Metabolism: An Architectural Movement in the 1960s
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Metabolism: An Architectural Movement in the 1960s

Metabolism in architecture first appeared in the Tokyo World Conference of Design in 1960 under the leadership of Kenzo Tange and other architects, including, Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and Fumihiko Maki. Metabolists believed that adopting this approach in architecture would save the identity of humanbeings and allow them to communicate their humanity to architecture.

In the 1960's, many cities around the world witnessed an unprecedented economic growth and urban expansion, which created unusual pressure on architects to find appropriate solutions to the problem of overpopulation. Architects and urban planners were looking for creating mega-structures and utopian solutions than could accommodate the needs of the housing sector.

In the early 1960's, a group of young Japanese architects were occupied by the idea of creating a new structural system, where parts of the building can be added or removed according to the continual changing needs of the people. These architects succeeded in initiating a new movement in architecture called ‘Metabolism’.

Metabolism in architecture first appeared in the Tokyo World Conference of Design in 1960. The renowned, Kenzo Tange and number of other architects, including, Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and Fumihiko Maki, announced their concept of the new architectural approach and the proposal for a new Urbanism. Another important event was the Osaka World's Fair in 1970, where the Metabolists exhibited some of their prospective works as an illustration to their theoretical approach.

Metabolists believed that adopting this approach in architecture would save the identity of human beings and allow them to communicate their humanity to architecture. The majority of the Metabolists’ work was residential and directed to solve housing problems. Their designs covered issues of architecture, regional planning, as well as industrial.

There is a strong metaphorical relationship between the development of architecture and the metabolism of the human body. This relationship represented the foundation on which the Metabolists based their new theory. Metabolism can be defined as the sum of the physical and chemical changes and processes that take place in the human body in order to break down the food, generate energy and create complex molecules for human’s cell growth.

Of course, this cell growth would help the human body to function normally, grow healthy and sustain itself. Metaphorically, Metabolists believed that contemporary architecture should be changeable to meet the rapidly changing requirements, as well as reflect the human dynamic reality. However, similar to the changes that take place in the human body, buildings should be mechanized in almost a biological way in order to continue in the present and be adapted to the rapidly growing and developed technology in the future.

There are number of features that characterize the Metabolism movement such as:

1. Large scale structures capable of growing organically in different direction (vertically and horizontally).

2. The design of the buildings do not follow the modernists’ views of ‘Form follows Function’, but allow the spaces and forms to be adapted to changeable function in the future.

3. Adaptable plug-in mega-structures, which express the progress in building technology.

There are many famous architectural works that express the Metabolists’ concepts including, the floating city in the sea, Kiyonari Kikutake's Marine City, tower city, ocean city, the wall city, the agricultural city and the 'Helix City' by Kisho Kurokawa, as well as his Nakagin Capsule Tower.

The most expressive project of metabolists’ work is the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo (1972), designed by the renowned Kisho Kurokawa. The building consists of 13 floors and contains about 140 individual flats, each in a pre-formed capsule. The main concept of the project was to allow the capsule unites to be plugged into or removed from the main structure, so the form of the building is a changeable. The capsules are prefabricated and equipped with the necessary services including furniture. The capsules are left and adjusted around the main core of the building to create irregular form, which evolve according to the needs of the people.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, 1972, by Kisho Kurokawa. Building Model

Another important project is the Yamanashi Press and Radio Center in Kofu, designed by Kenzo Tange in 1961-67. This building represents a significant example of the Metabolism movement. The building featured solid service towers (elevators and staircases), around which horizontal slabs are adjusted, clipped on or removed in order to satisfy the changing conditions of the people. Of course this building is an expression of the high technology in building industry

Yamanashi Press and Radio Center, Kofu, 1961-67, Kenzo Tange

Clusters in the Air in Tokyo, is an imaginative and unrealized project, designed by the metabolist architect Arata Isozaki in 1960-62. The main concept of the architect was to develop a new way of structuring housing projects around Tokyo by the use of clusters. The Clusters are metaphorically, supposed to represent the leaves of trees, which are the housing units and the core represents the trunk of the tree. However, the project can grow and extend organically according to the changeable needs and requirements of the modern age.

Clusters in the Air, 1960-62, Arata Isozaki

The Habitat '67 at Montreal, by Moshe Safdie is a stunning pre-fabricated complex that first appeared in the 1967 World Exposition held in Montreal. The idea of the project was the random arrangement of the cellular residential units, which allows the maximum natural sunlight and views. It also offers the possibility of the building’s extension in any direction according to the needs of the prospective residents.

The Habitat '67 at Montreal, by Moshe Safdie


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Comments (15)

Pretty cool. I did not know about this!

Content and the pictures are extraordinary.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Excellent, well written discussion. A fascinating movement.

You always produce the most incredible articles. Metabolism has my vote!

Thank you James and Rama, your comment are always appreciated

Thanks Michael and Ann for your very kind comment

A very interesting, informative and well presented article.

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Another great issue on architecture...stumbled.

Wow, this concept is so cool! I have to admit I had not heard of Metabolism in architecture. Very well done!

A beautifully written article on a subject I have not heard of before. I will confess that while the concept is wonderful the execution is less aestheically pleasing than the majority of architecture in later and earlier periods. Clusters in the air and the habitat appearing to be the best of the buildings chosen. I love reading these articles, they are informative, reader freindly and realy interesting.

Thanks Norma for your thoughtful comment and your point of view in regard to the relationship between Metabolism and other architecture.

Really inspirational article Abdel. I've been much more interested in architecture since I've been reading your articles! Thank-you

Thank you Bridget for your kind comment, your opinion is always valued and appreciated

Those are some super funky looking buildings for sure. I would be afraid to be in some in an earthquake though. Do they really change the capsule building or once in place it stays in place?

Thank Brenda for your insightful comment, and yes they do change the capsule but it is not workable anymore because of the expensive costs.