Project Japan: Metabolism Talks

by | 23. Aug 2012


metabolism_1.jpg Photo ©Taschen GmbH
Between 2005 and 2011, architect Rem Koolhaas and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist interviewed the surviving members of Metabolism – the first non-western avant-garde, launched in Tokyo in 1960, in the midst of Japan’s postwar miracle.

“Architecture is a deeply contradictory profession. Its actions intersect with a huge range of unrelated domains; at the same time – its essence to build – is so complex, that it requires extreme focus and concentration. Sadly therefore, it is largely inhabited by two human typologies, “builders” and “thinkers,” united in mutual disdain. Kenzo Tange was both.

Tange died in 2005, the very year we began our interviews, and had withdrawn from public life almost a decade earlier. Like Tokyo, a mass surrounding a central void, this mass of conversation is constructed in his absence. But it is a book about him. Without Tange, no Metabolism.”

/Rem Koolhaas

metabolism_2.jpg Photo © Kikutake Architects
1958 Nascent Metabolists, and their mentor Kenzo Tange, gather at Kikutake’s housewarming party for his recently completed Sky House.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: With Metabolism, it was a joint manifesto, or rather, a polyphony of voices. There wasn’t one manifesto which everybody signed – or was there? It would be really interesting to identify the glue of this movement, and to know what it was that the writers in the group held in common.

Kiyonori Kikutake: The person who brought us together and who unified us was Noboru Kawazoe. He was a critic and the editor of a magazine called Shinkenchiku (Japan Architect), and he worked hard to tie us together in a single whole. He was our leader, our lynchpin. I hardly knew any of the other architects who became Metabolists. And it is worth adding Kawazoe’s wife was our editor, and whenever she said gather around, we all hurried right over.

metabolism_3.jpg Photo © Kiyonori Kikutake
Kiyonori Kikutake, Ikebukuro Plan (1962).

By giving them rides in my car I was showing them exactly what industrial design was all about. They’d often comment on how constrained architecture was. Kikutake would complain that architecture is no movement, it’s not dynamic…
/Kenji Ekuan


Photo © Kenji Ekuan
Kenji Ekuan, Dwelling City, 1964. Collage.

“It was a group of very strong egos, so we got into any number of fights along the way….”
Noburo Kawazoe

“I thought they were like children, so I thought it was my task to raise them…As a parent.”
Atsushi Shimokobe

“We always feel…not pressure necessarily, but an urgency from tradition…”
Fumihiko Maki

“Architects were living in such a small world and I thought this was foolish…”
Kisho Kurakawa

Photo © Kisho Kurokawa
Kisho Kurokawa, Helix City, 1962.

“The only doubt I had about the Metabolists was that these architects had no skepticism toward their utopia; they represented only a form of progressivism. I thought they were too optimistic. They really believed in technology, in mass production; they believed in systematic urban infrastructure and growth.”
Arata Isozaki:

metabolism_6.jpgPhoto © Asada Collection, Tohoku University of Art & Design, Library
The World Design Conference, Tokyo, 1960
Toshiko Kato
Kenzo Tange first wife.

Rem Koolhaas: From your point of view, how would you describe Kenzo Tange as an architect?

Toshiko Kato: Well, what I would remark is that he was always thinking not only of architecture but of society at large. As I mentioned, he collaborated with a variety of artists; he launched the Design Committee, with the intention of improving the quality of life; and he organized Rei-no-kai (that group), which worked to elevate the social status of architects. As such, he always thought about the big picture before his own situation. That’s what I’d like everyone to remember about Tange.

metabolism_7.jpgPhoto Courtesy Mai Asada
Tange gathers his progeny – from Metabolism and Tange Lab – in social as well as professional settings…1961

Takako Tange & Noritaka Tange
Kenzo Tange’s second wife and stepson who succeeded him as President of Kenzo Tange Associates in 1997.

Rem Koolhaas: We have discussed some of Tange’s qualities, but for me, it is mysterious how somebody with such an obviously strong character can find so many supporters. Usually strong characters put people off. What was it in his character that drew so much support?
Takako Tange: I would assume it was because my husband was a good person. As they say, a good person attracts good people.
Rem Koolhaas: But was he kind?
Noritaka Tange: Yes
Rem Koolhaas: Was he funny?
Noritaka Tange: Oh, he was not funny; he was very serious. But he was very charming in his own way.
Rem Koolhaas: Was he very formal?
Noritaka Tange:Very sincere and very formal. he only had a suit and a pajamas in his life and nothing in between. If he had one spot on his suit, he would excuse himself and change the entire outfit. But that was cute in a way. Isn’t that sweet in his own way?

“It has been a gripping experience, to meet, at this point in my life, the protagonists of an older movement – sharing revelations – a radical memento mori, extended over six years of interviews, a confrontation with mortality in a profession that aspires to eternal life…Perhaps old age requires strategy more than any other period in life. The conversations demonstrated touchingly that it is more crucial to exploit your limitations than to survive your gifts. As memory weakens, vision is the only option.”
Rem Koolhaas

“The challenges of sustainability demand that cultural production today reclaims its old sense of ambition and scale; that it once again embraces the possibilities of total design. Bruno Latour has recently called for an expanded role for design that extends “from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and…to nature itself,” welcoming this as a new political ecology that might “ease modernism out of its historical dead end.” This is not to say that we should resurrect anything like the monolithic aesthetic schemes of modernism itself, but rather that we should borrow from their ambition in order to form our own dynamic, shifting, and alterable institutions and spaces of the future.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist

Project Japan features hundreds of never-before-seen images – master plans from Manchuria to Tokyo, intimate snapshots of the Metabolists at work and play, architectural models, magazine excerpts, and astonishing sci-fi urban visions – telling the 20th century history of Japan through its architecture, from the tabula rasa of a colonized Manchuria in the 1930s to a devastated Japan after the war, the establishment of Metabolism at the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo, to the rise of Kisho Kurokawa as the first celebrity architect, to the apotheosis of Metabolism at Expo ’70 in Osaka and its expansion into the Middle East and Africa in the 1970s. The result is a vivid documentary of the last moment when architecture was a public rather than a private affair.

metabolism_8.jpgPhoto book PR
Kenzo Tange. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (1995), Yoyogi National Gymnasia, icon of the Tokyo Olympics (1964), Big Roof at Expo ’70 Osaka (1970)

metabolism_9.jpgPhoto book PR
Tange presents plan for Tokyo (1961)

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Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule building