Digesting Metabolism: Artificial Land in Japan 1954–2202 is one of the better books about works of Japanese architecture that you have probably never heard of. But that’s exactly why you should read it. This cogent and well-illustrated volume was inspired by author-architect Casey Mack’s experience of Hong Kong, whose vernacular facades he describes as “self-organized into patterns of air conditioners, hanging laundry, and DIY balconies.” That observation led to this book, which features housing projects in Japan that grew directly, or indirectly, from the concept of artificial land promoted by the Metabolism architectural movement.
In contrast to Western Modernism’s goal of swapping the old for the new, Metabolism, launched in postwar Japan, promoted “replacement as an ongoing process.” Though it was “a movement largely famous for what it failed to build,” the author posits that a fundamental Metabolist concept—the creation of artificial land —lived on and has value today. Unlike landfill, artificial land was a way to expand the country’s limited landmass by stacking layers of buildable space supported by a mega-framework. Individual homes or shops could be built within that and, later on, replaced.
The author traces the pre-Metabolist origins of artificial land back to the Arcade des Anglais in Algiers, built in the 1860s, where local fishermen constructed makeshift homes within its soaring waterfront arches. This blend of engineering and human resourcefulness made an impression on Le Corbusier, who, in his seminal book, The Radiant City, included his sketches of the structure. From there, the ideas reached the Japanese designers who apprenticed with Le Corbusier, including Takamasa Yoshizaka, who had joined the Swiss architect’s Paris studio in 1950 for two years.
In part, Yoshizaka’s French sojourn stemmed from Japan’s decimation during World War II. Returning to Japan in 1945 after overseas army service, he found an acute housing shortage—an estimated 4.2 million new homes were needed. Many of the homeless quickly built ad hoc shelters, including Yoshizaka, on the site of his parents’ destroyed house. For the Japanese government, large-scale rebuilding was a chance to establish standards for the “minimum dwelling.” But in Le Corbusier’s representation of artificial land in The Radiant City, Yoshizaka saw a model for blending the government’s standardization with the population’s innate proclivity for individualization. Though predating Metabolism, Yoshizaka’s vision was an architecture that could grow and evolve alongside its occupants—an idea he first tested out in the home he built for himself in 1954.
Mack chronicles a series of housing projects built on the artificial-land premise. These “long tail” works were mainly designed after the decline of Metabolism but build on the movement’s concept of artificial land, culminating with the author’s speculation for housing in 2202. Some are the products of designers, others of zenicon, Japan’s large construction companies. One notable example is the Stratiform Structure Module devised by the Metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake, who began working with the Japanese government in 1973 on an infrastructure system that would enable “a suburban lifestyle without the painful commuting.” Incorporating unused airspace, the project called for an enormous A-frame that straddled train tracks or highways while providing the scaffolding for layers of artificial land suitable for home development. Though thought-provoking, the Stratiform model was never realized except for a full-scale prototype visited and discussed by Mack.
One of the most impressive of the 11 works profiled in the book is the Sawada Mansion. The six-story complex, an ongoing project begun in 1971 in the city of Kochi, consists of a concrete skeleton holding apartments and small businesses built by “a self-taught builder couple.” Tailored to individual preferences, the units are all connected to street level by a ramp sufficient for cars and people, which yields “a ground-floor experience” for everyone.
In their improvisational homeliness, many of the projects profiled pale in comparison to the elegant Japanese buildings gracing the pages of architectural magazines and monographs today. But where social engagement, ecology, and technical ingenuity are concerned, this book offers a wealth of information. Its promotion of “housing that stimulates rather than dictates” can be an inspiration everywhere.
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