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For Immediate Release | January 20, 2021

Mutant Urbanism in Japanese Architecture: Lessons from the Metabolist Movement

What can we learn from one of Japan’s Most Iconic Architectural Movements?

This story relates to two free public events on Metabolist architecture: a talk on February 16, and an international symposium on February 22-23. Both events will be held in-house in Sydney and online (AEDT). Details below. 

Marine cities. Floating cities. Resilient cities. These are just some of the concepts embraced by a charismatic group of young Japanese designers and architects known as the Metabolists, who rose to prominence in the 1960s with visionary projects and grand avant-garde designs.

The Metabolists were active in Japan from 1958 to the 1970s, mentored by iconic architect Kenzō Tange, and included Kishō Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Kiyonori Kikutake and Arata Isozaki (albeit not a formal member) among others. Of Metabolism’s many members, only Maki is alive today. The Metabolism school was formalised in 1960 with the publication of a manifesto, METABOLISM/1960–Proposals for a New Urbanism, which was launched at the Tokyo World Design Conference. The movement reached its peak with the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, where striking pavilions and other structures designed by the Metabolists wowed a global audience.

“The Metabolists were a product of, and responded to, an extraordinary time,” says Raffaele Pernice, an architecture scholar who researches the Metabolist movement. “They emerged as postwar Japan was entering a new age of prosperity and opening up to the world for the first time since the war. Cities were growing rapidly then, and the need for housing and infrastructure spiked on an unprecedented scale.”

With a signature focus on the phenomena of replication and mutation, as seen in living organisms, the Metabolists responded to these new challenges with energy and optimism. Says Pernice: “They saw these challenges as opportunities to think equally big. They embraced then-emerging technologies, including capsule architecture and prefabrication, eschewed traditional timber for new concrete, and relied heavily on mechanical rather than manual power to produce structures that were bold in both vision and execution.” Much of the Metabolists’ work still appears radical by today’s standards, and Pernice argues that this is why it continues to captivate designers.

Seeking to transcend a conventional building-by-building approach to development, “some Metabolists began designing entire cities predicated on innovative solutions to urban planning problems.” Some of the most experimental designs sought to overcome reliance on one of Japan’s scantest resources: land. Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine City, pictured above, is one example. Pernice says: “It was conceived in 1958 but never built. Although it’s worth noting that his Aquapolis, another floating city he designed on a smaller scale, was built as the Japan pavilion at the 1975 World Expo in Okinawa. This shows that even some of the more ambitious designs were actually able to be executed using the technologies available the time.”

While the retro-future aesthetic of the Metabolists’ work is emblematic of their time, its value today is more than simply nostalgic. The Metabolists experimented with ideas that are seeing renewed relevance around the globe due to population growth, global heating and other enviro-social challenges, and their work prefigures current trends toward living architecture. As Pernice observes, “Their bold ideas very much reflect concerns that are important to us now in the 21st century.”

Like any movement, Metabolism had both merits and limitations. Little thought was devoted to waste management, for example, despite the fact that it was an issue in urban Japan at the time. “The Metabolists’ projects used schematic design based on somewhat simplistic notions of the functioning of cities, which are highly complex entities, as well as simplistic assumptions about how people actually use urban spaces. But while this is a weakness, it also lends the projects a fascinating utopian element.”

Other aspects of the Metabolist movement have maintained currency over the decades. These include the concept of design as a tool for managing human populations and relationships, for example, as well as a focus on disaster preparedness, and the application of cutting-edge technologies to improve urban environments. “Their creative exploration of alternative technological and man-made habitats—like marine cities and vertical communities built on a gigantic scale and suitable for a modern living—truly capture the spirit of innovation that characterised the 1960s. At the same time, they also resonate with visions that architects and planners are trying to achieve today.”

The recent 60th anniversary of the Metabolist manifesto offers an impetus to reflect on the lessons and legacy of the movement. Can the visions of this dynamic yet fleeting movement be adapted to address the needs of contemporary cities? Only the future—or the past—can tell.

Dr Raffaele Pernice’s talk, “Mutant Urbanism in Japanese Architecture: Lessons from the Metabolist Movement” will be held on February 16 (Tuesday), 2021 from 6:30pm (AEDT) at The Japan Foundation, Sydney and online.

The talk will be followed by an international symposium convened by Dr Pernice, titled “Architectures for a Mutant City. 60 Years of Metabolism 1960-2020, and Beyond”, on February 22-23, 2021 (AEDT), held at UNSW Sydney and online, and supported by The Japan Foundation.

Dr Raffaele Pernice is available for interviews upon request.

The lead image on this webpage is a 3D rendering of Kiyonori Kikutake’s unbuilt Marine City design, created by Antxon Canovas. Reproduced with permission (source).

Related Events

Public Talk

Mutant Urbanism in Japanese Architecture: Lessons from the Metabolist Movement
Speaker: Dr Raffaele Pernice (UNSW Sydney)
February 16, 2021 (AEDT)
Held at The Japan Foundation, Sydney and online

About the Talk

International Symposium

Architectures for a Mutant City. 60 Years of Metabolism 1960-2020, and Beyond
Convenor: Dr Raffaele Pernice (UNSW Sydney)
February 22-23, 2021 (AEDT)
Held at UNSW Sydney and online, supported by The Japan Foundation.

About the Symposium

ABOUT RAFFAELE PERNICE

Dr Raffaele Pernice is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism at the School of Built Environment, UNSW Sydney. He is a licensed architect whose qualifications include a PhD in Architecture from the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Dr Pernice has spent significant time conducting research in Japan, most recently on a 2019 Japan Foundation Fellowship to explore the relationship between the Metabolists and the housing industry in post-war Japan.

Following this talk, Dr Pernice will extend his work on Metabolism by convening an international symposium at UNSW Sydney titled “Architectures for a Mutant City. 60 Years of Metabolism 1960-2020, and Beyond” on February 22-23, 2021, supported by The Japan Foundation.

EDITOR’S NOTES
  • Images on this webpage can be used for editorial purposes.
  • For high-resolution images and different dimensions, please contact us.

Admission

Admission is free; booking required.
Book via the event page here.

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Elicia O’Reilly
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