Project Japan: Metabolism Talks

By Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist
Published by Taschen, October 2011

April 3rd, 2012

While Rem Koolhaas is perhaps best known for his prolific and influential architectural practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, we have always been as enamoured with his writing as his contributions to the built environment. From Delirious New York to S,M,L,XL to the incomparable Content, Koolhaas has consistently produced weighty, compelling tomes that are critical and visual delights. His most recent effort, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, is no different, and in fact might be his most substantial contribution to architectural history to date. A joint project with frequent collaborator Hans Ulrich Obrist, a formidable curator and critic in his own right, Project Japan offers a comprehensive visual and oral history of the Metabolism movement – widely considered to be the first non-Western architectural avant-garde – that originated in Japan in the late 1950s.

Metabolism emerged at a transitional moment in Japanese history – a time when post-war restructuring had led to rapid economic development and urban densification. With Kenzo Tange as the group’s de facto leader, the Metabolists sought to construct architecture that had the capacity to change, expand and transform in response to environmental conditions. Koolhaas and Obrist’s exhaustive study is organized around the revealing interviews they conducted over the course of six years with the remaining members of the movement, along with their families, rivals and critics. Descriptions of projects, both built and conceptual, and important moments in Japanese and international history are interwoven throughout this mammoth, 700-page book. Koolhaas and Obrist’s deftly tackle the larger story of Japanese history, politics and culture through the lens of architecture and the ideas and ideals of the Metabolists.

What makes Project Japan such an amazing resource is the staggering amount of visual and archival material reproduced throughout the book, including preparatory drawings, sketches, models (including one made from dried noodles), advertisements and master plans. The book’s design, carefully crafted by the inimitable Irma Boom, is perfectly suited to the material and manages to make what is undeniably a dense and at times overwhelming publication, digestible and a unique design object in its own right. Through her design, colour choices and pacing, Boom captures the visionary and utopic ideas advanced by these Japanese architects about what the city of the future might look like. Large, full-page images of the group at work, posters and historical documents – including a beautiful spread that reproduces the seminal Metabolism 1960: The proposals for a New Urbanism in its entirety – provide context for the interview content. The chapter that traces Kisho Kurokawa’s rapid rise from relative unknown to international sensation is particularly compelling, and relevant, as the battle to preserve his landmark, if divisive, Nakagin Capsule Tower continues today.

Like all of Koolhaas’ publications, Project Japan alters the way we think about contemporary culture while simultaneously dazzling us with its thoughtful and unconventional design. The subject matter offers an excellent opportunity to employ Koolhaas and Obrist’s shared passion for the long-form interview and this monumental study will undoubtedly become the definitive resource on the Metabolism movement.

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