Within the frame of the 24th International Congress of Architecture held in Tokyo, Japan during the year 2011 (UIA 2011), the exhibit “Metabolism, the City of the Future: Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-Day Japan” was presented at Mori Art Museum. Said exhibition was opened as to inaugurate the 2011 Congress of Architecture and remained four months long in the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, a landmark skyscraper of the twentieth first century, an alien now to the principles and intentions of that movement which represented an ambitious vanguard.
Image 1. "Metabolism: City of the Future", exhibition at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.
This display was the first ever to introduce Metabolism as a movement with repercussion to current day’s architecture. To accomplish such introduction, it exposed graphic documents and scaled-down models that allow approach to the work and conceptions of Kenzo Tange, who settled the scene for the appearance of Metabolism and for the performance of the architects that took part in it during the decade of 1960 until the Osaka exhibition in 1970. At the same time, the demonstration permits reflection on the importance of guaranteeing its information’s permanence and that of other twentieth century’s architectonic movements as well, in archives with files of all kinds.
Image 2. Plan for Tokyo, 1960. Photomontage: Kenzo Tange.
“Metabolism” is and architectural posture that manifest that “buildings and cities must be designed and developed in the same fashion in which the substantial matter of a living organism is produced”. According to this, architecture and cities would possess the capability of growth, reproduction and transformation as a response to its environment, in a similar manner to that of living organisms, which move and adapt accordingly to its contextual demands.
This tendency gave birth to the vision of a future city in a moment of rapid economic expansion in more developed countries and of massive population increase in then so called third world countries. Simultaneously, it is the most widely known Japanese architectural proposal of the twentieth century.
The names of some of the greatest Japanese architects are linked to “Metabolism”, some of them even from our time, since this movement made it available for them to set the foundations to their own careers and, above it all, it made it possible for Japan to place itself among the countries that owned an architectural vanguard fated to become an international movement.
Among the better known architects are Kikutake Kiyonori (marine cities), Maki Fumihiko (collective forms, Hillside Terrace Complex in Tokyo) and Kisho Kurokawa, whose Nakagin Capsule Tower (中銀カプセルタワー) is one of the most emblematic structures of Tokyo, still being a compelling reference to the visiting architects in the city, thus the special place it holds in the “Metabolism” exhibit.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower was built in 1972, in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district, in close proximity to the historic garden of Hama-Rikyū and the commercial and business district of Ginza, right in front of an elevated viaduct.
Kurokawa’s work has its basis in the prefabricated houses for assembly made in the decades of 1950 and 1960. In the Nakagin Capsule Tower, the architect managed to gather each and every function of a habitable house in “collapsible” capsules that can be attached and removed from the main structure, in accord to the urban environment.
Although its urban context has been transformed, the building, situated as the top of a block, stills being a point of attention in the site, given its added geometry side view, in which the volumes which constitute each of the modules are overlapped without fusing, therefore keeping their own autonomy. The circular solution of the windows of each module contributes in distinguishing itself from the span solutions in modern movement and other past century’s tendencies. Nakagin’s peculiar silhouette is completed by its colored oblique lines volume top.
Image 3. Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, Tokyo.
Its modular composition renders each of the three facades of the building attractive, mainly the further front one, as its volumes are perceived without obstacle. Said set of volumes is not only interesting, but a full-fledged icon of the metabolist proposal. From this view, the structure offers the formal speech of the overlapping of eleven stories worth of modules, of a prospect of growth and the technologic solution that enables construction with concrete, prefabricated modules. Their arrangement discards the frontage concept as a flat, lone element, and takes advantage of its own three-dimensionality so that the building becomes appreciated as a living being and not a geometrical object. The volume of the structure is richer as oblique is the sight upon it, particularly if it is horizontal.
Perspectives from side streets are, however, not as attractive. The side facades are the ornament of narrow roads without sidewalks, in which certain architectural and urban furnishing chaos subdues. The street’s constriction does not avail for a meaningful view towards the edifice. Even from a short perspective, its characteristic volumes are not fully appreciated, and a reading that does not differ considerably from that of other buildings from the same construction momentum is produced.
Image 4. Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, Tokyo. Side view.
In present-day, the overall appearance of the building is somewhat neglected, since, as it happens with most apparent concrete structures and in addition to the original proposal’s own gray bareness , water drippings and other substances have tarnished its walls, giving it a deteriorated look. Rust can be adverted in some joints and there are stains that extend across many levels, from one module to another. Through the circle-shaped gaps, plastic and cardboard boxes, detached, crumpled drapes and a weird inhabitant, used to interested photographers of the building, stick out. Due to its location in one of the city’s main roads, those who pretend to watch it closely are put against the difficult task of finding a spot between vehicle traffic, so to achieve a clear view.
Image 5. Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, Tokyo. Modules.
And entering the building is hard, since it stills being for private use and allows no trespassers. Access is only possible in the ground floor, through a convenience store that occupies part of the first level and, given the sort of franchise it belongs to, has created a standardized ambience that forbids noticing the kind of building in which it has been established.
Image 6. Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, Tokyo. Frontage.
The decades of 1960 and 1970 have distinguished themselves across the globe for a conscience of the impact that urban expansion could have in different ecosystems, such as urban and social utopias. In that context, the title of the recently presented exhibit (Metabolism, the City of the Future: Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-Day Japan) is understood. Yet in postwar period, the Metabolism architecture has been assumed as a solution to urban life of its time, but without a shadow of doubt, it was thinking of the future in a very long term.
Image 7. Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, Tokyo. Top section.
Nakagin Tower is presented as a survivor of these intentions, as a materialization of the conscience of recycling and the transition of an urbanized society, prior to the movement and into sustainability. Currently plunged in the midst of skyscrapers and surrounded of high speeding vehicles, it is a hit in architecture and, even when disrepair does not allow witnessing it in its former glory, the tower is a call to reflect on alternate forms of architecture. Not eternal, as the one proposed for temples, palaces and other headquarters of power, nor expendable, as the one some want to oblige us into inhabiting in the current century, but transformable and adaptable, a feature that goes along with people’s lifestyles much more.
The display is over and, as in the case of the metabolist movement, has been quickly replace with other tendencies. The reflections triggered by it, however, are not so short-lived and, at least as to what concerns social conscience, innovation and technology, we hope they remain for a long time.
Universidad de Guanajuato (Guanajuato University)
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Exhibition Metabolism, the City of the Future: Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-Day Japan September 17th, 2011 to January 15th, 2012, Mori Art Museum, 53rd floor, Tokyo.
"Metabolism: City of the Future", Mori Art Museum exhibition brochure, Tokyo, UIA2011, Nikkei.