Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Metabolism Architecture

By Kyle Fountain

For our final project in Global Traditions, we are producing a twenty page research paper on a non-western historically significant structure of our choice.  Although I have chosen the Nakagin Capsule Tower as my subject, I dedicated a substantial portion toward the beginnings and concepts of the Metabolism Architecture Movement.  Their philosophy of “Impermanence” was derived from the dichotomies of the Ise Shrine which has been torn down and rebuilt every twenty years for over 12 centuries, and the aftermath of World War II where many villages and metropolises were forced to rebuild from scratch (Koolhaus, et al, 2011).  The following is one draft chapter from my paper on Metabolism and the Nakagin Capsule Tower.
Metabolism – “The chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.  Two kinds of metabolism are often distinguished: Constructive Metabolism, the synthesis of the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that form tissue, and store energy, and destructive metabolism, the breakdown of complex substances and the consequent production of energy and waste matter” (, 2015). 
The goals of Metabolism designs were often examples of both Constructive Metabolism and Destructive Metabolism.  For instance, the Nakagin Capsule Tower was designed to be assembled and disassembled every twenty five years. Rather than attempting to design a building to last forever, the Nakagin Capsule Tower design understood the rapid rate urbanism can and should adapt with its surrounding context and technologies.
Upon the end of World War II, and the Corbusien/Swiss born Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), a new optimism for solving problems by way of modern architecture and urban design philosophies was growing.  Metabolism 1960 was the initial manifesto spawning the movement (Koolhaas, et al, 2011).  “The plan was an information and communication network capable of growth and change through the extension of parallel loops forming an extended spine that stretched from The Imperial Palace, in central Tokyo, across Tokyo Bay, to the suburbs of Chiba Prefecture” (Ross, 1978).  Tange’s plan for Tokyo as depicted in Figure 1 was the retaliation of a haphazard Japanese urban sprawling as the population began growing exponentially.  Tange wanted to mitigate the lack of qualitative master planning that was beginning to shape Tokyo. 

Figure 1- Kenzo Tange Tsukiji Plan (
Tange aimed to incorporate western planning techniques such as predetermined areas he called “urban communication centers” but are often referred to as plazas, which were not previously seen in traditional Japanese cities (Ross, 1978).  As Tange’s ideas began to attract the attention of his informal protégés, a social meeting of what might now be called a mastermind group was formed with the collective intention of preparing and planning for the future development of Tokyo.  The group was named after the title of their 1960 manifesto, Metabolism.  The founding members consisted of one architectural critic and four practicing architects.  The critic was Noboru Kawazoe, and the four architects were:  Kisho Kurokawa (Nakagin Capsule Tower designer), Kiyonori Kikutake, Fumihiko Maki, and Masato Otaka.  The members were very young relative to the profession, ranging in age from mid-twenties to lower thirties.  Likewise, their education background and professional experiences were equally diverse ranging from Harvard and working at SOM New York, to Kyoto University, and apprenticing directly under Kenzo Tange (Ross, 1978).  Together, the group invariably began designing megastructures with the central master plan coming from Tange’s Tokyo plan of 1960 (Ross, 1978). 

Figure 2 – Kenzo Tange Tsukiji Plan Elevation (
These megastructure charrettes maintained the notion that urban infrastructure, especially transportation, was innovating at a much slower rate than building technologies.  What was hypothesized over a half century ago can be evident in large metropolises such as Chicago where public transportation is of upmost importance for the urban dwellers.  Unfortunately, rather than innovating, the light rail system which was unveiled within only a couple years of the first steel skyscraper, continues to require more maintenance and delayed commute times offsetting efficiency and prospective monetary gains.  Meanwhile, skyscrapers have reached what could not have previously been imagined only a century ago.

Figure 3 - Arata Isozaki City of the Sky (Ross, 1978)
With buildings innovating faster than infrastructure, “Tange reiterated that:  ‘By incorporating elements of space, speed, and drastic change in the physical environment, we created a method of structuring having elasticity and changeability” (Ross, 1978).  Following the concept of buildings evolving and devolving over time, towers were imagined with residential modules being “plugged” into the central structure with the intention that they could be disassembled just as easily.  In 1962, Arata Isozaki was working in Kenzo Tange’s office when he began producing drawings of his “City in
the Sky” (Figure 3) (Ross, 1978).
Although Isozaki was not a formal member of the Metabolist group, his ideas were inspired by the same source, Kenzo Tange.  Simultaneously, the Metabolist group was working on similar megastructures.  Kurokawa, the designer of the Nakagin Capsule Tower was working on the “Helix City” a series of structures which twisted like a double helix and was quite outwardly inspired by biology and experimental tensegrity structural systems.  Congruently, Kikutake was developing a series of drawings and designs for cylindrical floating cities.  Most of these initial charrettes and rough sketches became formal proposals, few proposals were realized, but one prototypical Metabolism structure remains today, The Nakagin Capsule Tower (Ross, 1978).
Koolhaas, R., Obrist, H. U., Ota, K., Westcott, J., & Daniell, T. (2011). Project Japan: Metabolism Talks.. (Vol. 100). Amsterdam: Taschen.
Ross, M. F. (1978). Beyond metabolism: The new Japanese architecture. NEW YORK: Architectural Record Books, McGraw-Hill Book Company(1978), 200 PP. 357 ILLUS.(General).


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