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Sun, 10 Jul 2022

One of things that recently got me hooked was the Japanese architectural movement called metabolism. Emerging in the 60s, it radically saw to re-define the concept of the city. The architects hoped to create living and breathing cities which operated like one would expect of an organism. Buildings decompose and build them self's up at need. With the city itself not having any quality of itself set in stone, besides the capacity to change.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

The most famous building of this type, and one of the few (partly) exisiting, would be the Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa. A building which exists of two large frames and whose floors are composed by small pods that could be rented. The pods being removed and added as the need came by. As it's demolition started in April of 2022, this year marks the last one where you can view it with your own eyes. Maybe a fitting end of a building whose whole idea was based on change, but I also have trouble living knowing that some souless and sterile husk will take it's place. And let's be honest, it probably will.

Moving on, as this story will go about dream cities, I want to stress how this one was different from dream cities that came before. Usually dream cities are seen as constructions set in stone, separate from time. Once build they stand still for an eternity. The metabolist escaped this issue by their dream city being anything but static. It was breathing, living and always reinventing itself. Escaping the pitfalls of getting ever outdated.

City as a flow

What I loved hearing is the outright rejection of the status quo in it. Some architects pushing it so far as to see the actual soil as limiting. Deciding instead on these grant plans of building a new civilization on the sea. That they were extreme I understand too, but I can't imagine nowadays anyone coming up with such a bold vision without being seen as a lunatic. Interesting to note too, they based their idea of change partly in tradition. In large part because post-war Japan had a bit of cultural crisis, there was a need to justify architecture that would have to be build. One of the architects of the movement, Noboru Kawazoe, in response to this challenge wrote:

"From the ancient times, Japanese have thought about the world as flowing and changing all the time. Based on this idea, the human being should not stand against the nature, nor should architecture and city. Rather they should become part of the nature. They should obey the theory of the life. What should be considered as the theory of life is metabolism."

A model of an aquatic city designed by Kiyonori Kikutake

The architecture took it's lifecycle into account. The idea being that the core of the platform would stand up for a long period of time. With the buildings composed of fabricated rooms or chunks, being replaced piece by piece as they aged. After a long time, the platform itself too would be sunk to make room for a new one to take it's place. Starting the process again.


A miniature of this idea was build in reality. Titled Aquapolis, it had the dimensions of 100m by 100m. The experiment, technology wise, proved to be a success. The platform was self sufficient when it came to energy. The build-in purification and garbage-treatment systems made sure that the impact of it to the sea was nonexistent. Proving true that sustainable living on sea was theoretically possible.

Social changes

The focus on movement and change also made me connect some dots with something that has been in the back of my mind for a while too. That is, native American tribes. I was recently reading the book 'The Dawn of Everything', written by David Graeber and David Wengrow. From what they present, there are good reasons to believe native Americans (although possibly all of humanity) enjoyed a culture of free movement in the past. They point to three forgotten freedoms in their book - to move, to disobey and to rearrange social conditions - which were taken as granted. The freedoms standing on top of each other. The idea being as that when you didn't enjoy the social structure of your tribe or/and you didn't want to obey someone's orders, you just moved into the woods till you stumbled on an other tribe. This made it impossible for there to be a culture of submission and coercion. I wonder if a metabolist society could also provide a structure for such freedom. While it's hard to relocate and move freely if you own a house, it becomes much easier to move a pod which you use as your personal space. As the public use of land was huge deal for the metabolist, there isn't really a problem of some part of the land being completely locked from you. I can fully imagine something such as domestic abuse being extremely low in such society as anyone in trouble could just pack their bags and move their pod away without the fear of losing the roof on their head. Possibly allowing the choice in life that many don't have.

Personal freedom always though presented trouble for metabolist. On one hand it, was assumed as important. So much so they had ideas of the pods being customized piece by piece by everyone, and then manufactured to be set together. Forming the house as one might set up lego blocks. With everyone being able to express his/hers individuality to their fullest extent. On other hand there was always the idea of some architectural mastermind behind it all. Planning the city and it's growth. An issue that never was resolved in any neat way.

The end

The movement fizzled out by 80s. Simply by the times changing and the 80s becoming a time of consumerism and post-modernism. With the interest in metabolism, and other architectural movements, largely fading away.

In the end what I got from this is how really conservative our society is compared to ones in the past. Even though we like to larp as being anything but, it seems we no longer have the capacity to dream of alternate realities. Not just architecture wise, but I think in pretty much anything. It's not like we longer hear of great architectural movements like this one. I hear the music that's popular today, and it's all retro. Look how many movies or shows are just remakes, rehashes or reboots. Not even technology wise do we expect anything. We used to talk about space exploration, and now we talk about CRUD apps as some marvel of technology. We really did enter this eternal present somewhere in recent decades. Since I know someone will point to something new in recent history. I'm not saying nothing happens anymore, but what does happen is anomality, and usually lacks the punch of what happened in the past.

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