Kenzo Tange, the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect and patron of the futuristic metabolist movement, had an ambitious vision for life in the mid-20th century. But it wasn’t how he wanted to live at home.
Tange’s most notable public works, including Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park (1950), the Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and a never-realized 1960 plan for Tokyo Bay, are all drama: soaring concrete mega-structures, undulating curves, artificial islands built on reclaimed land. They are rooted in grandiose, Marxian ideas of architecture and urban planning, and aim to satisfy the biological and spiritual needs of modern humans.
The house he designed for himself, constructed in 1953 in Tokyo, was smaller in scale and simpler in theory. Instead of building on lofty concepts for futuristic modalities, Tange looked to the past, repurposing an aesthetic from a millennium prior.
Tange’s house—a main building situated behind a central plaza—could have been plucked right out of the 10th century. (The fanciest Heian-period courtyards would have included a carp-filled stream and pond styled to invoke the celestial paradise of the Amida Buddha, but the realities of 20th-century Tokyo real estate prices didn’t allow for such luxuries.)
The lines of the house were clean and straight. Angles were 90 degrees. Rooms were spare and modular, partitioned by paper sliding doors which could be opened or closed as needed. The entire structure was raised on wooden stilts to ventilate the rooms during Japan’s summers, which were as sticky in the 1950s as they were 10 centuries prior.
Tange called the project The House, a utilitarian name for a space to be shaped in his own chameleonic image. The non-name was also a nod to the timelessness and transience of the building—an acceptance that houses like it were built before and will be built again. Although The House was a particularly stripped-back example of Tange’s architecture, the same Heian-era principles that inspired it—a modular, unadorned, impermanent aesthetic—are writ large in the metabolists’ most iconic buildings. In the 1960 metabolist manifesto that launched the movement, Tange’s colleague Kiyonori Kikutake outlined a project called Ocean City: slabs of floating concrete, unmoored and free from national ties, would be home to industry, agriculture and entertainment for its residents. When they became dilapidated they would sink to the ocean floor.
The star project of the movement, the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa, comprises dozens of micro-apartments encapsulated in concrete that can be joined together, then inserted or ejected from a central shaft. The tower still stands in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, though the majority of the capsules are uninhabitable, having fallen into disrepair. Community stakeholders are in a near-constant battle over its demolition.Shinto ideas of constant death and renewal of all things underpin Japanese aesthetic culture, both traditional and contemporary. “We are going to try to encourage active metabolic development in society through our proposals,” Tange’s collaborators wrote in their metabolist manifesto. The movement’s very name anchors it to biological processes—cyclical, but with an expiration date. The Japanese word for metabolism, kanji, can also mean replacement, and renewal.
The House was torn down in the 1990s, to the chagrin of preservationists and nostalgists. But the demolition cleaves to a long history of ephemerality in Japanese architecture. Japanese vernacular houses are not built to last: Beams and foundations are wooden, roofs are straw and tree bark thatch, and walls are paper.
Japan’s frequent earthquakes and resulting fires—common enough to be darkly referred to as the “flowers of Edo” in a popular saying, referencing the historical name for the city of Tokyo—destroyed noble and pedestrian houses indiscriminately. In Japanese aesthetic culture, the tragedy of life—and its great beauty—is that nothing stays the same for long.
Tange and the metabolists anticipated, and celebrated, inevitable change and eventual destruction, in projects both grand and personal. Tange’s choice to invoke, in his own house, an aesthetic of the past was perhaps a reminder to himself of his place in time, and a gesture of reassurance that this was not the end of history.