As the cannibal feeds on the flesh of its own species, so too can urban novelty consume the old and once-alive city it replaces. The cannibal’s metabolism functions efficiently feeding on flesh carrying the same DNA code, from the first bite to the cellular breakdown to the release of new energy: the system processes and transforms itself with the strength of the intake. The Metabolist group in post-WWII Japan drew on this linear digestive analogy to speculate on how to create utopian cities in a country that had just lost so much to war.
Kiyonori Kikutake best articulated Metabolisms manifesto: “Contemporary architecture must be changeable, moveable and…capable of meeting the changing requirements of the contemporary age. In order to reflect dynamic reality, what is needed is not a fixed, static function, but rather one which is capable of undergoing metabolic changes…we must stop thinking in terms of function and form, and think instead in terms of space and changeable function.”
Metabolists began designing large-scale buildings for a tabula rasa, the razed, empty city, with vertical fixed components that contrasted with horizontal changeable components. The buildings’ compositions appear unfinished, allowing the eye to see where the future growth would plug-in to the existing core structures in a manner imitating biological cellular reproduction. The projects depended on the ruined city being receptive to a systemic infrastructural make over, a homogenous march towards utopia at the hands of technology.
Arata Isozaki, a fringe member of the movement, expressed skepticism of the linear quest for perfection, citing potential forces majeures, unpredictable events of destruction familiar in Isozaki’s life, natural disasters and acts of war having the ability to damage progress over and over again. “The ruins that formed my childhood environment were produced by acts of sudden destruction…wandering among them instilled in me awareness of the phenomenon of obliteration, rather than a sense of the transience of things.” He saw urban history not as linear time but as a circular existence from building to destruction and back again, each time rebuilding with the materials of the ruined. From Incubation Process (1962):
“Future cities are themselves ruins
Our contemporary cities…are destined to live only a fleeting moment
Give up their energy and return to inert material
All of our proposals will be buried
And once again the incubation mechanism is reconstituted
That will be our Future”
The same year, Isozaki created “Cluster’s in the Air.” The proposal proscribed a method for breaking away from the circular metropolitan history by building above it: a metamorphosis of the city versus a linear metabolism. At the time, Tokyo prohibited building above 31 meters, but for Isozaki: “Tokyo is hopeless…I am leaving everything below 30 meters to others. If they think they can unravel the mess in this city, let them try. I will think about architecture and the city above 30 meters. An empty lot of 10 square meters is all I need on the ground. I will erect a column there, and that column will be both a structural column and a channel for vertical circulation.”
By ignoring the uncontrollable existing buildings, the clusters would really “attack the old city in such a way as to have a changing impact on its entity,” El Lissitzky’s quote about his influential proposal, Wolkenbugel, from 1925. The clusters suck out the resources they need from the lower city attached to earth using the very small 10 square meter touchdown area, like vampires hovering over their prey, forcing a ruin below of displaced resources. The clusters block the light and stifle the air underneath them; they cannibalize the quality of life and leave nothing but ruins behind.