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Talking Metabolism with Rem Koolhaas

Rem koolhaas on Project Japan

‘Once you’re interested in how things evolve,’ Rem Koolhaas once tweeted, ‘you have a kind of never-ending perspective, because it means
you’re interested in articulating the evolution.’ This statement essentially summarises his new tome Project Japan, co-authored with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and published by Taschen.

The format of the book is straightforward: a well-articulated genealogy of an avant-garde movement itself concerned with iterative evolution. Half the chapters are contemporary interviews with surviving Metabolists; the other half comprise historical briefings on key economic, political and cultural events from 1933 to the present.

The origins of Metabolism, as Arata Isozaki explains in the book’s first interview, were inseparable from Japan’s particular post-war situation. Cities had been heavily firebombed by the Americans or, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, razed by atomic blasts. Japanese architects were thus faced with an unprecedented scale of urban redevelopment (the only comparable challenge being masterplans prepared in the mid-1930s for conquered Chinese states).

As a term, Project Japan charts the ambition of a whole generation to transform and modernise while simultaneously re-building Japan’s tarnished international reputation. The Metabolists were those who sought to achieve this transformation through architectural means, demonstrating an idealism that bestowed upon them the status of ‘avant-garde’, but also the criticism of being naïve and optimistic.

The historical chapters are presented lineally, while the order of the interviews is neither historical nor chronological. It is here that the true agenda of the book is to be found. Koolhaas is determined to politicise Metabolism − even when the Metabolists themselves remain reluctant or ambivalent. Far from being a coherent and ruthlessly premeditated attempt to achieve a collective utopian vision, Metabolism is slowly revealed as being only weakly unified by its members’ ‘loose philosophy of impermanence’.

This impermanence manifests itself in a myriad of abstract concepts and formal proposals ranging from atomised capsule towers to floating cities, from concrete megaforests to cell-like masterplans. Indeed, by articulating the evolution of ‘the last avant-garde movement’ the book makes the diversity of the group apparent.

Ostensibly oral history committed to paper, in reality the book might be subtitled How Neoliberalism Killed the Last Utopian Dream, as more than half of its 750 pages are dedicated to just that. As much as it is the story of a generation of architects and their attempt to radically alter Japan’s physical and political landscape, it is also the tale of how many of those same architects sold out to free-market capitalism.

After describing the movement’s apotheosis at Expo ‘70 there comes a long explanation of Metabolism’s decline starting with the 1973 oil crisis, which renders megastructures domestically unrealisable. The book then follows architects such as Kenzo Tange and Kiyonori Kikutake sometimes into emerging, often tyrannical, states.

The list of projects through the 1970s and ’80s witnesses a disintegration of the group’s idealism, and its obsession with form over social context: Saudi floating casinos to be moored in international waters; deployable desert cities for Gaddafi’s unstable borders; the Damascus palace of Syrian president Bashar Assad (photographed by Rem before the Arab Spring). By the 1990s, as the group moves into South-East Asia, Tange (once the lynchpin of the movement) is designing nothing more than ‘generic corporate postmodernism’.

Project Japan is at times nostalgic, but in a way this is deployed as a smokescreen for a broader agenda. Koolhaas drives the interviews, probing details of the Metabolists’ cultural context, their political engagement, the role and power of the government and media in their success. The ‘trialogue’ interview method is unnecessary; Obrist’s endless repetition of ‘Do you have any regrets?’ renders him, at times, superfluous.

The book comes to a conclusion with a wheel-hath-come-full-circle moment: an image of Toyo Ito contemplatively surveying the
tabula rasa of post-tsunami Tohoku. The scale of redevelopment, he tells us, is unprecedented in recent history. We are left wondering if he will draw on Metabolist masterplans.

Project Japan, Metabolism Talks…

Authors: Rem Koolhaas and Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Publisher: Taschen

Price: £34.99

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