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'Metabolic City' opens visions of how people could live

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2009 - We go to art museums expecting close encounters of the aesthetic kind -- that is, direct, one-on-one experiences with objects made by artists. Architectural exhibits are a horse of a different color. Very few of them can display their ostensible subjects: buildings. (The Guggenheim Museum's retrospective earlier this year of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright within one of his masterpieces, the New York museum itself, represents a notable exception.)

Exhibits of drawings, plans, elevations and models, even when by an architect's own hand, are always about something other than what we see in front of us. Museums present those objects to recall absent buildings, to evoke spaces that we must experience in other places, at other times. Architectural exhibits make us think about what we do not see as much, if not more, than what we do.

This holds true especially for shows of the work of visionary architects. By "visionary," we mean architects who conceive of a future radically different than the present, whose notions seem far ahead, or just out, of their own time. By "visionary architecture," we generally mean buildings that are not, or cannot be, built.

When we look at exhibits of visionary architecture, we look at the visual representation of ideas and ideals. We have to make an imaginative leap along with the architects themselves and picture a built environment that never existed and probably never could, yet that might hold the seeds of how things could be and possibly will.

'Mmetabolic City'

"Metabolic City," one of three special exhibits now at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, juxtaposes the work of three groups of visionary architects and urban planners: the Japanese Metabolists, who inspired the show's title; the British collective Archigram, and the Situationist International, represented here solely by one of its founders, the Dutch artist known simply as Constant (born Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys).

All three groups were active primarily during the 1960s, a decade remembered for its visionaries in many fields of endeavor (think Martin Luther King or the Apollo 11 Moon landing). All three envisioned vast new edifice complexes that would break definitively with the past and change the way we live. And all three thought to some degree of buildings and cities as living, breathing organisms, functioning like circulatory or nervous systems, or the then-nascent technology of computer circuitry -- mega-metabolisms for processing resources, information and people.

Yet, while premised upon this notion, the exhibit underplays it. Refreshingly, "Metabolic City" only sparingly deploys the sort of didactic texts that usually overwhelm such shows and make them feel like classroom drudgery; it forces us to actually examine the objects and images at hand to glean what we can of the architects' proposals.

A number of drawings and collages sit propped up on a modular display counter of white enameled metal that snakes around the gallery, along with three-dimensional models created by Washington University students (that, unfortunately, often illustrate projects unmentioned elsewhere in the show). Other framed works ring the walls, dwarfed by a few wallpapered blowups.

This clever staging strikes exactly the right retro-futuristic note for the exhibit of historical yet forward-looking projects. It feels very 2001 -- "2001: A Space Odyssey," that is, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie (another visionary product of the era) of spacecraft with curving surfaces in pristine, gleaming white. The installation even evokes that cinematic epic with a film of Constant's imagined city, New Babylon, projected on a slanted, clear Plexiglas screen, which we can watch from a pair of sleek black vinyl seats (revealed by close inspection to have been commandeered from a Mini Cooper), as if we sat in the cockpit of an interplanetary vessel. Open the pod bay doors, Hal!

Constant's New Babylon

But if the design of "Metabolic City" makes it eminently manifest that the exhibit shows us how architects once envisioned the future, it leaves it to us to discern exactly what kind of future they advocated.

Constant's New Babylon, for instance, pictured in the film and several small reproductions embedded in the countertop, appears labyrinthine and oppressive. The single actual drawing included, from 1969 -- large, square, drab, in colored pencil with stenciled shading like benday dots -- resembles nothing so much as an update of one of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Carceri, those 18th-century images of fantastic and infernal prisons. A transcribed quote even finds Constant boasting in 1966 that "in the enormous sectors of New Babylon I have eliminated daylight altogether, because people are breaking free more and more anyhow, especially from the rhythms of nature. Man wants to follow his own nature."

Disorienting, cut off from sunlight and nature, Constant's ever expanding global city-entity does not seem much like a place we would want to live. In fact, rather than utopian, his conception of the future appears decidedly unpleasant and dystopian. We can wonder -- the exhibit never addresses such issues -- whether he actually intended New Babylon as a model, or if it served as metaphor or cautionary tale. Our culture does not have such fond memories of the first Babylon.


Archigram visualized a brighter prospect. Vibrantly colored drawings and snappy collages outline various schemes dreamed up by the architects of the group.

Many of these appear fairly lighthearted, such as the prints of Ron Herron's 1966 Leisure Study: Inflatable Units Sea / Land / Air, which picture "Seaside Bubbles," presumably vacation cottages, as small multicolored blimps tied to mooring masts both above and below the waterline of a harbor. The appealingly cartoony renderings of this project look like stills from "Yellow Submarine," the animated Beatles film that would appear two years later.

Prints of Herron's 1964 Walking City envisage vast, ocean liner-like buildings on telescoping legs striding through the landscape, anticipating Imperial AT-AT Walkers, the stomping battle tanks from "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). We can only imagine the environmental destruction a Walking City would similarly leave in its wake.

Archigram enthusiastically cultivated a two-way relationship with pop culture, taking many of its cues as well from Pop Art, particularly the British variety of artists such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake (who famously designed the 1967 "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover). Those artists' collage aesthetic finds its way into the Instant City project.

Herron's print Typical Configuration--Santa Monica & San Diego Freeway Intersection, LA, 1969, ostensibly an illustration of a sort of inflatable tent city, foregrounds an image of a doe-eyed blonde who looks like Sharon Tate.

Peter Cook's collage Airship M3, 1968, shows a sleepy country town visited by a zeppelin festooned with fluttering banners that bear the visages of more blonde model-types.

And Warren Chalk and David Greene's zippy 1969 Electronic Tomato collage eschews architecture altogether for a Twiggy lookalike doing the frug with an oversize vegetable.

The use of attractive women as decorative window dressing -- a motif shared with much art and commercial advertising of the time -- forces us to ask exactly for whom the all-male members of Archigram imagined their future?

Greene and Michael Webb seem to answer that question in their Dream City Project / Story of the Thing, 1963, which juxtaposes militaristic dirigibles and astronauts with snippets of text that include "Story of the Thing for boys at heart."

In fact, the gendered undertones of the gee-whiz, comic-book vision made explicit by such works seem to permeate the exhibit as a whole, which constitutes an almost exclusively male preserve. The single exception, British architect Alison Smithson -- included as an influence and precursor -- created the photomontage and two drawings on view in collaboration with her husband, Peter.

The 1960s, of course, saw the birth of contemporary feminism, but that development does not seem to have registered much with these architects, despite their professed concern with progressive social structures and changing lifestyles. It likewise appears to have escaped the notice of the exhibit's curator, Heather Woofter, a professor of architecture at Washington University, who loses a pedagogical opportunity for critical distance on the conceit of the "visionary."

Other Archigram projects also appear off-putting in hindsight. Webb's Cushicle, seen in a 1966 orange and blue sectional drawing, comprises a transportable, inflatable one-person pod -- so many works here seem to involve inflatable pods -- apparently designed to isolate its user from the outside world with a reclining couch and various apparatus for plugging in -- whether for entertainment or something else remains unclear. Like New Babylon or the 1960s office cubicles its name echoes, the Cushicle embodies sentiments of profound alienation and escapism, part and parcel of the druggy counterculture of the day. Turn on, tune in, drop out.

Cook's 1964 diagram of a cross-section of Plug-In City features exposed structural elements and conduits, and systems color-coded by function. It may well have influenced the corresponding elements of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's 1977 Centre Pompidou in Paris. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pompidou lent many of the works that appear in the exhibit.

The plan of Plug-In City: Paddington East, Expendable Place Pads, 1966, features designated areas for electric car routes, monorails, travelators, entertainment nodes, local goods depots and, in a nod to Buckminster Fuller, an "independent tensegrity tower"; the schematic recalls Tomorrowland, but, like the Disney theme park, seems rather regimented and controlled, and neglects to address how people might actually live. And on the printed map of Dennis Crompton's Map of England with Spread of Plug-In City, 1965, crosshatched circles surrounding urban centers merge into megalopoli, consuming the landscape. The problem with dreams of infinitely expandable architecture is that they tend to expand infinitely, crowding out other nice things, like nature.

Metabolist Group

The Metabolist group concerned themselves more directly with the way their creations might interact with real places and environments, as well as with the notion of built structures as quasi-organic life forms. Kisho Kurokawa's 1965 series of ink-on-tracing-paper drawings, each titled Diagram, resemble splitting cells or hairy plants, with no real clue as to how we might understand these as relating to manmade constructions. One drawing even overlays an outline of Japan with a network of lines and hubs, making the entire country into a blank slate for a neural net of architectural interventions.

While Kurokawa's sketches look far more abstract than diagrammatic, the Metabolists, unlike Constant or Archigram, did have actual and specific architectural problems in mind -- namely, the rebuilding of postwar Japan. Yet, based on the examples included here, their solutions come across as unrealistic as those by the other groups. Kiyonori Kikutake, for instance, wrote in 1960 that if his Marine City, a proposed extension of Tokyo into the sea, "becomes an unsatisfactory unit for the community, it will be brought to the middle of the ocean and sunk there without the least hesitation" -- a nobly civic-minded action, perhaps, but one unlikely to pass muster with either financial or environmental regulators.

Perspective, a 1961 drawing in India ink, pencil and red pencil on tracing paper for Kurokawa's Floating City, another attempt to envision the ocean as a suitable site for human habitation, shows a suburban neighborhood with pods and parklands built on the surface of the water. Sailboats and helicopters glide by, while a boy in shorts and a straw hat holds a butterfly net as he surveys the scene. A caterpillar dangles from a silken thread in the center. It has the innocent optimism of an illustration from a children's book.

The same architect's Helix City, Tokyo, Japan, made up of skyscrapers shaped like the double strands of DNA (a structure that scientists had only discovered eight years before), meant to function as expandable frameworks for more pods. The meticulous and precise 1961 pencil rendering of a cross section of one of the buildings serves to remind us that architects' drawings can make ideas visible in gorgeously incisive ways.

Fumihiko Maki

Fumihiko Maki, represented in the exhibit chiefly by a large photomural that pictures a slightly tatty 1968 model for his Golgi Structure, named after an apparatus found in cells, actually left a built legacy in St. Louis. As a professor of architecture at Washington University, he designed Steinberg Hall, a handsome if fairly conventional building, which opened on the campus in 1960, before he returned to Japan and became part of the Metabolist group. Steinberg Hall housed the university's art collection for many years, as well as the art and architecture library and the department of art and archaeology.

Long after the Metabolist heyday, the university commissioned Maki to design the new Kemper Museum itself, which opened in 2006, as well as nearby Walker Hall. These buildings, too, despite their merits, appear less indebted to the Metabolists' radical thought-experiments than to a late-Modernist conception of buildings as well proportioned, well behaved, stone-clad boxes. Yet the fact that "Metabolic City" is housed within a collection of buildings designed by one of its subjects leads to a bit of disappointment that Maki's contribution to the Metabolist movement receives so little attention and that the exhibit does not address whether any relationship exists between the innovation of his unrealized projects and the rather staid appearance of his actual buildings.

We can see Maki and the other architects in "Metabolic City" in part as anti-Modernists, going against the grain of the mainstream, at least during the period treated by the exhibit. Form does not necessarily follow function in their projects on view; practicality and plausibility were not primary goals, nor, to any large degree was rationality.

While early Modernists desired to use architecture to improve and update the lifestyles of multitudes of people, by the 1960s, the building of huge office towers and apartment blocks had largely supplanted those ideals. The architects of "Metabolic City," of course, shared Modernism's early desires, but also, in common with later Modernist aspirations, held somewhat megalomaniacal ambitions for vast, transformative projects that tended to disregard any thoughts of what real impact they might have on the environment -- the chief concern of our own moment.

That may be what dates Constant, Archigram and the Metabolists the most, making their plans seem quaint, relics of a bygone, more naive era. Like coeval narratives of space travel and exploration, these architects dreamed big, expressing the hopes and anxieties of their time, but what they envisioned was never to be, and always remained science fiction.

About the author

Joseph R. Wolin is a New York-based critic, curator and professor.