image METABOLISM: (not) like a cancer grows – artistic expression as alternative success narrative 芸術表現

“Buildings and cities should be designed and developed in the same continuous way that the material substance of a natural organism is produced.” – Metabolism

“Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Cancerous cells are also called malignant cells.” – National Institutes for Health

Doukei – Yusuke Yamashita 山下由介

I. A man, a plan, a canal (city) – Metabolism

By the 1950’s, Tokyo had moved past the destruction of WWII and was becoming a crowded and chaotic industrial city, with a growing economy and population, and a need for better housing and infrastructure. Among the voices calling for architectural and urban design reform was a group that would become known as the Metabolists. With the World Design Conference (WoDeCo) scheduled to be held in Japan in 1960, discussions were held throughout the country to prepare for the event. The Metabolism movement would form a vision of urbanism aimed at addressing the challenge of growth in Tokyo; members included:Kenzo Tange 丹下 健三, Takashi Asada 浅田孝, Kisho Kurokawa 黒川紀章, Kiyonori Kikutake 菊竹清訓, and Noboru Kawazoe 川添登, Fumihiko Maki 槇 文彦, Otaka Masata 大高正人, Kenji Ekuan 栄久庵憲司, and Kiyoshi Awazu 粟津潔.

In naming the group, the members agreed that their vision would need an English name to enhance its international appeal, both for use at the conference and to signal that Japan was joining the internal community of architects and designers that had produced similarly memorable “isms”. The word “metabolism” was plucked from a Japanese-English dictionary as the translation of a Japanese word meaning perpetual change and growth. The bilingual METABOLISM/1960—the Proposals for a New Urbanism, was presented at the WoDeCo and it, along with projects by its founding architects, was so successful it resulted in invitations to the international exhibition at MoMA in New York, a first for Japanese architects. Source

Kenzo Tange’s separately published A Plan for Tokyo, 1960 Toward a Structural Reorganization, shared with the conference a radical and hypothetical plan for future urban development of the Tokyo bay. Shown in the picture above, this beautiful plan is fantasy. By size alone (16 miles at the widest points) this would represent an incredible engineering feet. The plan called for hundreds of enormous floating units hundreds of yards wide, connected by interwoven loops of highway and rail. This plan is likely a source of inspiration for the design of Neo Tokyo in Akira アキラ, as see in a still from the film’s opening sequence:

Akira opening scene New Tokyo map bayReal or imaginary, built or unbuilt, plans such as Tange’s helped brand the Metabolists as group with bold, coherent visions. Not only was Tange’s plan for Tokyo unbuilt, but so too was much of the Metabolists‘ work.

My first exposure to Metabolism was the recent exhibit, Metabolism: The City of the Future – Dreams and Visions of Reconstruction in Postwar and Present-Day Japan at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Room after room I found myself admiring blueprints and balsa wood models of unbuilt and demolished masterpieces.

Coincidentally, my office in Tokyo is 100 yards from Nakagin Capsule Tower 中銀カプセルタワー Nakagin KapuseruTawā (map), a modular pair of office and apartment towers composed of prefabricated units or capsules. The building was designed by Kisho Kurokawa 黒川紀章 and is located in central Tokyo. For tourists on their way to the Tsukiji Fish Market 築地市場, it is worth an extra 2 minutes to take note of this crumbling architectural artifact.

Nakagin Capsule Tower:

Despite their limited physical output, the Metabolists changed the way the world regarded Japanese architecture. Many of the Metabolists would become well regarded architects in their own right, just not following strict Metabolist principles. The legacy of Metabolism was perceptual change – you don’t need to change the world to change how people think about it.

II. Anything you can do I can do better – success narrative as national history

My first awareness of Japan, other than Godzilla and flying robots, was that they were taking over the world. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the land of the rising sun was dominating headlines because of Japan’s economic rise. This greatly worried me as a 12-year old. Just as I assumed the Russians would invade Massachusetts during the height of the cold war circa 1985, I assumed that one day the United State would be invaded by the Japanese. Consider the following headlines from the New York Times:

From the last article comes the following passage, which I couldn’t make up if I tried:

“Even as the cold war fades into history, American authors and publishers are discovering a new enemy: Japan. In a deluge of recent books and books to be published soon, the country that was once depicted as the land of geishas and cherry blossoms is increasingly being portrayed as the land of a rising threat to the United States, not only as a fierce economic competitor, but also as a potential military foe. Several months ago, for example, ”The End of the American Century,” a nonfiction book by Steven Schlossstein (Congdon & Weed), argued that a newly militarized Japan might use its power against the United States.” – After the Cold War, the Land of the Rising Threat

As an American child learning history, the narrative of success, growth, and power was easy for me to understand and easier to get behind: the United State had had almost uninterrupted success, growth, and increased power since its founding. Abberations such as the great depression (everyone else was doing it) or Vietnam (we didn’t lose…it was a tie) were easy to forgive or forget, given our success against Britain (twice), Mexico, the South (they weren’t part of the USA), Spain, and those pesky Germans (WWI and II). Sprinkled among these wars were victories of other kinds – $24 for Manhattan island, the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase. Add to this American successes in arts, science, and sports, and learning about the world was heady stuff when I was growing up.

I imagine that growing up in Japan during its economic heyday was equally thrilling. The success narrative was almost too perfect – rising from the ashes of WWII, a defeated and humbled nation devotes itself to technological advancement, eventually beating America at its own game in electronics, automobiles, and manufacturing.

The American success narrative is similar to the progress myth of western civilization; the difference being that in the progress myth, there are many winners and many losers who all contribute to the rich tapestry of our shared history; notable winners in the cannon being ancient Greece, Rome, and the British Empire. There are too many losers to name, so I’ll just mention my favorite, the Carthaginians. With the American success narrative, there is room for only one winner. To an American, the winner will always be America. The weakness of the success narrative is it is always hungry and always afraid; the only way to be the most successful nation is if others aren’t. Japan on the rise – threat! China on the rise – threat! While there are legitimate concerns embedded in our fears of other nations, I posit that most of the fear is the psychological fear of losing status, of losing dominance, and of losing our ability to substantiate the success myth in perpetuity.

III. Wax on, wax off

After Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990’s, it entered a long period described by many as the Lost Decade (失われた10年 Ushinawareta Jūnen) or, the Lost Decades (失われた20年). I would venture to guess that most capitalists – American, Japanese, and otherwise – accept this terminology without much exception. I did too, until I visited Japan in 2010. Still considered to be recovering from the second lost decade of the 2000’s, I half expected Japan to be a sad, ghost country. Instead, I found the people friendly, outwardly happy, and the cities clean, lively, and eminently livable.

What Lost Decade? I have a freakin’ robot…

An uncited quote from Wikipedia notes that the Lost Decade’simpact on everyday life was muted, however. Unemployment ran rather high, but not at crisis levels. This has combined with the traditional Japanese emphasis on frugality and saving to produce a quite limited impact on the average Japanese family, which continues much as it did in the period of the miracle.

Referring to the past 10 or 20 years of Japanese life as “lost” is absurd. During this time there were approximately 10 million weddings, 18 million births, and millions and millions of dates, parties, vacations, and everything else that is life. Americans readily accept a term like the “lost decade” because of our allegiance to growth and progress. My understanding is that the Japanese, having forged their national identity on the post-war economic miracle, have also become beholden to their own success narrative. Without being an economic powerhouse, what is left to do in the world? And the fact that it was China replacing Japan as the world’s 2nd largest economy has made the decline that much more galling. In just a few months I have routinely heard reference to Japan’s decline at work and in bars.

The bad news is, the decline is probably permanent. The good news is, the decline is largely psychological.

IV. Character is full of inconsistencies and ambiguities – 矛盾や曖昧さの個性溢れる

On Sunday I happened upon an art exhibit at Gallery Le Deco ギャラリー・ルデコ in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. On the 3rd floor I was fortunate to come across vibrant and uplifting work from several young artists, most/all of whom are art students in Tokyo. The exhibit was titled t√5. ひとよひとよににほんがてん, which is far too complex for google to translate properly…I get “Ten books in the world one person I”. The artists: Hideshi Ito 伊藤秀司, Hiromitsu Saitou 齋藤弘光, Yusuke Yamashita 服部桜, Sakurako Hattori 山下由介, Akiko Hashimoto 橋本晶子.

A work by Hiromitsu Saitou 斉藤弘光 …

I have just started to scratch the surface of the Tokyo art world, but if this exhibit is any indication,my eyes will get tired before I run out of transcendent images to feast on. In my last post I confirmed my love of drawing and shed my cynicism regarding photography. Consider this my baptism into the religion of painting. I don’t have the background to comment on the technical or art historical merits of these paintings, but I can provide the following observations:

1 – Art is alive: I spent 25 minutes in the presence of the artists who shaped the images I was admiring. They sat near the door, greeted guests, and spoke about their work. Even not speaking their language I appreciated the fact that the art and the artist were so close to me. Instead of looking at the images as static artifacts of oil or acrylic, I saw dynamic representations of the thoughts that had sprung from the heads of those people standing right over there.

2 – Art is universal: Perhaps more than any other artistic form, painting is accessible across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

3 – Art is CREATIVE: Artists create realities that previously did not exist. For those of us lucky enough to have spent time creating art, we recognize the thrill of watching something grow before our eyes. Artists can create entire worlds with just a pen and a paper, or canvas and oil. Our bodies live in a physical world of food, shelter, and heat. But our minds live in a complex world of images, ideas, and conceptual frameworks that is shaped as much by the physical world as by the mental. How differently would we think about the 20th century without Freud, Picasso, or the psychedelic movement? Without the Beatles, Orson Welles, or Duke Ellington?

For Japan to permanently escape the shadow of the Lost Decades, they may want look to artists to help nurture a more forward looking worldview. Artists can create alternate narratives where success does not rise and fall with GDP, exports, and economic dominance. Japan will never beat China at the current game. And nor will the United States within my lifetime – this would have scared me at 8 or 18 or 28. Not now. I’ll be too busy looking at good paintings to notice.

A work by Sakurako Hattori 服部桜子…

Sources & further reading:

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8 comments

  1. Lots of interesting ground covered here. I love the idea o studying alternate urban designs in order to consider what it says about the former or current ambitions of a culture. Here’s what I’d expect to find: designers in every culture think big and bureaucrats and established corporate interests (a kind of cultural and economic resistance to change) put the kibosh on their outsized dreams, so we end up with a smaller, less efficient, less innovative version of what might have been. But maybe that’s too simplistic?

    Also, regarding the narrative of eternal progress: I’ve been thinking about that, too, and I bet that living in a different culture is as good a way to see cultural narratives for what they are. But every time people talk about how economic progress isn’t what we should be aiming for, I keep thinking: “that’s just sour grapes!” The popularity of this attitude always seems to conveniently coincide with economic failure. Now that China is kicking everyone’s ass, economically speaking, we say that economic success isn’t all that important, that we should care more about equality and gross domestic happiness. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that we SHOULD question how central unsustainable economic progress is to life, but I just feel the need to point out that its likely perceived, by whomever is winning at the time, to be sour grapes.

    Terrific, thought-provoking stuff.

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