Sounding weary with focusing on his own positions and prominence and energized by researching Japan in the 60s and 70s, Rem Koolhaas came down for coffee at the Carlyle Hotel to talk to AN about his new book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Taschen), a six-year project undertaken with Swiss critic and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist to interview the founders and thinkers of what the architect calls “the first non-Western avant-garde movement in architecture” and the Dutch architect’s search for a more meaningful engagement between architecture and societies.
Why undertake a project on the Metabolists now? Is there a relevance to your own work and interests?
First of all, the timing is good because they are all old but many are still alive and, therefore, it needed to be now, or it will never happen.
The second thing is that I have always been interested in announcing that sooner or later the East would take over the West in initiative in culture. Also as Metabolism was the first non-Western avant-garde in architecture, it was very interesting to see how that worked.
Also I simply went back into our architectural history for the last moment that architects were important as servants of the public sector.
When did you first become aware of the Metabolists?
I have known many of these people as friends from when I was working in Japan in the mid 80s and early 90s. Some are very personal friends. In fact, my most vivid communications with architects currently are all with Japanese architects such as [SANAA’s] Sejima and [Arata] Isozaki; so that also means something.
Finally, I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with our work. At some point it becomes crazy that you are constantly talking about yourself, constantly defending yourself. I wanted to do something really different.
Is there something in the work or the thinking that particularly attracted you?
First, it was really the attraction to Japan, and then to certain individuals. When I saw some of the images of the Metabolists’ work, it’s astonishing how daring they were. What is very exciting is that we discovered that the work is not just individually daring, it is a kind of daring reinforced by the state. That is a very crucial part. And so we did not only talk to architects but to the bureaucrats that supported them. In that sense the book is really a description of a milieu and a context.
How did you envision presenting these oral histories? How did you proceed?
We wanted to do a book that was not the typical flimsy garbage, and instead really make it thorough. In that sense, the book itself spells the end of something I may have accidentally introduced with SMLXL: the big book just about architects.
Don’t forget I did this project with Obrist. I have known him since 1994 and our first connection was about Asia when we were doing the show, Cities on the Move, announcing the emergence of the Asian city as a subject. We were already looking at the Metabolists then.
Obrist is an obsessive interviewer, and I started out as a journalist so the two of us work very well as a team and over the years have interviewed together architects like Christopher Alexander and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
How does the bureaucrat fit into the story?
His name was [Atsushi] Shimokobe and he was an architect trained by [Kenzo] Tange but went into government where he became very central to the whole planning effort and from that position he sent work to all the Metabolists. So there was someone like [Kisho] Kurokawa writing 450 reports on every aspect of planning and its impact on Japan. They were really working on correcting weaknesses. It was a system where creative people and organizational people were both integrated.
But the Metabolists didn’t produce a lot of buildings.
That’s complete nonsense. They produced an enormous amount. Also it’s really interesting that when we had the oil crisis in the early 70s and the economy weakened in Japan, they were involved in economies that were starting to grow in Africa and Middle East. There’s a graphic in the book showing how much they built in those places. You always hear that after the initial period, their ideas flattened out into a kind of corporate style but I don’t think that was the case.
It’s also interesting for me to see how they were not building contextually. Instead they helped to invent a modern style for these countries that were not modern yet. There was an explosion of newly independent countries in Africa in the 60s and they had to have the instruments of statehood. Looking to the West was not attractive to them because they were the colonizers, and so the Metabolists were an ideal category of thinkers for them.
Did the interviews turn up any surprises?
Definitely. This late in their lives almost each one of them was interested in divulging something and the fact that we were foreign made it easier for them. That’s why we were able to talk to Kurokawa’s first wife, and even how we were able to include the bureaucrat Shimokobe.
Another striking thing in the interviews was how dissimilar everyone was. We assumed that they all would be more or less leftists but some of them were anti-democratic claiming that feudal society was more responsible, and many were extremely anti-American. I didn’t expect that.
They also gave more importance to the invasion of China in the 30s than to the atomic bomb. It was in China where the Japanese established gigantic colonies and Japanese architects for the first time experienced what it was to plan on a large scale. Many of the people who had worked on those plans became the teachers of the Metabolists—it’s a very direct connection between the prewar mentality and the postwar effect.
You seem attracted to exploring the kind of conditions that foster big ideas, and clearly the postwar era was one of those times in Japan but also in the West. Do you think the current economic crisis will do the same?
There are no big ideas anymore. You have to have an ecology where the two sides [the creative and the bureaucratic] are equally important and strong. If you look at the first responses to 9/11 on the architect scene, it was all about being symbolic and there was basically no ability to be critical or even concrete. It was all just metaphors.
Where do you think the next wave of big ideas will come from?
Big ideas need support. It’s a mixture of education and also accident, or even flukes. There also has to be a milieu of friendly competition. In the 80s and 90s, I had people like Obrist in the office challenging the things we did. I am always interested in trying to have outsiders doing that. There are about 25 brains I respect, people that I like but with whom I don’t agree. It’s important to stay in constant exposure to those kind of challenges to what you think.
[At a larger scale] I almost would say that, scientifically, big ideas can only happen in Asia where there is so much production going on. I see it already in sustainability where China is much more serious than any other country in the world. I expect that maybe something is going to happen there. Smaller countries like Qatar are also very interesting laboratories right now because there is an incredible interest both in investment and experimentation.
Has your research into the Metabolists influenced your current work?
It has already increased our interest in prefabrication and in prefabrication as a part of a new economy. For the past ten years, we have already been assuming that architecture will be a less affluent situation. In that sense, we will, like the Metabolists, also focus even more in trying to find support in the public sector. That’s why I write in the introduction that it can be read as a textbook for a movement.