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The unrealised vision for Japan's future

Elergy for Metabolism

The UIA Congress in Tokyo at the end of September saw the launch of Project Japan, an exhaustive oral history of Metabolism (see previous review) and the opening of a major retrospective on the movement at the Mori Art Museum in the city’s Roppongi Hills. As the core cast of original Metabolists are either dead (Tange, Kurokawa) or well advanced in years (Isozaki, Maki, Kikutake), this current focus on their work has the elegaic sense of a final gathering and reckoning.

Yet for much of the postwar era, Metabolism defined a new and distinct vision of Japanese modernity. With its origins in the physical and psychological rebuilding of Japan following Hiroshima, Metabolism embraced impermanence and the need for flux and change (also key tenets of Buddhism), acknowledging the fragility of human existence in the Japanese archipelago.

The Project Japan book is a gossipy trove of interviews, intrigue and insights, while the Mori show is a more conventional chronological survey, beginning with Japanese city planning during the Second World War and ending with a survey of Metabolist influence around the world. Its main focus, however, is on Metabolism’s golden decade between 1960 and 1970, from its arrival on the national stage at the World Design Conference in Tokyo, to its carnival apotheosis at Osaka Expo.

As growth took off and nation building assumed a new fervour, Metabolism was its chosen means of expression, decisively locked into Japan’s political and economic DNA. National ambitions were overseen by the charismatic architect-turned-bureaucrat, Atushi Shimokobe, who graduated from Tange’s office to preside over an unprecedented boom in large scale planning, aimed at decentralising Japan and relieving the pressures of space and resources on Tokyo. The dissemination of Metabolist ideas was given further impetus by the Marxist architectural critic and publisher Noburo Kawazoe, who edited the Metabolist manifesto for the 1960 World Design Conference and worked on Expo ‘70.

Shimokobe’s charmed circle proposed a succession of city plans populated by adaptable urban megastructures that could grow and change as needs demanded. Clusters of plug-in pods and capsules were aggregated into colossal spirals, pyramids and helixes, all straining skywards to articulate a vision of Japan’s new tomorrow. Implanted within this futuristic tissue were parks, lakes, transport infrastructure, even farms.

No re-envisaging of the urban realm was too preposterous or extreme. Kurowawa’s Helix City and Kikutake’s Marine City (its cylindrical towers resembling a set of Carmen rollers) are among the more familiar proposals, but given new life here with specially constructed models and computer animations. City quarters instantly morph into being, like oriental Alphavilles. (Or rather, they didn’t.)

Yet though the Metabolists’ urban speculations remained unrealised, there’s still much to savour in the buildings, presented in admirably forensic detail, many featuring filmed interviews with their architects. A young Kiyonori Kikutake describes his Sky House of 1958 (perhaps the first Metabolist dwelling) in which he distils his family’s domestic life into a single, multivalent space with washing and cooking enclaves plugged into its perimeter. His administration building for the historic Izumo Shrine is a subtle and quintessentially Metabolist abstraction of traditional Japanese forms, such as timber houses and temples, a synthesis explored on a much larger scale by Kenzo Tange in his famous sports halls for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

By Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japanese prosperity and Metabolist confidence were at their freewheeling zenith. Masterplanned by Tange, Expo consolidated the idea of a utopian, temporary city, with an array of modular, quasi-industrial, plug-in structures, grouped together under a monumental space frame roof that clearly presaged High Tech. But the exogenous shock of oil price hikes in the mid 1970s effectively curtailed Japanese growth plans, killing off the Metabolist project, and while it took fitful root in more accommodating locales such as Singapore and the Middle East, the export version rarely embodied the same vitality.

With architectural activity in Japan currently fragmented and polarised by deregulation and laissez faire planning, the idea of an architectural movement so intimately in consort with national economic and social ambitions now seems almost unimaginable. Yet as Japan confronts post earthquake reconstruction, scarity of resources and economic stagnation, it’s clear that new ways of thinking about cities, as well as the evolving relationship between man and nature, are desperately required. Cometh the hour, cometh the Metabolists? Maybe this show could be a primer for the future as well as being an elegy for the past.

Metabolism - The City of the Future, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan, until 15 January 2012

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