Rethinking Metabolic Rift: Tokyo: Architecture Between Scales and Typologies

Can Tokyo be a cultural city, a city that is cognizant of the “metabolic rift”—the often-inevitable environmental degradation that accompanies urbanization—and yet committed to confronting and even repairing it? Can it seek and imagine an alternative strategy, an architecture, that is more attuned to the nuances of relations between the social and the natural worlds and between scales and typologies of construction?

The proliferation of large urban developments in Tokyo is symptomatic of the increasing privatization of the public domain. Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown, Toranomon Hills, COREDO Muromachi, and Azabudai Hills are among the completed megaprojects by a handful of big developers that are rapidly and dramatically changing the urban landscape and public life of the city.

The consumerist culture embedded in these technically accomplished and often lavishly made developments can be alluring. But these privately owned public spaces can also be exclusionary and challenging for the public to occupy and use with the same degree of freedom as they would a city street. Despite their thermal comfort and irresistible charm, these megaprojects seem blatantly to defy Henri Lefebvre’s argument for “the right to the city” and its implied erasure of social and spatial inequity.

This option studio will explore an alternative strategy based on the simultaneous choreography of a multitude of architectural ideas and interventions—of different scales and typologies, hybrids—that represent the needs and desires of Tokyoites to live together. Our intention is to shift the emphasis in contemporary development from the economies of scale to the economies of scope, an approach characterized by variety rather than volume.

The location for the projects will be a series of urban sites close to Ueno and the public park that was established in the nineteenth century. The park contains several museums and cultural institutions, including the city’s zoo and the National Museum of Western Art, the only building by Le Corbusier in Japan. The area also encompasses two of Tokyo’s foremost academic institutions, the University of Tokyo and Tokyo University of the Arts.

The area of investigation by the studio will be the urban spine connecting these institutions to the nearby neighborhood of Yanesen. The framing of the programs will take into consideration a diversity of topics, including culture and the everyday, the changes in the demography of Tokyo, the needs of young and old, the future consequences of degrowth, as well as alternative conceptions of the relation between architecture and nature.

If Ueno Park represents the nineteenth-century vision of culture/nature, how can the phenomenon be reconceptualized today? How can architecture’s situatedness within a broader environmental agenda help structure our contemporary projects? To achieve this task, each student will choose their own site/s and program/s with the aim of designing an architectural intervention or ensemble that will reconsider and question the role of scale and typology as a means of enhancing the quality of life of the district.

The studio will meet regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays and will travel to Tokyo in February. During this period, we will meet with several architects and academics, and participate in tours and talks with scholars including Kumiko Kiuchi and Shunya Yoshimi, one of Japan’s foremost scholars on Tokyo. Tom Heneghan, Mits Kanada, Yusuke Obuchi and Kayoko Ota will guide us through parts of our area. As in previous years, Professor Mits Kanada, a structural engineer who has worked with Toyo Ito and other contemporary architects, will act as the technical advisor to the studio.