Jul 2, 2016 · 11 min read

The Architecture of Postwar Japan

From the Rubble

Japan post World War II was a time of lost cultural identity. The strength and certainty of the Japanese culture and citizens during the war was now in ruins, as were the cities and towns ravaged by fighting and the atomic bomb. Leading to the question many citizens were asking, ‘what is it to be Japanese?’.

A lone man looks over on the devastation of Hiroshima

The urban architecture of the time mirrors this, during the war a popular trend was the attempt at exporting ultra-nationalistic architecture sold on the backbone of the current power of the country. This stopped with the end of the war and surrender leading to the practice of importing and copying western architecture. Ito Chuta, an architect at this time, ‘.. cloaked modern structures with traditional decorative ornament in a deliberate effort to “Japanicize” “foreign” construction.’ (Reynolds, 2001), believing this was the answer to keeping traditional architecture alive, attempting to continue on as normal but not looking forward in any way.

Japan therefore was in desperate need of new ideas and approaches to rebuild its cities in a way that respected the culture of both past and future. It wasn’t until the start of the 1960s when a group of young Japanese architects and artists began to collectively put their ideas and knowledge together to find a solution. From this they founded the Metabolism movement, a form of architecture that took inspiration from the natural cycles of life, technology and the fundamental beliefs of Buddhism.

The name is its manifesto, ‘Their ideal is to design a city so flexible in its connections that its parts could grow, transform themselves and die while the whole animal went on living.’ (Kurokawa, 1977). The group, though made up of many different members of differing ages and professions, were tied together by the effects of the war on all of them. Initially they named themselves the ‘Burnt Ash School’ with shared responsibility to solve the effects of the Atomic bomb. A project by Arata Isozaki of the group sets the tone with a striking visual of a new city rising from the rubble.

Electric Labyrinth, Arata Isozaki

The initial biggest concern they faced being the Japanese population growing exponentially, this was occurring at the same rate as the economy was recovering and starting to boom. Tokyo, as a key example, became overcrowded and the city started to spill out into the surrounding countrysides. All this was with a lack of a consistent urban system that exacerbated the problem.

The constant fear of natural disasters pushed new building codes that restricted heights to below 31 metres, leading to a low rise highly compacted city rather than carefully selecting sites to build vertically. The old traditions of wooden construction were also still widely in use, all this created a very haphazard city that was not equipped to keep up with the rapidly developing nation. ‘The Metabolists looked at these monstrous and untidy cities as cancers in the society.’ (Lin. 2001).

A Lonely Isle

One of the starting projects came from Kiyonori Kikutake, imagining a free floating Marine City’ that is a culmination of many of the ideas explored by the Metabolists, they possibly saw it as a very literal escape from the still fresh memory of the war, but also an attempt at addressing the problems with Japanese cities of the time.

The proposal was based on new technologies allowing the mass production of prefabrication arising at the time. Kikutake wanted to explore the possibilities of creating a whole city using this technology, which could be easily adapted and allowed to grow over time.

Initial sketch of the Marine City

Groups of floating platforms were dotted with concrete cylindrical cores, these extended up to 300 metres both vertically to the sky and into the sea, which were then connected by bridges.

The plan was that platforms would be either added or removed as the population and needs of the city changed, creating a cluster of megastructures. Each core serving over a thousand prefabricated capsules for inhabitation, each high rise structure was thought to be capable of supporting a population of around 5000.

The final model exhibited at the 1960 world design conference

The majority of the services and infrastructure were placed in the submerged portion of the cores, these below-surface sections would provide stability to the platforms. The imagery created from this floating city is remincent of the buddhist symbolism of the tree of life, with these structural cores supporting life inside the capsules.

The aim being it would be a city separate from any other, free to float on the sea without fear of war or problems of current societies. But there is also a loneliness to the proposal, in comparison to the vast oceans, these solitary cities would be completely exposed to the elements.

This detachment from the world is an appropriate symbolism of Japan at that time, the dreams of a utopian city created by this desire for an alternative future. Looking ahead whilst respecting the past led to design with obsolescence in mind, Kikutake aimed the age limit of the whole city to be no more than 50 years.

Shinto Priests moving a Hinoki trunk for the rebuild

An important precedent for this being the traditional Japanese Shinto Shrine, the most well known being the Ise Grand Shrine. Lasting for centuries it is entirely rebuilt every 20 years, the act of this a religious ceremony in itself. This lifecycle, with a definite birth and death but with regeneration every cycle, is how they envisioned the future of Japanese cities.

Confused Identity

Koolhaas interviewing Kikutake within his home ‘Sky house’

Project Japan: Metabolism Talks is a book by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Through spending half a decade interviewing the remaining individuals who were members of the Metabolists, they collected a retrospective, emotional and political glimpse back into the movement. In one interview with Kikutake, Koolhaas asks him if there was a “political dimension” to his work, his response explained he had a more personal connection to his designs than just a showcase of the new movement. He witnessed his family and many others lose everything when America led massive land reforms after the war, he then simply states “My architecture was my protest” (Project Japan, 2011). This explains his own complete disregard for the existing cities. Marine city, City over the City, Sky House (Kikutake’s own designed home), these projects defiantly give up on what is currently there. The feeling of land being taken away must have given an opinion that these are not our cities, they do not serve or belong to us and are therefore beyond our help.

They instead chose to create new cities or build above the existing. However, in a promotional text for the world design conference (1960), Noboru Kawazoe, a member of the group wrote about artificial land ‘The liberation of the ground would be the only justification for developing artificial ground.’. This opinion is conflicted to me, none of the proposals looked at addressing any of the problems of the cities from the inside out. However, he believed this was to come first before thoughts of grand schemes such as the marine city could happen. Perhaps this is the result of the large collection of different and conflicting ideas, the main criticism coming internally from other members of the group.

‘The Walking City’ from the Archigram movement

Some critics, Reyner Banham in particular, suggested that Metabolism was just a copy of european avant-garde movements of the time, that the designs ‘merely plagiarised Archigram’ and dismissed most of these because of not going in-depth enough within their proposals.

Robin Boyd also compared it closely to the work of Louis Kahn and condemned it for its “air of undergraduate enthusiasm”.

The work of the Archigram movement definitely had similarities, the example of one of its main project, the ‘plug in city’ by Peter Cook shares the same idea of small living spaces being connected to megastructures. However, in this neofuturistic movement, technology is its only focus with a lack of consideration for society of the time. Metabolism instead blended technology and natural processes to solve the social problems.

A member of the group, Arata Isozaki tried to distance himself from the movement around the end of the 1960s, he created a pamphlet ‘Dismantling of Architecture’ which Rem Koolhaas called “Killing Metabolism with information.”. Presented within this were other western replacements to Metabolism, trying to encourage young Japanese architects to move away from what he saw as an already dying movement and consider alternatives instead. His explanation being, “60s movements were radical, not avant-garde. Metabolism was the last movement that tried to be avant-garde.’ (Koolhaas & Obrist, 2011) He believed the movement had a strange mix of radical and avant-garde ideas that the nation didn’t want or need anymore.

Capsule or Cell Architecture

The Nagakin capsule tower, located in Tokyo, is to me a real life representation of the core concept of capsule living condensed down to its fundamentals. As one of the few built projects from the Metabolists it is an important architectural artefact from that era, its protection and future are currently under debate in Tokyo. The building was designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, more than a decade after Metabolism was founded. The problems of overpopulation in Tokyo had now lessened as most of the population moved towards out of city areas, inner city homes were mostly removed and taken over by the tertiary industry, commuting was now commonplace. The brief therefore had changed from solving the crisis of overcrowding in the 1960s, to now accommodating the commuting businessmen.

The first capsule lifted into position

The tower is made up of two reinforced concrete shafts which act as cores, providing circulation, plumbing, electricity and other services for the 144 capsules attached to the outside of the building. The capsules are connected to the shafts in a way that allows them to be easily removed and replaced without affecting neighbouring pods. This system meant every capsule was in place within thirty days, a time and cost efficient build for such a large number of units.

Every capsule was made up of prefabricated parts and assembled in a factory prior to being transported to the site. Included within are basic amenities such as a bathroom and storage space with inbuilt appliances, every room has a large circular window overlooking the single bed. A less poetic view of the scheme stated that “Extremely compact prefabricated living units, looking like elongated clothes dryers, were attached to concrete towers.” The Elusive City (Barnett, 1986). This comparison of the look of the capsules to a cold machine object is a fair statement, here function dictates form.

A view of modern living

Kurokawa’s take on capsule architecture at the time encompasses many futuristic ideas, in his book ‘Metabolism in Architecture’ (1977) he explains his obsession came from the idea of ‘Man, machine and space’ combined together to create something beyond each individual element. A ‘new organic body’, he uses the example of the previous uses of the phrase capsule being ‘medicine’ or the ‘living quarters of an astronaut’. The contents are precious but also the exterior skin becomes obsolete when not filled with those contents, and vice versa, he believed humans will take on a new technologically assisted existence within these capsules to become almost as ‘cyborgs’. The building does work as a showcase of metabolism, it should be commended for its strive to create this building from what was seen as a ‘kitsch’ idea on paper.

The design harmony of a tea ceremony room

Appreciated as revolutionary at the time, but it has a precedent in the most traditional of Japanese design of a tea ceremony room. Its core elements are always identical with a minimalistic interior to aid this mediative place, the focus is solely on the individual and the experience. Kurokawa himself states he desired his capsule architecture to bring back this idea which was lost in the modernisation of Japanese architecture ‘By examining spaces for individuals we must seek new relations between the individual and the society’ ( Kurokawa, 1977).

A disparity is created between the attempt at creating an overall organic system that would change and evolve as the needs of society changed, and the final effect which is one of a restricted space where solitary living is the only function.

The effect of capsule living can either be seen as an almost meditative environment where hard work and focus are integral, as it is in Japanese culture, or it is an unhealthy mix of isolation and disconnect for a singular worker. Cherie Wendelken (Goldhagen and Legault, 2000) has a similar opinion, she states the capsule was born out of postwar paranoia and names it ‘survival architecture’ as with all bombshells, only providing the basic ‘provisions’ to live.

Capsule series by Matthew Pillsbury

I believe there is a lifestyle forced on the inhabitant, with no time or space for anything other than the predetermined schedule included in the prefabricated set. The technology was not yet there at the time for Kurokawa to properly showcase what he meant to achieve. However, this photographic series explores the small but meaningful variations different inhabitants make on nine Nagakin capsules, all to solely accommodate technology. The 70s vision of the future is actually very near to the reality of our generation, but the encouragement of solitude in the capsules creates an almost dystopian vision where man is leashed and imprisoned within his cell by the very technology thought to evolve us.

The strong ideas they had of profoundly changing Japanese cities almost appears to have run out of energy within the decade after Metabolism was founded. This can be seen in the Nagakin Capsule Tower as one of the end products, the ideas became outdated and contradicting as Japan was developing around it. The movement was unable to keep up with these changes and the fixation of the original ideas kept it from evolving alongside the cities they first attempted to save.

The Metabolist movement was successful in the sense that it was what Japan needed desperately at that time, it was the collective want to move on from the perception of a broken and ruined nation that made it so popular and groundbreaking at the time. It was a movement that I don’t think can be judged solely on the few examples of architecture it had actually built. As an idea it inspired the Japanese people and architects to move forward whilst holding onto their traditions and culture, to create the sprawling technologically advanced urban system it is today.

The phrase used by Fumihiko Maki to describe Metabolism was actually techno-utopian. If it was a vision of Utopia, it has now evolved to a level previously unimaginable.

Architecture, landscape, urban design

A place to share thoughts on the built environment, and everything else that impacts how we live in our homes, our cities and on this planet


Written by

MArch Student @ Westminster. Exploring the human side to Architecture.

Architecture, landscape, urban design

A place to share thoughts on the built environment, and everything else that impacts how we live in our homes, our cities and on this planet

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