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Mr Metabolism

Roland Berg looks at the mix of Zen and high tech in the works of architect Kisho Kurokawa.

xxxPhoto: Presseagentur Berlin, Juri Reetz
When the architect Kisho Kurokawa walked into Humboldt University in Berlin and saw the famous quote by Karl Marx in the entrance hall: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it," he gave a shout: "That's what I've been doing my whole life!" The anecdote is quoted in the catalogue of the exhibition "Metabolism and Symbiosis" at the Deutsches Architektur Museum in Frankfurt. A smaller version of the show is now running at the Deutsche Architektur Zentrum (DAZ) in Berlin.

Metabolism and symbiosis are the key terms for understanding Kurokawa's work. Together they make up his world view. Kurokawa cannot be reduced to the architect Kurokawa. He himself sees himself first and foremost as a philosopher. And his architecture is practical philosophy. For that reason the Metabolism movement, founded by Kurokawa 1960 with other Japanese architects, is not just an architectural current or style. And Kurokawa was the only one to transfer the movement's utopian schemes into permanent architecture. Certainly, Metabolism reached its highpoint with temporary buildings created for the Osaka World's Fair in 1970, but then it ceased to play any significant role in the development of architecture. But Kurokawa held to his concept and was extraordinarily successful, with some 100 projects worldwide in forty years. Consequently retrospectives of the architect's works must be content with a selection. Nevertheless the DAZ exhibition has a lot to offer. One reason being that in addition to the usual photos and drawings, Kurokawa presents his works in models small enough to be made by hand.

xxxPhoto: Tomio Ohashi
For his model of the famous Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, a 13 storey high-rise with 140 apartments, the tiny capsules are smaller than matchboxes. The building gives a tangible demonstration of what lies behind Metabolism: the fully-furnished metal prefab one-room apartments are fastened with bolts to two central concrete cores. The whole thing looks like a sort of artificial tree. But Kurokawa does not do formalistic copies of nature. Metabolism borrows from life's functions. Life is change, exchange and constant renewal. So the essence of the Capsule Tower is that the containers can be replaced with minimal effort.

Just like in a natural organism, interchangeability and recycling are the central ideas behind the Metabolism movement. Since the building was finished in 1972, however, the capsules have not been changed. Apparently the containers, each meant to house a single person, still fulfil their purpose adequately.

xxxPhoto: Presseagentur Berlin, Juri Reetz

The DAZ exhibition shows a model of another Metabolism project: the Helix City, which although never built was intended to be constructed in the ocean in a form resembling DNA. Like the molecule, entire apartments are hung in a huge spiral of steel. Here the principle of interchangeability is complemented by an open-ended structure. That principle was retained by Kurokawa for the Kuala Lumpur airport. Finished in 1998, it can be extended at any time according to need. All it would take is additional supporting columns connected with steel roofing.

xxxPhoto: Presseagentur Berlin, Juri Reetz

The airport structure is a fine example of the second central concept in Kurokawa's thinking: symbiosis. At the request of the Malaysian prime minister, the building were given an Islamic element. Kurokawa designed the hyperbolic paraboloid shell roof, which brings to mind the dome of a mosque, while at the same time representing the purest in high-tech. But the airport also features another balance of heterogeneous aspects. A jungle grows inside, around, and throughout the airport. This too is an indication of the abolishment of opposites in Kurokawa's symbiotic thinking. For him there is no either-or. This has its roots in Japanese Buddhism. In Kurosawa's architecture, the spaces between serve to moderate the opposition between in and out, between the public and the private. In the 'giant cube' of the International Convention Centre in Osaka (2000), for example, the public passageway in the building is planted with trees. Another very Japanese aspect of Kurosawa's buildings: the middle is empty. There is no centre and no hierarchy. In the middle of the ellipsoid outbuilding at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, built in 1998, is a tank of water. And an artificial lake forms the centre point of Kurokawa's plan for the ring-shaped enlargement of the Chinese city of Zhengdong for 1.5 million people.

With his constructed philosophy, Kurokawa stands in contrast to modernism's claim to totality and absolutism. Kurokawa does not reject modern technology, but his symbiotic utopia keeps its distance from the Euro-centric international style. The limits to the development of the industrial nations are forseeable, according to Kurokawa. The planet will not tolerate the Western model, with its horrendous energy needs and its garbage-producing consumption. As he admits, it was to change this exploitive lifestyle that he became an architect. It almost seems as if he'd taken a Marxian thesis for his life's motto.


The article was originally published in German in die tageszeitung on September 27, 2005.

Ronald Berg is architecture correspondent for die tageszeitung.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european