In a country that lies on the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, designing buildings that can withstand earthquakes has always topped the list of priorities for Japanese architects.
Yet, although most structures near the northeast coastline of Japan withstood the violent rumblings of the Great East Japan Earthquake, many did not survive the devastating power of the subsequent tsunami. As people wonder what would happen if a similarly large wave hit again, faith in Japan's model for urban planning and construction has been deeply shaken.
The architects in charge of reconstructing the Tohoku region must now not only plan disaster-resistant and energy-efficient settlements, but also find a way to serve the needs of the existing community as well as enticing others to move in and revitalize what was already an ailing region.
To do so, they might find some inspiration in the Metabolism school of architecture, which emerged during Japan's last large-scale reconstruction project in the postwar period. The movement is currently being explored in an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, Tokyo, through Jan. 15.
Like the architects currently working on projects in Tohoku, the Metabolists were faced with the challenge of rebuilding from scratch. They determined that traditional urban models, comprised of clusters of discrete buildings, were not up to the task. Instead, they envisioned self-regulatory, cooperative and integrated structures that functioned like an ant colony or cells and organic systems of the human body.
According to architecture critic Noboru Kawazoe, the central members of the movement--which included Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurokawa and Kiyonori Kikutake--believed that buildings and settlements should grow and adapt to their environment, letting the old be replaced by the new. In nature this process is known as "metabolism," hence the name of the movement.
"Life forms are different from everything else because they keep growing as they are replaced," Kawazoe said. "Humans are just another life form on earth--and the cities we build are just the same as anthills."
Taking their inspiration from cells, honeycombs and fractals, the Metabolists produced dazzlingly futuristic designs that mimicked the function and form of organic structures.
For example, Kurokawa designed towers in the shape of the DNA double helix, with elevators contained in the tubular spirals. Arata Isozaki, meanwhile, dreamed up the "Arai House," a 4.8-meter diameter sphere sheathed in a thin, flexible membrane that flooded the interior with diffused light.
Kenji Ekuan, who later went on to found the furniture company GK, took his inspiration from plants, imagining a "Chandelier City" in which cell-like polyhedrons dangled from stalks rooted in the ground.
While many of these designs seem straight out of science fiction, they were actually quite practical and borrowed heavily from traditional Japanese architecture.
For example, aggregative buildings such as Kurokawa's Nakagin, which is comprised of discrete "capsules" to be added or removed at will, were inspired by the modular system of tatami mats and sliding doors in traditional Japanese houses that allow for endless room configurations.
In Metabolism, these traditional aesthetics were merged with modern concerns: the movement's members were prescient in identifying the importance of renewable energy, with many of the large-scale developments powered entirely by solar or wave power units.
Japan's vulnerability to natural disasters was also carefully considered. For example, Kikutake's "Koto Project," a city of towers located on a grid of artificial ground in a sea-level district, was designed to be flood-proof.
The movement caught on quickly in Japan, with the World Design Conference in 1960 and the Osaka Expo in 1970 allowing Metabolist ideas to reach other countries.
Although some of their plans bewildered foreign architects--Kawazoe recalls one American calling Kikutake's plans "caricatures"--others were impressed and Metabolism's influence began to spread.
In 1968, Kikutake led a team of 20 architects to build a new kind of low-cost social housing in Peru at the behest of the Peruvian government and the United Nations. The houses they built are still standing, having been extended and altered by their inhabitants in accordance with the architects' wishes.