Tokyo 1960s | Birth of Metabolism



Presented as a manifesto and advocated by Kenzo Tange in the 1960s, ‘Metabolism’ is a theory of architecture responding to the human and environmental catastrophe and vulnerability that followed the atomic bombing of Japan and earthquakes. It states that “buildings and cities should be designed and developed in the same continuous way that the material substance of a natural organism is produced”.

The manifesto was published at the World Design Conference with the opening statement:

“Metabolism is the name of the group, in which each member proposes further designs of our coming world through his concrete designs and illustrations. We regard human society as a vital process – a continuous development from atom to nebula. The reason why we use such a biological word, metabolism, is that we believe design and technology should be a denotation of human society. We are not going to accept metabolism as a natural process, but try to encourage active metabolic development of our society through our proposals.”

Kikutake’s Ocean City is one of the projects introduced at the conference, which was a combination of two previously published projects “Tower-shaped City” and “Marine City”. It was designed with the inner housing ring and the outer production ring which were tangent to one another. It was meant to control the population at an upper limit of 500, 000. Kikutake envisaged that the city would expand by multiplying itself like cell division. This enforced the Metabolist idea of comparing the expansion of cities with a biological process.

This shows the tectonic relationship between the land and sea in the project of Ocean City done by Kikutake Kiyonori (1968)
This shows the tectonic relationship between the land and sea in the project of Ocean City done by Kikutake Kiyonori (1968)

Tectonic Visions Between Land & Sea: Ocean City © 1968, Kiyonori Kikutake

From wartime to postwar redevelopment, the theory gave birth to visions of future cities, encouraging the realisation of such experimental architecture and providing the ground for many Japanese architects and designers to build their careers on. Our group will further discuss the development and influence of metabolism and give different built or unbuilt examples to illustrate the idea.

4 Comments on “Tokyo 1960s | Birth of Metabolism

  1. Metabolism in Japan hurdled many manifested many different ideas at different scales, such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo that offered a very futuristic vision in response to its natural catastrophic threat and uprising hectic on social fluctuations. The tower is assembled with capsules from the same module, and that each is encapsulated in a box unit that grants the simplest form and adaptation to the surrounding. Its vision was hoped to be shared and established on another piece of land in the world, hoping that each capsule owner can detach from its original tower and reattach to a new tower if there was any catastrophe.

  2. Looking at some of the examples of metabolism, we see quite distinct and unique proposals of housing and cityscape such as Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air that were designed to develop a new structure for housing in Tokyo that uses the same joint core system as his proposal for the Shinjuku Project (City in the Air). What becomes quite interesting is that although driven by metabolism which claims to not accept metabolism as a natural process, projects such as Isozaki’s and Kikutake’s Ocean city somehow reflect back to tree structures in the case of Isozaki’s core system and ‘cell division’ in the latter.
    What I feel quite interested in is how these multiple proposals if realised could actually work together and what would the city as a whole look and function like, when driven by metabolism?

  3. I wonder how does this Japanese narrative relate to the western paradigms around the same time. In a sense, the interest in biological processes at the time paralleled similar evolutionary and biomimetic interests in the west. And while the view of the city has shifted a lot under the western paradigm throughout the second half of the 20th century (such as the importance of cultural capital or collage city), how has this metabolism discourse evolved and what was the heritage it left for Japan now that makes it unique?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.