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  • MetabolismA Japanese Modernism
  • Malcolm Miles (bio)

In a look back from a postmodern present, international modernist architecture and planning—the dominant approach in Europe and North America from the 1920s to the 1960s—appears as a progressive, in some ways utopian, movement, coherent but encapsulated in history. This view is deceptive in two ways: first, because international modernism contained several positions and some contradictions (which are easier to analyze looking back) and, second, because it was never the only modernism. International modernism is represented by iconic buildings—from the Empire State Building in New York to more recent corporate towers, and from Karl Marx Hof in Vienna to more recent housing schemes—and by sweeping city plans, by Le Corbusier, for instance, but also by Patrick Abercrombie (addressing the need to rebuild after bombing in the early 1940s). All these examples were informed by the availability of new technologies and materials but equally by a concern to design cities conducive to a more equal, more efficient, and more fulfilling mode of dwelling. Hence international modernism became known as a movement for the engineering of a new society, which is where the contradictions begin. I return to these below. The point of departure for this essay is a recognition that other modernisms challenge the center-margin model by which the international modernism of the West is taken as the center (or mainstream) and everything else as its margin. In looking from a postmodern present, a map of multiple nodes of equal interest [End Page 70] appears. Metabolism, as a postwar, progressive movement in Japanese architecture and planning, is one such node.

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Figure 1.

Tange gathers his progeny—from Metabolism and Tange Lab—in social as well as professional settings, 1961. Courtesy Mai Asada

As an advanced, industrialized country, Japan was part of the West in Cold War terms; yet it was also distinct in its history, cultural heritage, and extent of devastation after 1945. I want to reconsider Metabolism as another modernism and reflect on the influence of a high level of devastation on both Metabolism and modernist city visions in Europe and North America. I wonder, in both cases, whether the socially progressive, utopian aspect of modernisms can be extricated from a record of failures and contradictions or whether, now, in a period of neoliberalism, modernist dreams seem like mere fairy tales. Metabolism has limits, but to look back on it, and other modernisms, is to become aware that there are alternatives to a market-led society and the corporatized building design it commissions. This is not to deny the modernist contradiction between a vision of a city for all and reliance on technical and professional expertise to shape it, nor is it to deny an alignment of plans for sweeping urban renewal with equally sweeping political or economic power. Neither is it to pretend that modernist architects such as Le Corbusier were instrumentalists, prepared to reshape the concept of the city by their own design and perhaps, too, in their own image. [End Page 71]

In retrospect, the cracks are as clear as the lost visions. The spectacular destruction of tower-block social housing on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s, with extensive press and media coverage, probably sealed the end of modernist claims to a better city in the popular imagination. Yet if modernism is now characterized by such specters, and by peripheral estates and urban beltways, it left a legacy of modern city centers, decent social housing, and administrative or educational buildings informed by social-democratic (or socialist) values. These are increasingly recognized as architectural monuments. In looking back at a range of modernisms, I want to draw out their ambivalences. I wonder, for instance, if the intentions of modernist designers and planners to engineer a better world were driven in part by fear of a recurrence of the dehumanizing and devastating experiences of the European war of 1914–18 and events of European history from the 1930s to 1945 (the rise of fascism, the death camps, and the bombing of civilian targets that provided the blank spaces for new city centers). If revolutions tend to reproduce...


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pp. 70-85
Launched on MUSE
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