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“Do you understand? Everything we see is impermanent. Whole cities can vanish in a day of warfare. It’s this idea that the Japanese believe in, not the outward form … But what’s important here is that we conceive of our tradition and philosophy as invisible, which is very different from Europeans.” —Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p. 385)
“… the idea of keeping architecture permanently is hypocritical, whereas considering architecture as temporary is authentic. Perhaps our desire of imprinting the ground with something imperishable is a manifestation of gross civilization.” —Munesuke Mita, Project Japan (p.656)
“People think of Metabolist architecture growing and changing, but it has to grow and change perfectly. It has to be beautiful … perfect as a constantly changing process. Impermanent beauty, immaterial beauty. So we found a new theory. European beauty was supposed to be eternal, but perhaps we could discover a new aesthetic based on movement. We thought we could make moving architecture.”—Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p.383)
In our spare time this summer we’ve been reading Rem Koolhas and Hans Ulrich Olbrist’s spectacular Project Japan. Metabolism Talks…. The book includes nine interviews with Japanese architects and designers who were in some way related to the Metabolist movement in Japan. The book traces the movement across geographies, cultural and economic upheavals, bubbles, busts, and re-births. It’s a graphic treasure trove of ephemera, architectural plans, and highlighted quotes that disclose vital asides and insights into the characters that gave form to the “group.” By the time we finished the tome, we understood that Metabolism was more a nascent, yet powerful concept than it was an established collective. Various personalities seemed to revolve around Metabolist ideas and projects like satellites. They were always in relation to one another, while also simultaneously pursing quite different and individual projects, ambitions, connections, directions, and styles. The concept of Metabolism seems to have worked best as leverage for gaining notice for a group Japanese architects who were otherwise overlooked by the West. But the movement itself didn’t gel into a solid, orchestrated, or defined effort—and perhaps that is the most potent and visionary asset that it offers to architectural history.
“The Metabolists” were wildly different from one another. But they each embraced change, movement and ephemerality. Kisho Kurokawa was said to have once proposed a building that would contain dynamite inside to ensure its “extinction” after 30 years. Industrial designer Kenji Ekuan stood in the wreckage of Hiroshima and said, ”there, in a world where there was nothing left at all, I felt the call of all things man-made.” So much so, that he left his inherited right to become a monk at the family temple to convey the teachings of Buddha “through the world of things.” Echoing Ekuan, Kurokawa, who also witnessed the aftermath of World War II, said: ”I grew up in the center of Nagoya, but during the war we fled to the suburbs. One night, two or three hundred bombers flew over the city and nothing remained. Nagoya’s population of 1.5 million and its 230-year history disappeared overnight. I was shocked. Standing amidst the rubble, my father said, “Now we must build the city from scratch.” I thought, we can build a city? Unbelievable! At the time, I didn’t believe in architecture—I though architecture and cities would just disappear.“
Embedded within the story of the Metabolist movement are insights about Japanese designers’ and architects’ relationships to materiality. And these relationships have become most interesting to us. The volume reveals a relationship to materiality that appears to be intrinsic, and particular, to Japanese culture. It is a sensibility that seems to have escaped being overtly codified as philosophy, and instead, has been internalized—and aestheticized—into ways of being, cultural traditions, langauge and daily life practices.
Take for example, comments by Hidetoshi Kato found in the margin of Kenji Ekuan’s interview, under a caption entitled “spirit:” “I believe in the lives of many things—not only living animals, flowers and so forth, but also a small cup, your camera, your watch, your shoes… everything has its own life. It was born somewhere, and it will be worn out and reborn. In Kyoto you find a very interesting tomb called fudezuka. It’s a tombstone for old pens. Once you use your pens, you cannot put them in the garbage, you have to preform a ritual.”
fudezuka mound in Kyoto, image toranosuke
Many of the Metabolist architects also mention, sometimes with great significance, the Ise shrine. The Grand Shrine at Ise has been (re)built exactly to plan, the same plan, every 20 years since 690 CE—with new materials. Noboru Kawazoe eloquently describes Ise’s philosophical influence, “The Japanese thought that life becomes eternal by being absorbed into the great stream of Nature. For them, it was not a case of ‘life is short, art eternal.’ They only had to look at the Ise Shrine—ever new, yet ever unchanging—to know that it is art, in truth, that is short and life that is eternal … It comes from an awareness that, just as Ise Shrine was reborn from parent to child, then from child to grandchild in a continuous line, so did our ancestors live from one generation to the next and to the next, and now we stand at the end of that continuous line …”
Here in New York, and in the present tense, we toured the recently opened September 11 memorial in lower Manhattan. Perhaps one of the most profound contributions to this highly contested tract of land is 4 World Trade Center, designed by Metabolist Fumihiko Maki’s Maki and Associates. The structure, which will be 72 stories tall, is practically invisible at certain times of day. Designing a structure capable of essentially disappearing, while existing within one of the most emotionally charged zones in America, is a remarkable architectural feat. An insightful article about the building appeared last June in the New York Times under the title, ”A 977-Foot Tower You May Not See, Assuming You’ve Even Heard of It.” Osamu Sassa, the project architect for the Maki firm, was quoted in the piece as saying: “We like the idea of the building dematerializing.”
The events of March 2011 ushered in entirely new tumultuous, material upheavals to Japanese life. The tsunami and earthquake erased entire cities and villages. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster continues to require unprecedented vigilance for the clean-up and ongoing attempts to contain radioactive materials.
The themes that accumulate at the core of Project Japan left us thinking that contemporary Japanese people might be some of the best prepared for navigating—and enacting— profoundly new materialist directions in the immediate future. Having escaped extended colonization and, over the past several millennia, having been able to refine the ability to maneuver deftly beyond the tragic losses of war, typhoons, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis, there is little Japanese people haven’t already overcome, materially, in their daily lives. Adaptation and appropriation have become central attributes of Japanese cultural identity—along with a deeply embedded respect for and awareness of ephemerality.
The Postcript of Project Japan, by Toyo Ito, was especially inspiring. His words echo our sense that there is much to learn from Japanese designers and architects as they become some of the first to reorient themselves (once again) towards an unknowable and constantly changing future that we all face:
“The reported scene of a fishing village in Sanriku devoured in seconds by the tsunami struck me and made me wonder what Japan’s 60 years of modernization since the war was all about. I am amazed by the fragile state of things despite all the economic and technological “strength” Japan has been so proud of… Was our achievement of the past several decades a house of cards? The media often uses the phrase “beyond assumption” for the disaster, meaning that its force was beyond architectural requirements. But I can’t help sensing a more fundamental disruption between our norm and the reality. I think we design things in a mechanical manner…we do not engage with the natural environment as something constantly affected by the varying forces of the ground, sea, or wind. I think our task now is to rethink how we “assume” design conditions, rather than reviewing the conditions. We need to start by questioning the way we relate to nature… Any proposal for tackling this issue, however visionary, should be an encouragement for the towns and villages reconstructing with the possibility of natural disaster always looming. And we architects should find it an invaluable opportunity to work on such a proposal, where we can question the norm of modernism that is so embedded within us. I think now is a good moment for us architects to break away from this mode and regain a viable relationship with nature.” —Toyo Ito (p.697)
Kenzaburo Tange, the man closest to the “core” of Metabolism, aptly asked decades ago, ”What are the things that join us with the future?”
tsunami debris, image CC Yuichi Shiraishi
Oirase tsunami gate, image CC Richard Masoner
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