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More than half a century has passed since the publication of Metabolism and its distribution to attendees of the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo. Though frequently referred to as a manifesto, the pamphlet was in fact a collection of essays and urban design projects by architectural critic Kawazoe Noboru and four young architects then launching their practices: Kiyonori Kikutake, Kishō Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, and Masato Ōtaka. Their texts and design proposals revolved around a core idea: that the increasingly disparate rates of change in cities required new paradigms for architectural and infrastructural design. The pamphlet’s modest production values did nothing to detract from the potency of this message in the mid-20th-century context of rapid urbanization and mass production. Metabolism soon found its way into academic and professional discussions in far corners of the globe.
In postwar Europe, avant-garde groups such as Archigram had already theorized the plug-in, or replaceable-part, consumerist city; but no attempts had yet been made to implement architectural projects to test these ideas. By contrast Japan, with its tabula rasa, top-down planning methods and fearless embrace of innovative construction techniques, was a fertile testing ground for the Metabolist philosophy. Indeed, the 1960s — and to a lesser degree the ensuing decades — saw a profusion of built and unbuilt architectural works that, one way or another, grappled with the implications of metabolic change.
This body of work has lately sparked renewed critical interest among contemporary architects, urban designers, and theorists — coinciding with a decade in which most of the group’s founding members and colleagues have died (Metabolist mentor Kenzō Tange, 1913–2005; Kurokawa, 1934–2007; Ōtaka, 1923–2010; and Kikutake, 1928–2011). Late in life, several of these architects agreed to be interviewed about their early works, enabling numerous critical studies, retrospective exhibitions, and monographs to take shape. Thanks to this scholarship — and supported by evidence from its protagonists’ long and diverse careers — Metabolism no longer appears to us as a uniform ideology but instead as a series of thought and design experiments by authors espousing very different sensibilities, philosophies, and even political affinities. None has attracted more intense critical focus today than the group’s intellectual leader and core instigator, Kiyonori Kikutake.[…]