Metabolism : the last modernist utopia

Ioannidou, Ersi (2016) Metabolism : the last modernist utopia. In: Modern Interiors Research Centre Research Symposium 2016; 18-19 Jan 2016, Kingston, U.K.. (Unpublished)


Metabolism was the last utopian movement of modernism. Born out of the devastating destruction of war world II, metabolism proposed a new city that would rise above the contaminated ground of the past; a contamination that was both real – the radioactive remnants of the nuclear bomb – and political – the totalitarian pre-war social and political system. The metabolist city was to assert individuality and freedom. To this aim the Metabolists imagined the city as a flexible, open-ended and non-centric system and used a vocabulary of renewal, change, and growth that described the city as a living organism. The constituent cell of this organism was the capsule. The capsule described an absolute minimum and vital space that protected its individual inhabitant physically and spiritually. Inspired by the survival architecture of the bomb shelter and the space shuttle, the capsule expressed the power and autonomy of the individual, when at the same time it was designed as an ultra-functional, highly technological and ultra-ergonometric minimum space for living. Deliberately a-contextual, the capsule left behind the weight of history, rejected the social units of family and neighbourhood and detached itself from an earth-bound existence. It described a radical rethinking of inhabitation characterised by absolute transitory-ness. The capsules created the body of the city by forming ephemeral and spontaneous aggregations supported by more permanent elements such as towers, platforms and transport infrastructure. Each element was prescribed with its own metabolic rhythm in a way that parts of the city could grow, transform or die while the city, as a whole, would survive. This regenerative and self-perpetuating urban organism was designed to accommodate emerging realities of the city such as, the increasing mobility of people, goods and information; the population growth and overcrowding; the important role but ephemeral nature of modern technology; and their projections towards the future. The Metabolists firmly believed that design should play a defining role in giving form to these developments and thus bring about the resurrection of the city in a new form that predicated a new society. In other words, their aim was to create a truly modern architecture. The oil crisis of 1973-74 put an end to the optimistic plans of metabolism to radically redesign the Japanese city. More importantly it marked a tipping point in western culture after which grand narratives of modernism lost their power over the collective imagination. Metabolism is the last manifestation of the modernist belief that design has the ability not only to create a better city but more importantly a better future society.

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