A NOSTALGIC VISION OF THE FUTURE
No country has offered the world more grand visions of the future than Japan. From gadgets to transport, fashion design to interior design, the country has made a constant drive for technological advancement part of its national identity.
In the 1960s, this desire for the next was embodied in Metabolic architecture. A movement with a futuristic urban vision that became symbolic of the country’s technological ambitions.
Taking it’s name from the biological concept, Metabolisms founding architects dreamed of cities that shared the ability of living organisms to keep growing, reproducing, and transforming in response to their environments. Urban buildings should be flexible enough to accommodate the changing needs of a post-war society that was fast-paced and constantly in flux.
Fantastical plans including a floating island city that crossed Tokyo Bay, and a city of tall buildings connected by corridors suspended in the sky, but most never saw the light of day.
A rare example of Metabolism still standing today is the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo’s affluent Ginza neighbourhood. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa, the tower was built in 1972 and was the first of it’s kind.
The imposing building is comprised of 140 capsules that resemble front-loading washing machines thanks to an enormous porthole dominating one side. Each prefabricated pod is a self-contained living or work space, measuring just 2.3 7.5 × 3.8 m (7.5 × 12 × 6.9 ft.), although capsules are designed to be combined to create larger spaces if so desired, and all are attached to one of the two central columns by just four high-tension bolts.
By replacing and recycling the capsules every 25 years, Kurokawa believed he had created a sustainable form of architecture and the building could last 200 years.
Unfortunately in Nagakin’s 43-year history none of the capsules have been replaced, leading to the building to fall into a state of disrepair.
In 2007, citing squalid, cramped conditions and concerns over asbestos, the building's residents voted for the demolition of the tower, to be replaced with a larger, more modern build.
The decision sparked uproar in the world of design. Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for The New York Times posed the question: “how old does a building have to be before we appreciate its value?” and praised its “gorgeous architecture; like all great buildings, it is the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal. Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values."
However, the recession meant that the project was an unfavourable proposition for developers so, for the time being at least, the building is safe and it is possible to experience small-scale living in the world’s first permanent example of Metabolic architecture from £54 ($90) per night through Airbnb.
And perhaps tourism could be the future of the tower, with capsule hotels already a popular choice for budget travellers throughout Japan. Designed originally for businessmen who had missed the last train home, capsule hotels provide cheap and convenient accommodation in the heart of the city. The concept was debuted by none other than Kisho Kurokawa himself, with the first opening in Osaka in 1979.
Not for the claustrophobic, the capsule experience involves getting your head down for the night in a self-contained bed area measuring around two metres in length and one metre in both length and height – just a little larger than a coffin.
Capsules are stacked in rows two high and most provide a few creature comforts like a television, alarm clock and Wi-Fi. Some offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, trading your clothes and shoes at the door for a yukata and slippers with access to the huge communal baths and saunas that double up as naked common rooms.
Metabolism’s drive towards sustainability and organic growth is another part of it’s ideology that has gone on to inspire, in fact with global warming becoming a larger issue as the 21st century progresses, the search to find environmentally friendly building practices has become more urgent.
As the sustainable architect Rachel Armstrong puts it: “We’re really not working in any different way to when we were working in the 1970s and if we keep thinking in this way then we’re going to think ourselves into extinction”.
Designers today envision a future of true Metabolic architecture, it the sense through combining technologically and biology buildings will be able self-repair just like living organisms, absorb carbon dioxide and generally have a smaller impact on the environment.
So while Metabolic visions of an urban utopia may not have been realised in the movement’s lifetime, its legacy has inspired a new generation of designers, who have the technology and cultural zeitgeist to finally build a future in which architecture is truly at one with the world.