What Is Metabolism in Architecture?

Ushering in the 1960s with New Ways of Thinking

Cell-like capsule pods are individual living units in the Nakagin Capsule Tower Apartments
Nakagin Capsule Tower Apartments, an Example of Japanese Metabolism. Photo by charles peterson / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

Metabolism is a modern architecture movement originating in Japan and most influential in the 1960s—trending roughly from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

The word metabolism describes the process of maintaining living cells. Young Japanese architects after World War II used this word to describe their beliefs about how buildings and cities should be designed, emulating a living being.

The postwar reconstruction of Japan's cities spawned new ideas about the future of urban design and public spaces.

Metabolist architects and designers believed that cities and buildings are not static entities, but are ever-changing—organic with a "metabolism." Postwar structures that accommodated population growth were thought to have a limited lifespan and should be designed and built to be replaced. Metabolically designed architecture is built around a spine-like infrastructure with prefabricated, replaceable cell-like parts—easily attached and readily removable when their lifespan is over. These 1960s avant-garde ideas became known as Metabolism.

Best Examples of Metabolist Architecture:

A well-known example of Metabolism in architecture is Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. Over 100 prefabricated cell-capsule-units are individually bolted onto a single concrete shaft—like brussels sprouts on a stalk, although the look is more like a stalk of front-loading washing machines.

In North America, the best example of Metabolist architecture is arguably the housing development created for the 1967 Exposition in Montreal, Canada.

A young student named Moshe Safdie burst onto the architecture world with his modular design for Habitat '67.

Metabolist History:

The Metabolist movement filled the void left in 1959 when the Congrès internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), founded in 1928 by Le Corbusier and other Europeans, disbanded.

At the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo, the old European ideas about static urbanism were challenged by a group of young Japanese architects. Metabolism 1960: Proposals for a New Urbanism documented the ideas and philosophies of Fumihiko Maki, Masato Otaka, Kiyonari Kikutake, and Kisho Kurokawa. Many Metabolists had studied under Kenzo Tange at Tokyo University's Tange Laboratory.

Growth of a Movement:

Some Metabolist urban plans, such as space cities and suspended urban landscape pods, were so futuristic that they were never fully realized. At the World Design Conference in 1960, established architect Kenzo Tange presented his theoretical plan to create a floating city in Tokyo Bay. In 1961, Helix City was Kisho Kurokawa's bio-chemical-DNA metabolic solution to urbanism. During this same time period, theoretical architects in the US also were being widely exhibited—American Anne Tyng with her City Tower design and Austrian-born Friedrich St.Florian's 300-story Vertical City.

The Evolution of Metabolism:

It's been said that some of the work at the Kenzo Tange Lab was influenced by the architecture of American Louis Kahn. Between 1957 and 1961, Kahn and his associates designed stacked, modular towers for the Richards Medical Research Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

This modern, geometric idea for using space became a model.

The world of Metabolism was itself interconnected and organic—Kahn himself was influenced by the work of his partner, Anne Tyng. Likewise, Moshe Safdie, who apprenticed with Kahn, incorporated elements of Metabolism in his breakthrough Habitat '67 in Montreal, Canada. Some would argue that Frank Lloyd Wright started it all with his cantilever design of the 1950 Johnson Wax Research Tower.

The End of Metabolism?

The 1970 International Exposition in Osaka, Japan was the last collective effort of Metabolist architects. Kenzo Tange is credited with the master plan for the exhibitions at Expo '70. After that, individual architects from the movement became self-driven and more independent in their careers. The ideas of the Metabolist movement, however, are themselves organic—organic architecture was a term used by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was influenced by the ideas of Louis Sullivan, often called 19th century America's first modern architect.

Twenty-first century ideas about sustainable development are not new ideas—they've evolved from past ideas. The "end" is often a new beginning.

In the Words of Kisho Kurokawa (1934–2007):

From the Age of Machine to the Age of Life - "Industrial society was the ideal of Modern Architecture. The steam engine, the train, the automobile, and the airplane freed humanity from labor and permitted it to begin its journey into the realm of unknown....The age of the machine valued models, norms, and ideals. ...The age of the machine was the age of the European spirit, the age of universality. We can say, then, that the twentieth century, the age of the machine, has been an age of Eurocentrism and logos-centrism. Logos-centrism posits that there is only one ultimate truth for all the world....In contrast to the age of the machine, I call the twenty-first century the age of life.....I found the Metabolism movement in 1959. I consciously selected the terms and key concepts of metabolism, metamorphosis, and because they were the vocabulary of life principles. Machines do not grow, change, or metabolize of their accord. "Metabolism" was indeed an excellent choice for a key word to announce the beginning of the age of life....I have chosen metabolism, metamorphosis, and symbiosis as key terms and concepts to express the principle of life."—Each One a Hero: The Philosophy of Symbiosis, Chapter 1

"I thought that architecture is not permanent art, something that is completed and fixed, but rather something that grows towards the future, is expanded upon, renovated and developed. This is the concept of metabolism (metabolize, circulate and recycle)."—"From the Age of Machine to Age of Life," l'ARCA 219, p. 6

"Francis Crick and James Watson announced the double helix structure of DNA between 1956 and 1958. This illustrated that there is a order to the structure of life, and the connections /communication between cells is performed by information. This fact was something that was very shocking to me."—"From the Age of Machine to Age of Life," l'ARCA 219, p. 7

Learn More:

  • Project Japan: Metabolism Talks by Rem Koolhaas and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan by Zhongjie Lin, 2010
    Buy on Amazon
  • Metabolism in Architecture, Kisho Kurokawa, 1977
    Buy on Amazon
  • Kisho Kurokawa: Metabolism And Symbiosis, 2005
    Buy on Amazon

Source of quoted material: Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates, copyright 2006 Kisho Kurokawa architect & associates. All rights reserved.

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Craven, Jackie. "What Is Metabolism in Architecture?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-metabolism-in-architecture-177292. Craven, Jackie. (2017, June 19). What Is Metabolism in Architecture? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-metabolism-in-architecture-177292 Craven, Jackie. "What Is Metabolism in Architecture?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-metabolism-in-architecture-177292 (accessed December 13, 2017).