, air-conditioning plant, and rest rooms). A feature of the building, as of the Tokyo plan, is its ability to be added to without change to the fundamental structural system (this in fact was done in 1975).

              A Plan for Tokyo, 1960: Toward a Structural Reorganization was published and presented by Kenzo Tange at the Tokyo World Design Conference. The plan proposed a linear organized matrix for Tokyo Bay, which was to be an extension of the uncontrolled expansion of the city proper. This urban matrix was an adaptation of Kenzo Tange’s architectural notions of structural order, expression, and urban “communication space.” This approach to large-scale urban design was later applied to the award-winning proposal Kenzo Tange submitted for the reconstruction of the city of Skopje in Yugoslavia (1965).

              The Tokyo plan led Kenzo Tange to begin an architectural exploration of the plastic nature of suspended structural form in his design for Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo (1961-1964). This exploration demonstrated a significant break with Kenzo Tange’s Corbusian past and culminated in his design for the Olympic Sports Hall, Tokyo (1964). In 1966, the first megastructural complex combining Kenzo Tange’s notions of structural expression and the metabolists’ notions of growth systems was constructed.


              The development that led to St.mary’s Cathedral is an apotheosis in Metabolist architecture. Here, the symbolic and the real overlay each other – the spiritual made concrete in a dream like physical structure. And in my mind that’s iconic of the metabolist manifesto. Most of their projects only existed as working drawings, plans, ideas, concepts. The pragmatism of urban planning for a multi-million population seems secondary to the potency of the dream.

              I think that’s important now, both in the context of Japan, and of the metabolist project.

              The need for ‘fukko’ has punctuated Japanese history throughout the 20th century and into this one – the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the Hiroshima bombings, the 2011 Tsunami. Metabolism is antidote to that – it welcomes the organic, it embraces utopia, it embodies hope. I find the notion of metabolism as a collective architectural consciousness compelling – and I believe this retrospective offers hope to Japan as she re-builds her pysche and cities this year.

              And so we return to idea of dreams…

              The exhibition closes with examples of metabolism projects that are continuing today.

              In China, Kisho Kurokawa’s studio won the contract to develop the ‘New Town’ and special economic zone of Zhengdong, Zhengzhou. the +8 million ((4 million in its built up area) population capital of Henan province. The project begun in 2004 – and is still being worked upon. Currently, a six -star hotel is being built in the CBD that will reach a height of 280m. The city’s also the financial centre of central China, and is home to one of only three futures markets in the country.

            • As the most important project in Henan province, with a total planned area of 105 squared kilometres, Zhengdong ‘New Town’ represents the fantastical ambition of urban planning projects in China. This city is a metabolist dream, and as Kurokawa died in 2007, is also now a phantom of his legacy.

              The ambition of architecture and planning in China has come under criticism recently, with commentators suggesting the grandiose landmark buildings dominating the Beijing (and many other places) skylines are nothing but the hallucinations of architects, that China is the only place with both the desire to make a monumental mark and loose enough planning restrictions (in terms of preservation not paperwork), who will entertain these delusions.

              Whilst disregard for preservation nor ‘feel’ of a city does often undermine our urban planning strategy, I’m excited by the ambition and vision of China’s architectural program.

              Moreover, the design of Zhengdong is ecological (over 200 varieties of Henan provincial plants, China’s largest wetland filtration system for water) –  fulfilling the metabolist goal of making mega-cities symbiotic with nature – between the interior and the exterior.

              Not only are some of the most daring buildings in the world being constructed in China from the world’s greatest architects; decades after their original conception, the metabolists are also realising their most astounding ideas.

              Architecture is always symbolic, and its symbolism is often related to power. China’s architectural and urban planning program is inescapably about symbolic power. The magnitude of the Zhengdong project represents a vision of Chinese modernity – will the final result of Zhengdong realise the vision, or become an empty cipher such as the oft mentioned Ordos? I’m not sure if it matters – China is trying to build an ideology of the future…

              The planner, Kurokawa himself was as much an intellectual as a designer – as a tribute following his death states: ‘Kurokawa’s theoretical works also made him a prophet. Not content with the boundaries of architecture, in his later years Kurokawa started his own political party and ran as mayor of Tokyo in spring 2007. Although he was beaten, Kurokawa was instrumental in the successful establishment of the Green Party’

              From the conception of such a utopian space, to the astronomical physical ambition of the entire project, through all the symbolism of the future Chinese dream,  the ‘invisible nature’ of Zhengdong encapsulates the oneiric world of Metabolism.

              Article by Alex Wilson