Book Review: Project Japan

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“At a moment when the connection between architects and their ‘own’ culture has dwindled to insignificance, and the market has dissolved any connective tissue between colleagues, it seemed urgent to listen to the survivors of a group of architects who saw their country and its transformation as a project, who changed their fatherland with new tools recognizably derived from its traditions, who worked together in a strategic alliance to achieve greater prominence and credibility, in a sustained intellectual effort that mobilized a vast range of other disciplines.” — Rem Koolhaas in Project Japan

The introduction of Project Japan sounds the alarm and makes the reader aware of the necessity for research into a group of people who took up the question of changing their world: the Metabolist Movement. Rem Koolhaas dives into this Japanese avant-garde movement and produces a combination of interviews, visual and written historic documentation, timelines, and project descriptions, providing insight into the individuals of the movement, as well as its overarching story.

After the Nietzschian causality (1) of Delirious New York, the reflective panoramic bibles of S, M, L, XL and Content, and the novel re-framing that Project on the City 1 & 2 provide, Rem Koolhaas once again constructs a visual narrative, this time with the support of the surviving Metabolists. The use of interview transcripts in combination with selections from their personal archives creates an interesting montage: one that is internally consistent and well framed, constructing a narrative in the form of a multitude of histories. Similar to the process of Delirious New York, Project Japan also contents itself with fragments; a representation of history employed not just as a description of past architecture, but a prescription for contemporary and future architecture as well. (2)

This time however, what are the prescriptions for the future? Even though Koolhaas provides a great amount of space for the interviewees, could he be hinting at a personal ambition towards a new avant-garde, his own utopian renaissance movement? Or is he critiquing the contemporary situation in the architectural environment, and, through narratives about Metabolism, trying to spread an awareness and notion of the non-perfectionist drive to a collective, better future? This is similar to the way the Metabolists saw a better future for their own country. Through this vision, they pursued both an idea and an ideal, not only aiming to resurrect and restore the country’s buildings, but also its economy, self-respect, and self-confidence, after the devastations of the 1923 earthquake and World War Two.

Although Koolhaas already started his research in 2005, at the height of a booming economy and building frenzy, the book is highly relevant to today’s post-bubble condition; the tendency towards retro movements, a recession in the economy, and a stagnation in coherent overall vision. The Metabolists might just be the right (historic) example to inspire today’s generation – supporting the idea that, especially now, there is a need for a pursuit of a better future, not with a fixed, utopian goal, but with progress being the goal itself.

In the book, Kenzo Tange plays the main character. Although absent from the actual interviews, due to his death in 2005, the father of Metabolism might just be the right role model for today’s architect, as he “worked at three fronts simultaneously; the reinforcement of the social status of the profession, the credibility of design, and the reinvention of the architect.” While Koolhaas has made it a routine to dwell on the denigrated position of the architect in modern times, Tange in his own time was working hard to elevate it. Through personal accounts in the interviews we discover Tange as a leader, husband, father, teacher, visionary, friend, mentor, guide, and most of all inspiration. He serves as an example of how to bring back architecture and the architect to their former importance – placing him amongst other flag bearers of the Modern movement such as Le Corbusier, Leonidov, Mies van der Rohe, the Smithsons, and Aldo van Eyck.

The similarities between Tange and Koolhaas are present, obviously in their profession, but also in their working conditions and professional development; starting their careers in their home country, doing research (AMO/Tange Lab), proceeding to the world’s most important universities (Harvard/MIT), and finally doing projects for the financial elite around the world. These similarities are substantiated when Koolhaas calls the Metabolists an older movement, considering himself a part of a newer offspring movement – and (possible) heir of the last avant-garde.

Koolhaas, being this self-proclaimed heir in the chain of architectural leadership, one can wonder while reading Project Japan, what will time do to him? Is he looking back, now that he has become older, milder, and more generous (3), considering the being and existence of architecture and its possibilities for the future and eternity? The last sentence in Koolhaas’ introduction, “As memory weakens, vision is the only option”, might then be a double-edged sword, meaning that visuals overrule historic factuality and objectivity, addressing his own aging combined with the constant need for progress and novelty. It begs the question: what will be his legacy and inheritance be, considering the impermanence of existence, buildings and historic memory; considering the faded awareness about the Metabolists?

Fellow interviewer and co-author Hans Ulrich Obrist asks about regrets, all the while staying true to his formal and factual framework of interviewing, and providing situational contexts and sketches to be colored in and complemented by the interviewees. Koolhaas addresses the subject in a more informal way, through questions such as, ”What car did you drive?” His journalistic flare and architectural experience come to the fore in his questioning, but he is also interested in discussing the architect’s position within society and involvement in politics.

United in ambition, not per se in vision and form, the Metabolists’ striving for a better future can be related to Koolhaas’ surfer metaphor; while Koolhaas is trying to make the best out of the given situation, the Metabolists had a plan for ‘a better Japan’: combining aspects of the past with the present to change the given situation into a utopian dream of the future – as any avant-garde is expected to.

Within this historiographic (re)construction, along with the vibrant book design and color scheme of Irma Boom, there is of course also the presence of the subject of metropolitan processes, the ‘perpetuum mobile’ of demolition, renewal and continuity; human vitality and adaptability; congestion, progression, and novelty. The concepts raised here seem relevant to today’s needs and insights concerning the condition of the modern metropolis and the architectural environment.

For instance, when we look at the 2011 economic, political, and humanitarian crises, we see the same kind of disastrous conditions now that sparked the movement back then. And when in Japan a new disaster created a new tabula rasa, it also created a new opportunity, whereas progress seems to be a circle; and circles remain, although vicious, also round.

“I may have been digging up all these things from my past, but I felt more like I was talking about the future.” — Kenji Ekuan in Project Japan

1. Nietzschian Causality refers to the ability to trace back the sources of an event, only after it happened. This can be connected to retroactivity, as both create the possibility to make links between different, seemingly innocent and autonomous parts that contributed and eventually lead to the event.
2. Martino Stierli, ‘The Architect as Ghostwriter: Rem Koolhaas and Image-Based Urbanism’, in: Glenn Adamson, Jane Pavitt (eds.), Postmodernism: Style and Subversion (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2011), pp. 136-139.
3. In NRC Weekend, Magazine #2, November 2011, p. 16 Koolhaas says: “I’ve been ill for three months and then it took me six months to recover. Since then I’ve become a nicer person.”