I have to confess – I am a big lover of Japanese Metabolism. It was a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that imagined a better future and firmly believed that technology and spatial design can make it possible. They created three-dimensional infrastructural systems to support human life virtually everywhere. A mini version of earth on earth – by mankind for mankind. Living in a country, the Netherlands, that might look different but that to a large extent only exists based on that thinking I often feel reminded of the power that this belief that solutions are there if we only imagine them still exists. Now, critics might say that Metabolism remained a small collection of currently decaying buildings and that this very thinking brought us where we are now. Man exaggerates his role on earth and exploits about every resource there is to head for a better future at the expense of all other species, ultimately eradicating all life support systems for himself as well. Those critics are right, but in my eyes, this does not discredit the Metabolist idea at all. I believe what is missing is to bring more players into the game – not just humans, also animals and plants – nature as a whole.
Last week I had the chance to visit Expo 2020 in Dubai. There I encountered what that could mean. Visiting the South Korean and the Singapore Pavilion made it evidently clear that Metabolism not only is highly relevant, especially in contexts where high population densities are the norm, it also can become an idea to learn from for the rest of the world. South Korea presents itself with a pavilion that in many ways is pure traditional metabolism. In its architectural language, its conceptualization and the way it is used, it refers to a past that seemed long gone. A period of time in architecture that delivered new ideas about the human being in architectural space. While before being in space was purpose driven – metabolism invented being in architecture as a mode of being human. This pavilion allows for that. You can stroll around and investigate the obligatory show of technological, societal or environmental achievements of the country or enjoy the views across the expo site – but you can also just sit, enjoy, relax – be yourself. The only thing that is strangely absent is green and sound of life that are not human.
Change of scene.
A 5-minute walk, one can encounter the pavilion of Singapore. A structure that is not much different from the Korean one. One can explore, leisurely sit and enjoy views. But there is one striking and fundamental difference: it has been taken over by green. The entire structure seems to have mutated into a jungle. Woha – the Singapore based architecture firm that designed the pavilion turned a Metabolist utilitarian structure into an ecosystem that is not only for mankind but for fauna and flora equally. In a way this approach creates Metabolism in the full meaning of the word, whereas the definition of the architectural movement was mainly focussing on replacing the old way of living, organizing society and space with the new. I believe there is a lot more in this approach. Transcending the division between man and nature and reuniting it holds the potential to create ecosystemic buildings or built ecosystems that are tackling climate change and overuse of resources.
While Woha’s pavilion might be the most direct and extreme interpretation of this unification, a number of predecessors that paved the way can be seen in Singapore. Of course, the city with its warm and humid climate is a place made for this type of approach, but with some technical support it also is possible in the heat of Dubai, and it could also become a possibility elsewhere. While Metabolism was born in the dense urban conditions of an Asian metropolis and Singapore also is a representative of this kind of urbanism, we nevertheless can learn from this approach and apply the Green Metabolism to other urban conditions. There is nothing that prevents us from giving up the divide we have constructed between man and the environment, and I believe we should give it a try to create buildings and entire cities not as buildings for humans but as ecosystems.
by Markus Appenzeller