By Honoka Nakamachi

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The Metabolism movement presents a paradox in modern Japanese architectural history. From 1960 to the early 1970s, the five core Metabolists—Kiyonori Kikutake, Noboru Kawazoe, Fumihiko Maki, Masato Ohtaka, and Kisho Kurokawa – theorized a new urban order that analogized a city with living organisms. They rejected the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM)’s Western modernist principles that advocated for rigidly-planned functional cities, as well as the universalizing force of International Style that, as Kurokawa noted, “ignor[ed] the climate and the traditional culture of the site …impos[ing] a single style throughout the world.” 1 Each of the five Metabolist presented a distinct theory in their manifesto, Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism, but they conjointly argued for structurally flexible buildings and cities that could adapt to rapid social and environmental changes. While Japanese national leaders sought a “new Japan” that is ideologically and historically detached from Japan’s pre-war militaristic society, the Metabolists instead engaged with Japan’s cultural traditions to envision a modern city.2 In other words, Metabolism emerged as an architectural movement specific to its Japanese context.

None of the theoretical projects in Metabolism 1960 was ever constructed in its proposed form or entered the Japanese market. Instead, the Metabolists carried out most of their urban-scale projects overseas after Japan’s economy stagnated in the 1970s. Three architects associated with Metabolism – Kenzo Tange, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, a reward for works with international impact. If the Metabolists’ global projects hold prominence over their local endeavors, what is Metabolism’s legacy as an architectural movement born of deep cultural introspection?

This paper divides into two sections that address Metabolist projects in the local and the global contexts respectively. The dual composition of local and global contexts helps organize Metabolism’s development from 1960 to the present, both geographically and chronologically. The local section examines Metabolism’s sociohistorical origin, theories presented in the manifesto Metabolism 1960, and two local projects:Kikutake’s Marine City (1959) and Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972). The global section examines a shift in the Metabolists’ architectural activities from the early 1970s and two global projects: Maki’s Republic Polytechnic (2007) and Kurokawa’s Zhengdong New District Plan (2004-). The final conclusion synthesizes the findings from both sections and returns to the question of Metabolism’s cultural legacy in the local context of Japan.

This paper theorizes that Metabolism’s legacy is not demonstrated in the movement’s initial fixation with the Japanese context, but rather in the theories’ adaptability to the rapidly changing global environment. Although Metabolism aspired to materialize a new Japanese architectural language, it left broad and innovative theories that are being revisited by international architects today who struggle with similar social and environmental issues in non-Japanese contexts. Is then a paper that determines Metabolism’s theoretical foundations and cultural legacy as strictly “Japanese” intellectually limiting? Metabolism’s transition from local to global demonstrate the movement’s maturity – or, from a critical perspective, diluting – as the architects embrace the notion of adaptability in design. Nevertheless, Metabolism shows its greatest potential in architectural practice when the architect modifies previous concepts and develops new forms: in other words, “metabolizing” the original theory.

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  1. Kisho Kurokawa, “Transcending Modernism,” in Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis (London: Academy Editions, 1991), 31.
  2. Today, historians recognize that Japanese history cannot be simply dichotomized into “pre-war” and “post-war.” The existence of these terms, however, does point to a loosely-defined period when the ideology of the “post-war” was prominent in the mindsets of the Japanese public. Carol Gluck, “The Past in the Present,” in Postwar Japan as History, ed. Andrew Gordon (Berkeley, CA; Los Angeles, CA; London, England: University of California Press, 1993), 64–96.