Project description

Metabolism is the name of a group of young Japanese designers and architects who proposed a new form of urbanism built on visionary urban projects and experimental avant-garde design as creative response to this new landscape. The occasion to present their ideas came at the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo, when they presented a manifesto titled Metabolism 1960. Proposals for a New Urbanism [1], championing then-innovative concepts such as capsule architecture and prefabrication, and embracing bold forms characterized by sophisticated architectural elements and massive urban structures that continue to fascinate designers today. 

Metabolism was active in Japan from 1958 to the 1970s, and its techno-utopias were rooted in the fundamental notions of cycles of use, nomadism, modularity, compact urbanism, expandability and replaceability, and were inspired by the biological metaphor of organic growth of living organisms as well as the cultural influence of East Asian philosophical thoughts and religious traditions. Key figures associated with the Metabolist movement include renowned architects Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Arata Isozaki, Masato Otaka and Kiyonori Kikutake, as well as critic Noburu Kawazoe, graphic designer Kiyoshi Awazu and industrial designer Ekuan Kenji. Surviving examples of Metabolist architecture include Yamanashi Press building and the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, and the site for the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka.

Recent years have witnessed a renewed and growing interest in the model of cities and the architectural concepts the Metabolists have first proposed 60 years ago, especially in the Asia Pacific Region. In general what attracted most was the fact that Metabolist  projects have devoted much attention to the themes of compact cities, high-density architectures in rapid growing cities, the exploration of new form of urbanization in alternative habitats like the sea (marine cities and large floating urban platforms), as well as the predilection for a technological-driven design approach built around flexible architectural spaces and changeable urban forms reactive to any radical and sudden (human-made or natural) transformation of the surrounding environment. 

Activites and Results:

Revisiting the past contribution of Metabolism in relation to the architectural and urban discourse on urban development and housing design and sustainable urbanism in an age of climate change, the research fellowship from the Japan Foundation in 2019 allowed fieldworks and active archive search in in Japan to investigate the possible links with the construction industry of Japan in the years of rapid economic growth, and the mutual influence in the process of designing and building large scale housing complexes in the Japanese cities. At the same time the short term stay thanks to the JF fellowship supported an initial coordination with local partners and scholars to initiate a symposium project integrated with student’s works’ exhibition to be organized at UNSW Sydney - School of the Built Environment and scheduled initially in 2020 for the celebration in Australia of the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Metabolist Manifesto 1960 (the event was eventually moved to February 2021 because of the global pandemic of COVID-19).

The purpose of the international symposium titled: “Architectures for a Mutant City. 60 years of Metabolism 1960-2020, and Beyond” was to bring together local and international academics and scholars in Sydney in order to discuss the legacy of Metabolism’s architectural visions and urban models in the 21st century (Figure 1). The proposed symposium project aimed at achieving three main goals: (1) For the Australian audiences was to deepen the knowledge and the understanding of the Metabolists urban projects and in general of the contribution of Japanese architects and urbanists to the discourse about the evolution of the Modern Architecture in the 20th century; (2) To provide a common platform for multidisciplinary discussion and exchange of ideas, opinions and information among scholars, academics and researchers on the theme of the urban transformation of the built environment in the modern cities and the challenges posed by the future urbanization approaches through the lenses of the Metabolism’s visionary projects and their ideas, theories and concepts, especially the themes related to destruction and the landscape, mass housing and eco-urban design in the context of the current climate change, environmental disruption and the need for more efficient and sustainable forms of large scale urbanization and habitat design; (3) To help facilitate the creation of new and strengthen already present links between Japanese, Australian and international scholars, researchers and academics in view of future international collaborations and joint research projects.

The research on Metabolism moved in parallel with the teaching of the final graduation studio in the Master in Architecture program at UNSW. Reflecting on concepts such as density, efficiency, livability, changeability, community living and architecture, and in search of innovative ways to pursue the integration and mutual relationship between the city ground and the buildings, students are invited to propose a project inspired by Metabolist’s concepts more than language. Selected works of the students produced during the course ARCH7201/7202 Research and Major Design Studio in 2020 constituted the core of the exhibition which run in parallel with the symposium.

Final Publication Edited Book 2022:

Both the symposium and student work’s exhibition in February 2021 reached the most important goal: it has renewed the interest in the Metabolists urban projects while has also facilitated the creation of new and strengthen already present links between Japanese, Australian and international scholars and academics in view of future international collaborations. In parallel the completion of an edited book (Figure 3) co-authored by international top scholars has contributed to a more resonance of the event and dissemination of the results of each participant’s research. The essays presented at the symposium have been revised, edited, polished and are now being collected in an edited book currently under contract with Routledge/Francis & Taylor. The book titled: The Urbanism of Metabolism. Visions, Scenarios and Models for the Mutant City of Tomorrow [2] will be the released by March 2022.

Supplementary Materials:

The cover of the book titled “The Urbanism of Metabolism: Visions, Scenarios and Models for the Mutant City of Tomorrow”, edited by Raffaele Pernice

The poster of Final Review of graduate studio (Master of Architecture Program 2020) of the Urban Conditions stream at UNSW Sydney

The poster of UNSW Sydney International Symposium titled “Architectures for a Mutant City: 60 Years of Metabolism 1960-2020 and Beyond”

The research projects were funded by: the Japan Foundation, Japanese Studies Fellowship 2019; the UNSW - Faculty of Built Environment (FBE) Internal Faculty Research Grant Scheme - New Staff Grant 2019; the Japan Foundation Grant Program for Intellectual Exchange Conferences 2020 (Ref.No:10126897); the UNSW Built Environment (BE) - School Research Support for Book and Special Issue Grant (BSIG) 2021; the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)/Australia-Japan Foundation (AJF) Grant 2021 (Ref. AJF2021113).

The research team comprises Dr Raffaele Pernice (UNSW) 

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