Book Review: Project Japan Metabolism Talks – Rem Koolhaas

Osaka Expo 1970

Osaka Expo 1970

Book Review: Project Japan Rem Koolhaas

I went to visit Japan in the late nineties and it was especially the work of people like Kenzo Tange, Fuhimiko Maki, and Kisho Kurokawa, which impressed me deeply and has fascinated me ever since. Unfortunately I had not heard of Kiyonori Kikutake at the time, otherwise I would have visited the house he built for himself.

I have to admit that before actually reading “Project Japan” I was a bit skeptical of a non-Japanese, internationally renown architect doing a historiography of the Japanese Metabolists. As I explain in this book review, the image of the Metabolists in the West was largely set by people like Reyner Banham, and the analysis was often euro-centric and possibly even condescending. With the economic rise of Japan, and given the fact that the Japanese avant-garde got the opportunity to build on a much larger scale than people like Cedric Price and Archigram ever did, a revisit of this important work was long overdue, but the question for me was whether Koolhaas and Obrist were the ones to do it. The interviews between Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Metabolists turned out to be an incredible joy to read, not only because of the intelligence of the discourse, but also because of the clash of two different cultures and modes of thinking.

I had to acknowledge that my doubts were unfounded and that Project Japan raises pertinent questions. One of Koolhaas’s arguments is that the development of the utopian visions of the metabolists was facilitated by what he calls an ‘activist state’. The notion of a state acting as an enlightened patron is of course attractive to Koolhaas and Obrist, but it appeared to me that the Japanese weren’t quite so nostalgic about it. They question the motives of the state on a deeper level and allude to the fact that the models of an ‘activist state’ and  the ‘neo-liberal state’ are both based on unsustainable concepts, as they are indeed tied in with the fossil fuel economy and military industrial complex. In other words; they are two faces of the same thing, and exist on the basis of dystopian precepts of unfettered economic growth, pollution and resource depletion, and unequal divisions of wealth.

Given the enormous expense of the metabolists’ mega-structures, and in light of their ideas of growth which proved to be much more inflexible than anticipated, the question which remains is how to transform our existing political and economic systems to become egalitarian and sustainable, in order to abet the development of a truly humane society and human habitats. Answer is not to build large structures but to have our existing urban fabric perform in harmony with its surroundings and support systems. I think in the end one of the most important things to learn from Japanese culture is a sense of modesty towards the forces of nature. Although modesty may not be the first thing which comes to mind when you see pictures of metabolist buildings and cities, the underlying ideas do in fact talk of temporality, efficient networks, a benign use of technology and a more efficient use of resources.

I think therefore that Project Japan is a very important book, and one of the most engaging reads on architecture for a long time.


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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

3 responses to “Book Review: Project Japan Metabolism Talks – Rem Koolhaas”

  1. Mary Elizabeth Rusz, AIA says :

    Tx so much for your précis, Thomas — a very informative and provocative piece, especially related to sustainable design/ urbanism.

    • thomaswensing says :

      Thank you Mary, in the review I also comment on Toyo Ito, and the way in which he reflected on the Metabolists legacy. His Sendai mediatheque was right in the tsunami / nuclear fall-out disaster zone and his comments were prescient. Whereas the generation before him was still thinking big, he was deeply aware of the modest role of humans in face of the force of nature. I think sustainability is not so much about big utopias, but about making small changes on many levels at the same time.

      • Ian Abley says :


        Could you be bored because you are deciding “not to build large structures”? Protecting the existing and withdrawing from industrial production are not the same as challenging capitalism my friend.

        Missing you


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