How Japan’s visionaries saw the future

By Liza Foreman 25 July 2018

From cities in the air to floating villages in the Bay of Tokyo, a group of forward-thinking Japanese architects, celebrated recently in the Pompidou’s Japan-Ness exhibition in Metz, France, showed how creatively some of the country’s finest architects approached ‘sprawling urbanism’ in Japan after 1945.

Architect Kenzo Tange kick-started the decade-long Metabolism movement, which incorporated innovative technologies and the use of modular units in architecture. He designed the 1960 Plan for Tokyo proposal, during a period of peak urban development in Japan. The project was designed to accommodate expansion in Tokyo by creating architecture that connected across the Tokyo Bay. It led to a new way of approaching urban design. Tange envisioned the use of a grand axis that would cross the bay and provide platforms for creatively designed buildings.

The project promoted the concept of a floating metropolis in the ocean

In 1966, Tange further developed his urban ideas when he designed the Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Centre in Kofu. Created for three separate media companies, the building housed a newspaper printing plant, a radio station, and a television studio. To maximise space, Tange grouped similar functions of each office together, putting the newspaper printing machinery on the ground floor, the studios on the upper floors, and the office on glass-walled floors surrounded by balconies. Space was left within the structure to provide for future expansion, but it has now been used for gardens and terraces.

The 1958 Marine City project by visionary architect Kiyonori Kikutake was one of the first major ideas of the Metabolism movement, promoting the concept of a floating metropolis in the ocean. The structure would be self-sustainable, flexible, clean, earthquake-proof and flood resistant. It would also be located away from urban life on the mainland, using large steel rings with magnetic towers to hold its circular foundations in place. Ideally, the foundations would float on bottle-like forms, creating a rich aqua-culture farming industry. Kikutake’s alternative living concept was radical at the time, but it was one of the first ideas to address issues of sustainability and modularity.

Another project that helped Japanese architects create a showcase for innovation in architecture was the Joint Core System (or City in the Air) which was developed in 1960 by Arata Isozaki. His plan included a multi-layered city with highways and parking structures woven between compounds of offices and apartments. In the original sketches, these structures look like trees, growing side by side. The branches function like passageways to living units, while the trunks act as large supports. This project is sometimes referred to as ‘Clusters in the Air,’ as the trees develop and create a forest-like structure.

The race for space

Architect Kisho Kurokawa was a leader in the Metabolism movement in the 1960s, and his first Metabolic structure, Helix City, was prompted by a growing lack of space in Japan. The idea was to build a structure that functioned more efficiently and sensibly. Constructed with an organic design made up of a series of linked, helical structures, Helix City relies upon service towers that are connected by an infrastructure of bridges over both land and sea. Residential buildings fill in gaps in between the towers, creating a pattern that could hypothetically continue endlessly. This design was inspired by the 1953 discovery of DNA, a significant turning point for the study of life forms.

Kurokawa’s 1960 design for Agricultural City began after the architect survived the Ise Bay Typhoon in 1959. This project was created to prevent a habitat from being flooded by using a grid-like structure of concrete slabs, raised on stilts on agricultural soil, to synchronise the rural landscape with living areas. The grid provides for roads, water services, electricity, monorails, and structures like schools and administration buildings. Housing is designed in a mushroom shape – one to three floors, a wooden frame, and an aluminium cap. Though living units are separate, the linking together of these units creates a village. The entire grid would consist of enough space for about 200 people and a water system would be established beneath the complex.

The architecture could grow and change as needed throughout the years

From 1970 to 1972 Kurowaka and his team designed the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza, Tokyo. This was the first-ever capsule-architecture design, created with the aim of housing businesspeople who would stay in the city during the week. The building represented a prototype for architecture that stressed sustainability and recyclability. Each of the 140 modules could be added to the central core or replaced and exchanged when necessary. This flexibility provided convenient methods of housing for the relatively brief stays of these visitors. Standing at 14 storeys high, the building was an initiative of the Metabolism movement to provide adaptable and interchangeable designs in cities.

Also based on Metabolic principles was Kurokawa’s 1966 project Resort Centre Yamagata Hawaii. The architect purposefully designed this building with the intention of creating no centre, so as to represent fluidity and motion. The Resort Centre Yamagata Hawaii Dreamland appealed to people who were beginning to travel postwar in Japan by instilling leisure and rest. The structure was very Metabolic, and its architecture could grow and change as needed to transform its shape throughout the years. The building was demolished around 1975, and residential towers were built in its place instead.

The ideas of architect Masato Otaka, meanwhile, did not gain as much international recognition as some of his colleagues’, but his designs relied upon key elements of the Metabolism movement. From 1962, Otaka’s housing development Sakaide Artificial Ground relied upon concrete building methods to create a new kind of urbanism in a social housing project on Shikoku Island. Otaka designed an artificial ground plane slightly above grade to allow buildings to interact more flexibly. This design took around 20 years to develop, overlapping with the fruition of the Urban Redevelopment Law in 1969.

The Golgi Structure by architect Fumihiko Maki took its name from Nobel-Prize winner Camillo Golgi, a scientist who found a way to visualise nerve-cell bodies. Maki’s structure combines dense urban area with unstructured open spaces to create an alternating effect. The open spaces in the structure are contained by light-absorbing cells that enable communication and energy distribution. This aspect of the project was key to Maki who stressed the idea of the collective form through three specific types: compositional, structural and sequential. The Golgi Structure contributed to this concept through the use of open spaces, providing mobility for residents and giving them an opportunity to interact with one another in a social environment. It was a quintessentially Metabolic design.

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