March 22nd, 2009
last week i was playing translator again, this time live into the earphones of a group of visitors from princeton (see poster).
the lectures and discussions were interesting in a casual way. the topic nominally was about the 1960′s Japanese answer to Archigram, which became the movement we now call metabolism. I am not sure what the connection was for many of the presentations to be honest, which is i suppose not so uncommon for meetings of this sort.
The Japanese contingent were able to make a direct claim of course, since they are almost all current professors at the University of Tokyo and knew the main players personally. My PhD adviser, the architect Dr. Hidetoshi Ohno, was for instance assistant to Fumihiko Maki, and much of his current work can be connected directly to that relationship (Maki was one of the Metabolist group members).
Whether the connections were strong or not, there were some interesting things said.
The main point from the Japanese side was that Metabolism might look like the work of Archigram in a lot of ways, yet in fact is fundamentally different. Different because while Archigram unapologetically looked to the future, Metabolism had a strong continuity with the past. Much of its stylistic imbelleshments are direct copies of traditional Japanese buildings. Why this was so is hard to say, but Suzuki made an intersting observation about post war Japan that shed some light for me a least. He spoke of the transformations brought to Japan by the occupying army, but the one that sticks in my mind is the arbitrary and mechanical naming of streets in Tokyo. This stuck in my mind because most Japanese streets don’t have names now, and I assumed they never did. The very idea is in opposition to the way cities are organised here (areas have names, streets don’t), but for about 15 years they all had names. The way Suzuki explained it once the army had left it was as if they had never been and many of the changes they imposed evaporated. The older patterns returned as soon as the pressure for change was removed. The implication was that Metabolism never was reactionary in the way of Archigram. The Japanese architects were not trying to do away with the past, only shifting the trajectory of their history and culture. Which pretty much sums up the way things are today too, as far as I can tell.
There were lots of other interesting observations from both sides of the aisle, but it would take an essay to get it all down, so I will just throw down a few snapshots:
Jeff Kipnis said:
Architecture in urban planning is the icing on the cake. The actual cake is formed by mundane things like the sewage system. Without that base much of the architect-designed urban plans seem rather fake. When Kenzo Tange proposed a city built over Tokyo Bay, where did he think the shit would go?
Metabolism was/is a problem of the role of the individual vs the collective. In contemporary architecture the subgroup is acknowledged, but it is the collective that dominates, even in work that seems to be overtly individualistic like Frank Gehry. For example, comparing the Disney Concert Hall by Gehry with a similar work by the expressionis architect Hans Scharoun - on the outside they share similar forms, but the interior of Gehry’s hall reveals his desire to bring everyone together. In contrast, Sharoun’s design of the interior is fragmented and allows for expression of the individual.
Stan Allen said:
Contemporary architecture deals with a different question when it comes to the collective versus the individual (as a result of the effect of post-modernist theory?) – while it used to be the case that big architecture projects struggled with how to bring together a collection of individuals ( metabolism, etc), the problem now is how to bring together a collection of realities. How to do that remains an open question.
That is a pretty interesting observation, and since Stan Allen is the man of Landscape Urbanism, I expected he would offer it up as one of the alternatives. Instead he started off by admitting that Landscape Urbanism hits its limits when it takes on density and verticality, which pretty much rules out any modern city in Asia. By implication a new look at metabolism may offer more fruitful results. That was actually pretty refreshing, although he had nothing more to say about what that might actually mean.
Hitoshi Abe said:
The megastructure used to be something that architects would construct. But the CITY is the new megastructure, a system that people tap into. In Tokyo, in fact, the city is treated by its inhabitants as an enormous extended home, with convenience stores (insanely ubiquitous in Tokyo) working like the fridge and medicine cabinet. The home just plugs in. In other words metabolism is still here and very real. It is just not so eassy to see.
Kengo Kuma said:
The monolithic presence of architecture comes from the landscape rather than from the buildings.
So, what does that all mean? It is hard to say. I guess it means we will be hearing a bit more about metabolism in the near future.