Monday, 16 December 2013

Hajime Yatsuka, architect

Back in 2011, the Mori Art Museum held a big exhibition on the Metabolist Movement, perhaps the most interesting school of Japanese architecture. I covered the show for a couple of publications, and decided to do an interview with the show's main curator, the architect and architectural theorist, Hajime Yatsuka. Born in 1948 and educated at the University of Tokyo, Yatsuka studied under Kenzo Tange and Sachio Otani, and worked for Arata Isozaki before setting up his own office in Tokyo in 1984. Even if not famous in his right, he is at least "famous by association" and well known in the architectural world for his academic work and 'deconstructionist' buildings, which are said to be influenced by French philosophy. Our interview, which was a set of questions emailed off, focused almost entirely on Metabolism. Despite the way in which the interview was obtained it actually reads like a face-to-face conversation.

CBL: The exhibition starts with some designs from the Imperial period, such as "Plan for the Emigration Village in Manchuria" and the "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere Monument." There seems to be a continuation of the grandeur of these imperialistic designs in Metabolism. Would it be fair to say that Metabolism includes elements of Fascism as well as elements of Socialism?

HY: I understand that the origin of the modern city planning lay in the French achievement in their ex-colonies (Morocco – more than Algeria – and Vietnam) where they delegated enlightened colonial managers or rulers. In the same way, Japanese origin lay in Taiwan and Manchuria under Shimpei Goto, whose portrait is exhibited in our show. You are right to say, if you were to exclude excessive ideological connotations, that Metabolism includes elements of Fascism as well as elements of Socialism inasmuch both were extreme derivations of the idea of modernism; modernism requires some tendency for the rational (and total) control of the society.

CBL: It is possible to view Metabolism in a number of ways: (1) as an honest and imaginative response to a problem of a growing population;(2), as a of celebration or fetishism of modernism;(3), as an expression of the egoism of architects;(4), as a continuation of Imperial architectural ambitions. There are several other ways to view it. What would you say about each of these four views? And what is your own view?

HY: I totally agree to (1),(2), and (4). (3) depends on the case. True, Tange wanted, even from wartime, to act as a prophet of the society. I am not sure if it is fair to say this is based on the egoism. I would say ambitious instead of egoistic.

CBL: Many countries had population problems, a love of modernism, and egoistical architects like Japan. Why did the Metabolist movement happen here and not somewhere else? What was the extra, specifically Japanese factor that made Metabolism occur here?

HY: Too big a question to be answered in a limited sentences. I would say Japan's specificity could be summarized as: (1) That she, with an excessive pride on her spiritual legacy, had lost the war against the country that seemed (sorry!) to have lacked this quality; and (2) That the motif for invasion (extension of her Lebensraum) was never solved in this loss. They should have sought the Lebensraum above the sea or over the ground instead of overseas.

CBL: At the UIA World Architecture Congress held in Tokyo earlier this year, Fumihiko Maki compared Modernism to a large cloud that is capable of taking on the characteristics of individual countries and their cultures. Is Metabolism an example of this mixture of universal modernism and local Japanese conditions?

HY: Sure. No doubt. No reservation.

CBL: Metabolism had limited direct influence in terms of buildings constructed. Do you think it is more important for its indirect effect on subsequent architects and architecture? What is its most significant effect on contemporary architecture?

HY: Compared to the contemporary avant-garde circles in the West, the Metabolists had succeeded to put their idea into realities. What was even more significant was that their concern was much more based on their will to be directly related to the reality, even in the case the individual projects failed to be realized. In this regards, they were not utopians. Their effect would be and should be held more in future, given the context in which architects, planners, bureaucrats seem to have lost the insight into future.

CBL: The key point of Metabolism was to make flexible buildings that could be easily altered and easily maintained. What relation does this idea have to Kenzo Tange's Yoyogi Gymnasium? This building is very inflexible and difficult to maintain. It also uses the large space accorded it very inefficiently.

HY: Tange was not metabolist. I am even skeptical if there were real metabolists who follow the doctrine you argued. It represents only one of the aspects.

 Isozaki Arata Shibuya Project: City in the Air 1962

CBL: The Metabolist idea of architecture believed that buildings should be designed to be flexible and constantly change to suit human needs, which is frankly a kind of unrealistic idea. In buildings like Toyo Ito's Mediatheque this seems to have been replaced by the idea that the building should be designed to allow the people to be flexible, human flexibility rather than structural flexibility. Do you think this is a creative inversion of Metabolism?

HY: Individual buildings have their own conditions and programs, be it either Yoyogi or Mediatheque. The spatial characteristics of Ito's Mediatheque as you discuss is more based on its program, exhibition halls and library. You may argue it succeeds Mies's universal space ideas. Not every building can be designed like that.

CBL: There are two sides to Metabolism: (1) the design of actual buildings, and (2) city plans. The city plans seem to have been more successful, for example in Skopje, Bologna, etc. Why was the world more ready to accept Metabolist city plans but not Metabolist buildings?

HY: 1960s were periods in which they were in the peak of their capacity of design. It is a pity that the commission from abroad came after that, be they architectural or urban. Skopje and Bologna belong to the previous era, and scarcely built on their original ideas. Of course, city plans are much more difficult tasks to be put into reality.

CBL: Metabolism had a futuristic appearance. This made it appealing for those organizations that wanted to project a futuristic image of Japan to the world. Do you think this explains official support for the movement, especially at the 1970 Expo when Japan was keen to project a futuristic image to the world for business reasons?

HY: I am not sure if all the metabolist buildings were futuristic. The 1970 Expo dedicated on the subject of progress and harmony, and was natural to be futuristic. But we should not forget the fact that Tange insisted that they should invite (and hospitalize) the developing countries. If their concerns resided only to be futuristic, it was enough to invite only USA and USSR, and this was what Tange clearly refused.

CBL: Perhaps the most famous Metabolist building is the Nagakin Capsule Building. I really like the idea of having one of the actual capsules outside the museum. However, it is hard to imagine living in such a space. Do you think that Metabolist architects like Kisho Kurokawa were sometime unable to imagine how their buildings would impact on normal human beings? Isn't this the main weakness of the movement?

HY: Nakagin capsule tower represents, as I had been insisting, only one aspect. It was not a dwelling, but second house, (room)s for business people from outside Tokyo, and thus was more like business hostels. On the structures for normal citizens, many buildings and projects were designed by metabolists like Kikutake, Maki, and Otaka. Even Kurokawa designed more "human" buildings and settlements. I should add that This does not contradict with their appeal for the necessity for experiment(see Maki's Hillside buildings and Golgi structure).

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