Kiyonori Kikutake, 1928-2011

Kiyonori Kikutake, 1928-2011

Sporting a floral necktie, Kiyonori Kikutake—the most inventive, dogged, and systematically intelligent member of the Metabolism movement, which flourished along with Japan’s fortunes from 1960 to the 1970s—stands on a Tokyo rooftop in front of a model of his latest floating city. It is 1968 and Kikutake is 40. With his eyes squeezed shut and his hands spread out like a spiritual medium, he seems to be straining, desperately trying to conjure the project into reality: a colony on the sea that would accommodate Japan’s burgeoning postwar population, free from overcrowded cities, safe from earthquakes, impossible to flood.

In the photo, Kikutake also looks rather mad. That reputation preceded him, though it grew out of the ferocity of his passion rather than a genuine diagnosis. Toyo Ito, whose first job was in Kikutake’s office, tells us in Project Japan—the recently published book by Rem Koolhaas and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist that I co-edited with curator Kayoko Ota—that he used to hear “endless strange rumors about Kiyonori Kikutake: that he ran around the campus of his alma mater, Waseda University, barefoot and wearing a hanten jacket, that he made a living by frantically drawing up plans for the repair of wooden buildings ruined in World War II, that he was ferociously quick at drawing plans, and that they were preposterously beautiful.”

Kikutake was born in 1928 in Kurume; he was the 17th generation of a wealthy landowning family that used to farm the fertile planes. Part of their duty as landlords was to protect their tenants from the frequent flooding of the Chikugo River. That attitude of paternalistic noblesse oblige never left Kikutake, even when he was drawing radical schemes for ocean living or giant colonies in the air. He told Koolhaas and Obrist that everything began with the 1947 Nochi Kaiho (Agrarian Reform) law enacted by the occupying American General Headquarters, which dispossessed him of his inherited land: “My architecture was my protest, as a former landlord, against the dismantling of the entire landowning system.” The surface of Japan is already maddeningly difficult to build on because of its tectonic instability, because it is 75 percent mountainous, and because the flat parts are prone to flooding and tsunamis; after the reform law, it became politically tainted as well. Kikutake would spend his life designing other surfaces upon which to build instead—on the land, on the sea, and in the air. He called these surfaces “artificial ground.” More than capsules or organic metaphors of regeneration for buildings and cities, it is the idea of artificial ground that binds together the disparate work of the Metabolists. And no one pursued that idea more vigorously than Kikutake.


After constructing housing for war widows and their families out of wood and brick salvaged from fire-bombed buildings, Kikutake completed his legendary Sky House in 1958. It became a laboratory for testing theories of artificial ground and adaptation on his own family. (Kazuyo Sejima has said that the Sky House was the reason she became an architect.) Raised on stilts 20 feet high, Sky House hovers above Japan’s surface, metaphorically free of its dangers and its new rules. Sky House grew with Kikutake’s family: in 1962, the first of three capsules—actually, he called them “move-nets,” differentiating them from Archigram’s capsules—was plugged into the exposed underbelly of the house to accommodate new children. (Kikutake later reflected that the move-nets were too small and stifled the children’s activity; when British architect James Stirling came to visit, he couldn’t fit down the narrow stairway into the capsule.)

Sky House became a hub for various architectural milieu: a barbecue on the patio underneath the house in 1958 may well have been the moment when Kenzo Tange—architect of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Japan’s de facto architect laureate—first enlisted Kikutake to be a Metabolist, together with fellow architect Kisho Kurokawa and critic Noboru Kawazoe, who were also at the party. In 1960, during the World Design Conference in Tokyo—where Metabolism made its international debut—Sky House hosted an impromptu all-night conversation between Louis Kahn and his Japanese counterparts. Kikutake told him about his three-step principle for architecture, inspired by nuclear physics: ka (essence), kata (substance), katachi (phenomenon). “Any educated person can grasp it,” he assured Koolhaas and Obrist in their interview.

Kikutake’s high-tech projects looked utopian—just as their impulse looks democratic rather than feudal—but they were in fact dystopian preparations for worst-case scenarios. In Metabolism 1960, the group’s manifesto, Kikutake wrote: “It is incorrect to say that the most sure means to live is to cling to the land.… The civilization of continents has accumulated bloody struggles in human relations established within the limited land.” Projects like Ocean City and Tower Shaped Community—tubular towers over 900 feet tall into which capsules plug “like leaves”—were, he thought, necessities for an overcrowded planet on the brink of disaster. In 1961, with Disaster Prevention City, Kikutake proposed a flood-prevention scheme for Tokyo’s Koto Ward: a grid of 20-foot-high piers, safe from the waters of Tokyo Bay.

While plotting Metabolism and conducting unsolicited experiments with oceanic and aerial architecture, Kikutake built prolifically. In the 1960s, he completed the A-shaped Izumo Shrine Administrative Building; the Miyakonojo Civic Center (an auditorium that fanned out like a seashell, or an ear); and the Tokoen Hotel (a somehow delicate form of Brutalism, with a nod to tradition in its terraced form). At Expo ’70, the apotheosis of Metabolism and the culmination of Japan’s postwar economic and moral rehabilitation, Kikutake built the iconic Expo Tower, a skeletal framework with move-nets plugged in, from which the public could look out over the city of the future. Expos in 1970s Japan were true laboratories: at the Okinawa Ocean Expo in 1975, which celebrated the handing over of the islands from the United States to Japan, Kikutake was finally able to build on the sea. His Aquapolis, the Japanese “pavilion,” was a floating, oil-rig-like structure the size of a city block.

Meanwhile, Kikutake was also taking on the land with his Stratiform Structure Module, a giant A-frame into which individual, American-style detached houses can be plugged. From 1972 to 1992, Kikutake collaged Stratiforms all over the Japanese archipelago: in the shadow of Mount Fuji, in the countryside, in dense cities, straddling highways, and finally, with the Ecopolis in the Amazon jungle. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry, willing to sponsor potential solutions to Japan’s shortage of land and housing, paid for the construction of a 1:1 prototype, which Kikutake subjected to earthquake and fire tests. The real thing was never built.

When the oil crisis struck in 1973 and Japan’s economy contracted for the first time since the war, Kikutake, like other Metabolists, looked to the Middle East for commissions. He proposed floating factories for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq and for Libya’s coast; for Jeddah and Abu Dhabi he designed, but never built, giant floating hotels. When Japan started booming again in the 1980s, Kikutake, now sponsored by a telecommunications company, was ready with another floating city, this time to accommodate one million people.

In 1996, when Rem Koolhaas designed the Hyperbuilding for Bangkok, he didn’t realize that the project, originally initiated by Kikutake and his Hyperbuilding Research Committee, was in fact a direct continuation of the same Metabolist obsession with artificial ground that Kikutake had been pursing since the late 1950s. For determination and longevity, Kikutake’s had few equals.

Last fall at the Mori Museum in Tokyo, Kikutake took part in a symposium with his fellow surviving Metabolists Kenji Ekuan (the industrial designer responsible for the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle) and Fumihiko Maki (now building Tower 4 at the World Trade Center in New York). Kikutake, 83, had to leave early. He rose to his feet, shuffled to the front of the stage and wagged his finger playfully at the 1,000-strong audience. “You have come here today and listened to us talk about Metabolism,” he said. “But please don’t think you have understood. Please don’t think you have understood anything, ever.” It was his last appearance in public before returning to Hawaii; he passed away just before the New Year.