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Kiyonori Kikutake – Between Land and Sea

Kiyonori Kikutake
Between Land and Sea
Edited by Ken Tadashi Oshima
Harvard University Graduate School of Design / Lars Müller Publishers

Only 14 percent of Japan’s land is flat. Agricultural land is constantly eroded by the plan-less spreading of urban buildings all two stories or less.

Otako Masoto, 1959

Megastructure, the concept of a giant, adaptable, multipurpose building containing most of the functions of a city, was one of the dominant design themes of the late nineteen-fifties and of most of the sixties, occupying the difficult middle ground between architecture and town planning. Vast, it offered architects the chance to create super-monuments on a scale matching the modern city; adaptable, it offered the citizenry the possibility of creating their own small-scale environments within the enormous frame. Yet, in spite of these promises, architects and citizens alike abandoned the idea and sought more modest solutions to their needs – and ambitions – soon after 1970.

Reyner Banham – Megastructure Urban Futures of the Recent Past, 1976

Japanese Metabolism, an architectural movement founded in 1960 by Kenzo Tange, including members such as Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, and Fumihiko Maki was concerned with natural growth and the development of society as a process. Design and technology was at once subservient to the idea of growth and adaptability and simultaneously boldly expressed in megastructures, infrastructural networks and artificial land reclamation and floating city projects. The structures would usually consist of a semi-permanent structural frame and would be filled in with capsular dwelling units and services. These elements would have different levels of metabolic decay and would be interchangeable if and when the need arose. The megastructure, both the epitome of modernism and symbol of technocratic and overarching planning methods gone awry, seems to have a resurgence of late. The first port of call when discussing megastructures is inevitably Reyner Banham’s Megastructure Urban Futures of the Recent Past of 1976; a somewhat wistful eulogy on the subject, in which he heaps faint praise on the subject and thus cynically tries to put the validity of the megastructure as architectural vision to bed. This dismissive position was understandable in the context of the recurring oil crises of the 1970s and a growing environmental awareness in which top-down solutions were met with suspicion.

Tower-Shaped Community, sketch.

Recently however, with Rem Koolhaas’ and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Project Japan and Douglas Murphy’s Last Futures, a more nuanced and historically contextual view has emerged, which allows us to examine the merit of the ideas of this era with more distance and clarity. This new scholarship is welcome; for especially in the case of the Japanese Metabolists a gallingly Eurocentric image persisted through which the movement’s importance was not fully acknowledged. Although the hubris of Western cultural dominance has played its part, its relative obscurity can also be explained by the fact that designs by members of the movement were not presented outside of Japan or that the complexity of its concepts and ideas were lost in translation. The Harvard Graduate School of Design has earlier published Kenzo Tange – Architecture for the World to fill this void, and now has added Kiyonori Kikutake – Between Land and Sea to the series. Kikutake, whose designs for often aquatic cities were visionary, first gained recognition for his Sky House in 1958. This structure consists of a platform raised on four pilotis, or rather “wall-pillars” from which capsules or “movenettes” could be hung, when the need for expansion arose. The design was a refreshingly modern take on the traditional Japanese house and put Kikutake in the spotlight as one of the most promising young members of the Metabolist movement. Kikutake came from a traditionally landowning family who lost their possessions and social position through the land reforms during the US occupation, – in which land was bought at depressed prices by the government and handed to tenant farmers. His traditional upbringing and connection to the land made Kikutake’s designs particularly poetic and sensitive to the requirement to establish a lasting equilibrium between the needs of man and the natural conditions and restrictions of the Japanese context. The subtitle of the book, between Land and Sea refers to the fact that Kikutake was not only a gifted architect who built accomplished work but that he possessed a singular obsession with designing aquatic utopias in an attempt to direct Japan’s urban growth from low-lying deltas into the sea. A series of proposals explored this same topic over and over again: from the Marine City project (1958), Unabara Study (1960), Ocean City (1968), to finally Aquapolis (1975), which consisted of an actual oil rig which was positioned in Okinawa Bay on top of which the Japan Pavilion for the Okinawa Ocean Expo was perched.

Sky House, view from south.
Sky House, view from south.

The book came out of an exhibition, organized at Harvard GSD, and consists of essays by Mohsen Mostafavi, Ken Tadashi Oshima, Seng Kuan, Fred Thompson, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima and Mark Mulligan. The tenor of the first essays is more academic, whereas those of his former co-workers and students (Thompson, Ito and Sejima) are both illuminating and moving. The second part of the book is dedicated to Kikutake’s writings and naturally these will be a great source for future academic research, but honestly, their importance to me lies more in the pure poetry of the language and thoughts expressed. A random example:

A monument ordinarily only serves as a memorial of what is past. But the modern “Monument” I have in mind is to be erected to make people realize what inhabitation is in the true sense of the term.

This was written in reference to the tower-shaped communities which Kikutake designed as units for his plan for Tokyo Bay, a gridiron proposal of infrastructural spines, parks, canals and megastructures on reclaimed land and floating islands. It is well known that post-war welfare state briefly ameliorated class difference or at least attempted to adjust the effects of the uneven distribution of wealth in name of the reconstruction effort. It is in this window that the belief in the validity of comprehensive urban planning and the idea of megastructure was at its zenith, perhaps nowhere more so than in postwar Japan. It is easy to point towards the failures and paradoxes of the megastructure, and by extension to those of the Metabolists, but fact of the matter is, as Frampton has put it, that a normative, homeostatic mode of urban development continues to elude us. To put it more clearly, since the statement of Otaka Masoto of 1959 unsustainable urban expansion has continued unabated and accelerated. This urban crisis is evident in the proliferation of suburbia, mototopia, in the mind-numbing dullness of businessparks, industrial estates and airports, not to mention in the expansion of slum dwellings across the globe. One would have thought that man-made climate change would have clarified the extent of the effect of human action and consumption patterns on the planet, and that alternatives would be explored frenetically.

Marine City 1962–63, model.
Marine City 1962–63, model.

Sadly however, it has by now become completely inescapable that the ineffectualness of our nation based political systems is rooted in its collusion and subservience to so-called private enterprise, and that this, in combination with the blind adherence to fundamentalist market doctrine stands in the way of addressing these problems in any meaningful way. One could point to the democratic deficit evident in most of the governments, either in the North or South, but truth of the matter is that the Marxist reading of urban planning of the first CIAM conference still holds true, which is to say that as long as there is no fundamental change in the rules governing capitalist development there will be no significant change in the way in which cities are built. Given that this position was a minority view only a decade ago, I would contend that the recent focus on utopias of the fifties, sixties and seventies, such as Kikutake’s proposals, is in a way an implicit critique of the current status quo which continues to sacrifice human welfare and ecological systems on the altar of capitalism and high finance.

It is no wonder that cynicism in architectural production has become the norm and that in this climate the focus has been on creating icons and singular prodigy buildings for the happy few rather than a sustained investment in meaningful urban form, public housing or collective facilities.
Since long I have intuited that this deeply entrenched materialist culture is in fact a sign of mental disease, or rather that the deeply entrenched inequities in which the needs of the many continue to be unmet, runs counter to the essence of humankind and is ultimately untenable. All of this may sound heavy-handed, but the poetry of the work of past masters, such as Kiyonori Kikutake, calls us to reflect upon our lived reality, – its virtues and shortcomings – and to recognise that which is often presented as the only possible alternative, is just one of many worlds.

Thomas Wensing

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