How to build a metabolizing city?

One relationship, one neighborhood at a time.

In many ways, we strangers experience today’s Tokyo as the dream city of metabolism: networked and cosmopolitan, efficient and polite, caring and tolerant. This dream experience has a history.

According to Koh Kityama, professor of architecture and leading authority on Tokyo’s metabolism, Tokyo is a city shaped by catastrophe from above and below, within and without: earthquakes, firebombs, economic “miracles,” and tsunami.[1] In reaction to such devastation, the 1960s saw the development of Metabolism as a crossdisciplinary design principle: anticipate inevitable destruction by humbling the city—each structure avoids direct conflict with fate by digesting itself every 26 years, before the next tsunami does.  Arm by disarming, by opening the inside to the outside. Do not build walls to last, but design relationships that will endure.

Kitayama presents a plan for regenerating urban centers in the wake of disaster using the idea of a “Community Core,” which provides social infrastructure that endures, even as the surrounding housing continuously transforms itself. Kitayama’s version of metabolism represents a strange paradox: small, free-standing buildings that can organically transform the entire megacity in tiny gestures of self-effacement or erasure, while retaining a shared core, sustained through simple practices of interpersonal relationships. Despite metabolism’s Japanese endogeny, the imagination of the city in its entirety, along with the concept of modern urban planning is fairly new to Japan.[2] Urban living in Japan happens at the scale of the machi, or neighborhood. In fact, Japanese urban planning has deliberately attempted to balance large-scale infrastructural projects against the organic transformations of everyday life in the machi.[3] In this respect, Kitayama’s metabolistic tendencies are no exception, but follow in a strong tradition of Japanese urban planning. The tendency is to use large-scale megastructure or mega-plans to protect against catastrophe and provide space for unfolding the intimate relationships that make the fabric of each neighborhood.[4]

It is this polite metabolism, always new and yet so tied to its history and the specificity of its place, that I experience as I move through the lubricated tunnels and passageways of this city, where inner and outer continuously and almost imperceptibly meet. In the wake of recent world events—wars, natural disasters, vast economic fluctuations and advances in the networking of mobile technologies—cities are again targets, and the relationships between people are increasingly fragile. I recognize the vitality of Japanese metabolism, as an urgent response to these pressing problems. However, as a stranger who can never learn the complex Japanese manners for navigating the spaces between people, how can I truly understand metabolist principles? What can be translated from Tokyo’s response to catastrophe into other contexts?

Artist Masato Nakamura begins with a question: What kind of society can we create in relation to this destruction by tsunami?[5] Unlike Kitayama, whose work aims to protect a community core, Nakamura presents a more radical notion: “since everything is gone, there is nothing to fear.” Instead of protecting against the ravages of nature, Nakamura identifies in his interactions with survivors of the recent tsunami, an instinct towards facing nature directly, searching for the opportunity to reconstruct another society, from scratch.

 In this state of deprivation we taste bitterness, we taste suffering but we have nothing to fear.

As we go into the mountains to collect wood, we have the opportunity to imagine another life. We are not defeated by anyone or anything. We are not defeated by the city. We are not defeated by the world.

These statements of tsunami survivors, collected as part of Nakamura’s “WA WA Project,”[6] clear the path towards an individual creativity that has the potential to re-build a new society. These statements form the basis of machizukuri, the art of making the small town or neighborhood through sustained community efforts. Machizukuri, according to Nakamura is the daily creative process of making a happy family, of cultivating good relations with others.

As a term, machizukuri is contemporaneous with the rise of the metabolist design movement, coming into wide usage in the 1960s, to describe the machi-based grass-roots activism that arose in Japanese cities in opposition to nuclear ambitions and large-scale infrastructural planning efforts.[7] Unlike governmental responses to disaster, which mobilize and deploy resources rapidly and at large scales, efforts undertaken through machizukuri necessarily take longer, as they are determined by the speed of cultivation of relationships.[8]

Walking in the side streets that weave through Tokyo neighborhoods, one can feel the efforts of constant machizukuri. There are old women sweeping the pavement outside their homes, carefully tending flowers. This spirit is infectious. Accidentally dropping a chewing gum wrapper, I rush to pick it up, almost falling in my desperation to avoid making a mess in a space that seems as cared for as a family’s living room.

Nakamura’s notion of machizukuri aims not simply to oppose toshi keikaku, or large-scale, top-down urban planning, but to find ways of establishing a line of creative development that can link different levels of society, producing inclusive flows of communication and decision-making. For Nakamura, the job of imagining and enacting such flows is necessarily an artistic task. He asks: “How do we as artists contribute to the making of our cities and our communities?” “Art” in this formulation is not limited to the white cube of the gallery or museum, but must extend into the street. By the same token, “artistry” is not the province of the trained professional, but is developed in face-to-face interactions between people in the neighborhood.

Facing six cold months in Moscow as a foreigner, I recognize how much both Nakamura’s and Kitayama’s methodologies depend upon the connection of the artist and the architect to his place and his history. In order to negotiate these tiny spaces between people and their environments, one must feel a certain sense of “home.” As an artist interested in making the city, how am I to approach a city that is not my own? Nakamura’s response to my question is slow and considered. He has not faced this one before. His answer is surprisingly simple: “Look for need, meet the need” he says in halting English. “Talk to people. Say ‘hello.’ Come to the same level. Don’t be a ‘professor.’”

Landing in Moscow’s Shremetyevo International Airport six days later, I am confronted by my own strangeness in this cold context. A sea of Russian envelops me, and I search for familiar symbols that can anchor me to this space. The agent at passport control scrutinizes my picture and my face for several minutes. I must control an impulse to snatch my documents and run laughing back into the plane, which is continuing on to London. Instead I accept my papers from the expressionless agent with a polite “spasiba,” and the hint of a bow.


[1] “Tokyo Metabolizing,” lecture by Koh Kitayama at Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture, Sunday, November 27, 2011. The lecture was based on Kitayama’s curation of the Japanese pavilion for the 12th Venice Biennale for Architecture, 2011.

[2] In fact, the Japanese term for “city,” toshi, which combines the characters for “capital city” and “marketplace,” is an invented term that comes into use in the 1920s and 1930s, in order to translate and discuss the works of urban planners in European, American and Chinese contexts.  As a description of Japanese cities, toshi comes into use during the Second World War era. Along with toshi, comes the notion of toshi keikaku or city planning at the large, infrastructural scale.

[3] The Japanese city is presented in groundbreaking sociological analyses emerging in the 1960s as composed of “integrative organs,” military, bureaucratic, economic and religious, which, while apparently distinct, actively engage the input of urban dwellers through small actions in everyday life, at the scale of the neighborhood. Yazaki Takeo (1971) The Japanese City: A sociological analysis, trans. Swain, D.L. (San Francisco, CA: Japan Publications Trading Co.)

[4] Unlike European and American versions of modern urban planning, which called for the unified streetscapes, separation of traffic along wide avenues, and the placement of small suburban garden communities, Japanese planners focused on designing rings of large buildings along main roads throughout the city center, that acted as a buffer for small neighborhoods of narrow winding streets and houses covered in foliage.

[5] Public lecture by Masato Nakamura at Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.

[7] Carola Hein (2001) “Toshikeikaku and Machizukuri in Japanese Urban Planning: The Reconstruction of Inner City Neighborhoods in Kobe.” Jarbuch des DIJ (Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien). 13: 221-52.

[8] Ibid.

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2 thoughts on “How to build a metabolizing city?

  1. I just posted on Metabolism and was glad to see some other thoughts out there. I firmly believe that Tokyo walks the walk of growing organically, but the Metabolist movement seems to run counter to that – they seemed too “top-down” to be considered organic. Would be interested to know your thoughts.

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