What does architecture have in common with cells and evolution? According to architect Kisho Kurokawa (黒川紀章, also anglicized as Noriaki Kurokawa), they are all “part of a continuous natural entity.” In his designs and writing, he regarded biology not simply as a metaphor but also as a blueprint for architecture’s role in sustaining the “harmony of technology, humanity, and nature in modern society.”
Born in 1934, in Kanie, Aichi Prefecture, Kurokawa, who trained at Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo, belonged to a postwar generation of Japanese architects who navigated a nationwide construction boom. They shared an interest in urbanism on a large, often fantastical scale, turning to architecture as a means of rebuilding war-torn communities and supporting Japan’s rapid industrialization. Some older architects of this generation, like Kunio Maekawa, had apprenticed with Le Corbusier early in their careers, while others, like Kurokawa’s master’s-degree supervisor and later employer, Kenzō Tange, cited the Swiss-French architect as a direct influence. Although Kurokawa himself followed in this lineage, he cast his work as an antithesis to “the Western belief that modernization is a repetition of a conflict between technology and humanity.”
His biologically informed philosophy first gained public attention in 1960. In preparation for that year’s World Design Conference, held in Tokyo, Kurokawa co-authored a manifesto titled Metabolism 1960, which catapulted the concept to the status of a movement and received widespread attention from the international architectural community. The Metabolists declared their stance with aplomb, if somewhat vaguely, in their manifesto’s introduction: “The reason why we use such a biological word, metabolism, is that, we believe, design and technology should be a denotation of human vitality.” In Metabolism 1960, Kurokawa also presented a speculative project called Space City; the project’s central premise was that city planning should anticipate outward expansions and accommodate commuter lifestyles. Its vertical and horizontal planes divided “equipment”—elevator corridors and shafts for the transportation and delivery of utilities—from residential and office spaces, while its broader configuration differentiated between a “recreation city” within commuting distance and a “compact city” of single-occupancy units for working individuals. Months after he and his colleagues unveiled Metabolism 1960, MoMA featured Space City in its Visionary Architecture exhibition. Kurokawa continued to explore the themes of urban expansion and mobile living throughout the 1960s and 1970s, via his architectural practice Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates, established in 1962. The height of Metabolist collaboration took place at Expo ’70, the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, for which Kurokawa received three commissions: the “Capsule House” at the Theme Pavilion and two corporate pavilions, the Takara Beautillion and the Toshiba IHI Pavilion.
The most emblematic project from Kurokawa’s Metabolism phase, and one of the movement’s only fully realized structures, was his Nakagin Capsule Tower, completed in 1972 in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Comprising two interconnected, reinforced concrete frames attached to 140 single-occupancy capsules, each fully equipped with prefabricated fixtures and Sony appliances, Nakagin demonstrated Metabolism’s core principle of atomization. Accounting for regenerative cycles, its capsules were designed to be replaceable after 25 years, although these refurbishments never materialized due to high costs and ownership disputes.
After Nakagin, Kurokawa entered into a career phase marked by international commissions and policy-oriented research endeavors. They included cultural institutions such as the Van Gogh Museum’s New Wing, airports like the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and a terminal of the Astana International Airport, as well as the establishment of the Institute for Social Engineering. Although its long-contended razing finally began in 2022, the high-profile preservation campaigns that took place in the intervening years spoke to Kurokawa’s prescient legacy of biologically informed, environmentally conscious design, or what he called an “architecture of symbiosis.”
Y. L. Lucy Wang, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Architecture and Design, 2022