How metabolism directed the idea of linear and compact spatial structures.

theory essays

Curiousity and questions based on my architectural studies.

A Plan for Tokyo by Kenzo Tange during the 1960’s was a plan that appeared unrealistic, unreal and rare at that time, but despite that, it was what the city needed in order to rebuild itself. “To Japanese architects and the industrialists after the war, Tokyo was sick and incurable”. The over-growing population was getting out of control, thus, they were urgently in need of urban redevelopment plan. Although the proposal was never placed into action due to the Great Kanto Earthquake and the second world war, the project left a huge mark on architectural possibilities and visions today. 

During the 8th CIAM conference, Tange raised “the theme of the ‘Core of the City’”, reflecting on his own project A Plan for Tokyo, he argued that there needs to be something to bound the city together, a system of network and structure which “reflect the city’s function, organization and epoch”. He stated that civilization can “find the channel linking itself and a human being”, through creating a space that fits into a certain era. Similarly, Kengo Kuma intended to create Nagaoka City Hall as the ‘heart of town’, reviving a sense of organization and interconnection within the community. According to Kuma, the new city hall is “hoped to become the symbol of Nagaoka city”. Both project has similar intentions, however, each translate their the objective differently by the way they create the sense of focus within the space. 

Cities are created to bring people together, and with that Tange wanted to connect people through his project; A Plan for Tokyo. He wanted to break away from “existing reality” in order to create something envisioning, a visionary project that gives a new spatial order that brings a new meaning to the city structure and urban architecture. To do so, he designed his plan as something that turns into an organic unity, yet keeping the idea of the core of the city at the same time. He used the linear system so that people can not only connect within their community but also to their surroundings, such as building into the sky and the sea. Examples of that includes the sky house and A Plan for Tokyo. From visions to reality, it was regarded that tradition did not play a big appearance in Metabolism. It is not tradition to build into the sky and the sea, nor was it to build in a linear system. As Tange said so himself, “Creative work is expressed in our times in a union of technology and humanity... tradition can to be sure, participate in a piece of creation, but it can no longer by creative itself.”, with that, he convinced people that something that stands between reality and idealism, was what Tokyo needed to rebuild itself and start anew.

Despite having the same intentions, the two architects used very different methods in planning the spaces. With A Plan for tokyo, the approach was to create a linear city, each category split into zones, for example, residents, industry, entertainment etc. The system would allow unlimited expansion, and an even distribution of categories among the landscape. Although the plan was never built, the concept of linear city has been produced into existing projects. The visions the linear city produced, inspired existing works such as the master plan for Astana, the plan for guangzhou pearl riverside area, the national art center in Tokyo, Ocean city, the capsule tower and many more projects. The main criticism for the linear city is how that creates the “heart of the city” The idea of it makes it segregated, and the community is split up. If you compare the original distribution of different areas from after the war and the plan Tange produced, you can clearly see everything is in A plan for Tokyo is separated into sections, disconnected with the sea in between. The system for A Plan for Tokyo is that “it would always be possible to add another unit”, purely the idea of ‘units’ itself, it enough to show how the community will be split up instead of gathered together. 

On the contrary, Kuma took on the European styled compact city, in which everything is bunched up together, surrounded in a box-like system. The reason to do this is so that everything is held together in order to create a close and tight sense of community. The compact city layout has been used internationally, but is it the best way to curate the landscape? In a PHD essay about the compact and linear system, it was argued that the “compact city is insufficient to accommodate urban development and growth of mobility. Central place and compact city approaches are regarded as to limited, incomplete or not fitting the contemporary urban condition and development.”. As it was criticized in a paper that the system of the compact city is ‘limited’ because it creates a certain concentrated space. However at the same time, as the density is created, the space becomes the core of the community. Obviously, that makes everything within the reach convenient and packed, but it creates an uneven distribution of population where in the linear city plans the population is distributed evenly. 

In order to gather and unite people, a focus is needed, and that makes the compact system seems like a successful plan at first. But if you look at the bigger picture, not everyone can afford to live within the centre of the city, and a matter of class system is created. However, a compact system also has it’s strengths, other then how it really gives a sense of it being the “heart of the city”, it gives people a focus point, a place to gather. Humans are creatures that stays in herds, packs, groups, our nature is to stick together and not spread out too thin, and the compact system provides that. By creating multiple compact system, they are like the key of each herd, a bubble for people to stick to. 

The capsule tower as a rare case study of built metabolism structure, which although was a failure, had a very strong compact design. 

“Since the late 1960’s new ideas on spatial planning and design have emerged; a cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism and a economic/technological shift from fordism towards postfordism and postindustrialism can be noticed. This shift is connected with an increase of mobility, flexibility and need for space, connectivity and visibility together with a decentralisation and withdrawal of government influence; ingredients for contemporary (unplanned) corridor development.”

Compressed structures means limitations on flexibility, and if that is the idea of failure, why are cities still built in a compact system, especially when the need of flexibility has been raising. However there are two major issues to that. Close and very close, the capsule tower made people stay too close to each other without being able to adjust their own space, that is one of the reason why it didn’t work. The second is, the idea of each capsule unit can be renovated and upgraded, however with the target audience the capsule house is made for, and the fact that it is in a very expensive area, the people simply did not have the time or the money to alter it. Eventually this lead to the building being a failure. However, the capsule house was like the first test of what the Metabolist movement could bring the architecture, and through it, you can gradually start seeing what would work and what doesn’t. 


With A Plan for Tokyo, they were trying to create something completely inexistent in order to improve Japan’s situation. The idea was to create something completely new through the urban structure in order to accommodate the growing population after the war. To be exact, “...the city population swelled from 2.78 million to 5.38 million.” In order to resolve the issue, Tange proposed the Linear system, not only that it would provide wider and more places to accommodate postwar residents, but unlike the compact city, people would be further spreaded out, giving them their own individual space. The metabolism movement also talks about building into the sky and the sea, with expands the land so that there can be more space for the linear plan to work. 

“As a symbol of its transparency, the legislative assembly hall overlooks the main public space through full-height glazing. In the evening, the inner workings of local government are illuminated within the glass-clad offices, making them even more visible to the outside.”

In Kuma’s City hall, it tried to remove hierarchy by creating transparent glass government offices and connect it with public spaces and the complex itself. At the same time, he used a compact system to create the structure. Within the compact system are “capsules” that are laid out in a linear way. The mixture of capsules, the linear system and a compact layout, not only creates convenience and a sense of security, but also achieved the opposite to a class system. In comparison to the other two projects the city hall has a much more balanced system and it merged the need of flexibility, the requirement of transparency and the idea of community together into one design. 

Although many of the metabolism projects were never placed into construction, whether consciously or unconsciously, architects today has constantly re-interpreted the visions from the metabolism into smaller and more realistic projects. The similarities of Tange’s plan for Tokyo’s bay and Kuma’s city hall as sketched out how previous visions can be adapted and placed into a practical use. As part of the Megastructure movements, metabolism has made a direct impact onto architecture today. Our history has shown us what compact and linear cities can do, now either we choose one as the better system or we create a even better one. If you think about it, all three case studies are both compact and linear at one point, and achieving the balance between both those structures, will be the best solution to organizing the site. An example of a hybrid of both system is clearest in Kuma’s city hall project, the structure of the building itself is linear, yet organized in a transparent compact way. Everything is laid out evenly, without hierarchy and at the same time its still all held together. So maybe, everything should be in some sort of capsule, and then lined up in a linear system, instead of compact.

In an idealistic absolute world the linear city would be better, however the existence of hierarchy caused the idea to be rejected. On the other hand, although the compact city seems more practical in a sense that it holds the core of the city, it also has its limitations in adjustability. As Collins has stated; “Although the linear planning of cities has never won popular support among professional planners, it has, paradoxically enough, been the natural pattern of growth of our great urban regions.”14, we as human beings always eventually turn back into a linear system of planning, so why not just stick with that in the first place? A solution would be is to use the linear city, but have compact sections attached to it. Like leaves of a branch, and like how tokyo bay is actually laid out. That would not only be able to create a sense of community within each unit, but also have flexibility in how we control the space. The metabolism movement may seem like a failure at first, but in fact those extremist projects have created the basis of tomorrow’s visions. The ambition has been translated into inspiration for today’s design decisions and that is also the reason how compact and linear cities directed the structure of contemporary architecture.




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