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23. The house that used to fly

As the Narita Express, the train between airport and city, dips under the Sumidagawa River on its journey toward Tokyo Station, it passes a monstrous looking structure; a colossal spaceship on massive piers, festooned with a demonic oculus and lined with pulsing red lights: The Edo-Tokyo Museum. An encounter with this building reminds the awed visitor that Tokyo once was the birthplace of the future.  Last year the museum’s architect, Kiyonori Kikutake, marked his 80thbirthday by opening up another one of his projects, his own house, to a selected group of friends and visitors. Half a century after he built his Sky House, Kikutake and Metabolism – the movement he instigated – both enjoy renewed attention.

Kikutake graduated in 1950 from Tokyo’s Waseda University, the same year the Capital Construction Law was passed. Tokyo in the 50’s, bombed and burned during WWII, was a place in turmoil. The government’s decision to centralize reconstruction around Tokyo, prioritizing the rebuilding of industries over public infrastructure, turned the city into a dynamic patchwork of clusters, cells and nodes. Though the city was chaotic and dispersed, this was a time of energy and hope. After twenty years of decline Tokyo was on a rise, growing its economy and population. Kikutake’s first job was for the Bridgestone Company, renovating, remodeling, and relocating wooden structures, which were damaged during the war. This humble work fueled his ideas about construction methodology and cyclic processes.  Concerned however that these renovation projects would not advance his career, he decided to build his own house in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo in ‘58. This project allowed him to test concepts of mutable structures using modern technologies and to develop his ideas of a plug-in unit. The house is a single large space – in reference to the 16 tatami-parlour of his family mansion – elevated above the recovering city.  Arguing that the components most likely to change should be designed for ease of replacement, he distributed the service spaces around an open living space, which would be permanent. The house was a manifestation of his thoughts, cast in concrete.

Original pictures show the house high above the ground, flying over a surging landscape of single story homes. In the background emerges Mt Fuji. As a floating capsule of civility the house embodied the dawn of a new era. It showed Japan could rise again, towards a new Modernity which incorporated the national spirit; essential for the tarnished Japanese soul.

The Sky House became the gambit of the Metabolist Movement and propelled Kikutake as one of its figureheads. Frustrated with the way Tokyo was being rebuilt, this boisterous group of youngsters outlined their ideas in a bilingual pamphlet called Metabolism: the proposals for a new urbanism. Put forth during the World Design Conference in Tokyo in 1960, this document became the group’s declaration of independence from both the government and CIAM. The Metabolists gained immediate notoriety. MoMA included Kikutake’s and Kurokawa’s work in its Visionary Architecture show in 1961 and Kenzo Tange introduced them to the evolving Team 10 discourse.

More so then Kurokawa’s well published Nagakin Tower, slated for demolition due to its inadaptability to new times, the Sky House remains the only built manifestation of the movement. The house did evolve over time, and mutated as the life of its user changed. After the initial hype and consequential criticism, the individual members of the Metabolist group went their own way. The movement seemingly faded after a final collaboration during the Osaka Exposition of 1970.

Meanwhile, Tokyo developed organically into an uncontrollable futuristic fantasy. The ’64 Olympics; the elevated Metropolitan Expressway, the subway lines and bullet trains together turned the city into a dense, non-hierarchical network in a continuous flux. The city became the mega-structure on which jumbled plug-ins prospered as healthy parasites. During the craze of the asset price bubble, with its rampant consumerism and pomo extravaganza (e.g. Kikutake’s Edo –Tokyo Museum), architects lost their grip on the city as they quietly withdrew behind perfect concrete walls. Hitoshe Abe recently said: “The mega-structure used to be something that architects would construct.  But the CITY is the new mega-structure, a system that people tap into.  Tokyo is treated by its inhabitants as an enormous extended home, with convenience stores functioning as the fridge and medicine cabinet.  The home just plugs in. Unlike the Metabolists -Kurokawa ran for governor of Tokyo in 2007- a current generation of Japanese architects focuses on designing pretty plug-ins. By not reclaiming the city, they fail to propose an explicit vision for the future.

Past ideologies tend to be revisited in times of crises. The tactically constructed set of words and images that make up the Metabolists’ pamphlet bring together a number of topics one can consider urgent today: the city as a responsive environment, network theory, infrastructure and evolving cellular proliferation, and so on. Their emblematic visuals of the mega-structures, floating cities and biomorphic buildings continue to have widespread appeal, mostly outside of Japan. Koolhaas, fascinated with their ability to operate outside of architecture, is interviewing the last living Metabolists while his offspring floods the world with Neo-Metabolist proposals. Not as utopic dreams but as formal proposals which, unlike most of their predecessors, have a probability of being built.

Many of these schemes risk evoking similar criticism, as to which the Metabolists were subjected. Critics might say the work is a –contextual; that most of the urban proposals copy modernist tabula rasa strategies at the dismissal of traditional urban environments; that they tend to oversimplify the design and compositional process;  that the schemes are theoretically flexible but in reality oppressive, derived from an acceptance and trust in modern technologies and rationalist principles; that they cater to big construction companies, consumers and developers, and most importantly that they disregard deeper social issues and despite their claim of being about ecology the focus is on the image of skyline. Maybe we ought to find inspiration in Kikutake’s earlier work, before the bravado of his utopic schemes; in his careful reconfiguration and calibration of systems already in place. Maybe the architect should not relentlessly try to reinvent the tree but rather become a constant gardener, who weeds and nurtures.

The Sky House flies no longer. It has landed. Its translucent partition, closed shutters, and lush garden ground it to the city. A city as infrastructural as the boldest Metabolist dreams, but with little of their involvement. Visiting Kikutake’s concrete manifesto,  a blend of traditional elements with post-war modernism, is mostly a sentimental journey these days. Maybe one can find inspiration in the Sky House itself, quietly mutating for half a century, adapting to evolving needs, not of its architect, but of its resident: Kiyonori Kikutake.

Published in Abitare, March 2010, #500