Japan Notebook: Dreams of the Future City
A renovated capsule apartment from Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, 1972. Photo by the author.
It is commonly said that fashion operates in cycles, and that trends repeat themselves over time. However, it may surprise architects to learn that one of the most ambitious and experimental movements from the 1960's has reemerged as a hot topic. Moreover, I believe this reawakening is due to the fact that this particular movement has had notable consequences, and reveals insights that are still applicable today.
Metabolism, an avant-garde project founded by a small group of Japanese architects and designers in 1960, aimed to remedy socioeconomic challenges in postwar Japanese cities. Fueled by an ambitious agenda of postwar reconstruction, the movement was founded on the idea that cities are continuously transforming environments, and that architecture should be able to grow and adapt like living organisms.
Recently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Metabolism is currently on display in full force at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. The exhibit, which is entitled "Metabolism: The City of the Future," features drawings, models, animations, video interviews, and posters of works by Kisho Kurokawa, Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki, Kiyonori Kikutake—who recently passed away on December 26—and others. The exhibit is organized in five parts based on chronology. The first section, which describes the zeitgeist of Japanese design immediately after WWII and the influences that led to the formation of Metabolism, is especially enlightening.
The vast size and varied breadth of the exhibition are impressive, and appropriate for a movement with outsized aspirations. Of special note are the detailed physical models—some of which are original—as well as the immersive videos that depict fly-thoughs of unbuilt Metabolist works using newly-created virtual models.
The final section of the exhibition reveals Metabolism's relevance to today. Increased interest in the population growth and infrastructural pressures of cities—coupled with the appropriateness of a design approach based on living organisms to sustainability—suggests that Metabolism may not have been a fad, but instead an offering of potent, relevant ideas about how to construct the future physical environment. As the Japanese public becomes reacquainted with this ambitious project from another era of its history, perhaps some of the positive dreams of Metabolism will be rekindled.