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  • John Barr

Kiyonori Kikutake (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

Mutsuko Smith-Kikutake, widow of Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake has described her husband as: a person of such a gentle soul who would pick up a fallen leaf or pine cone and admire it or: be inspired and touched by the moon. Nonetheless, in the office situation: he was very, very strict… there would be yelling and throwing of things and ripping of papers that people had worked on for several days without sleep.1 But these two aspects of Kikutake’s personality, one gentle and reflective, the other driven and aggressive are not what leads me to compare him to Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional character.2 It is not Kikutake himself, but his work that exhibits the characteristics of a split personality…

Kiyonori Kikutake is best known as one of the founding members of the Japanese Metabolists, along with fellow architects Takashi Asada, Kisho Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Masato Otaka, designers Kiyoshi Awazu and Kenji Ekuan, and author and architectural critic Noboru Kawazoe. Out of all of these, it was Kikutake who most consistently pursued the original Metabolist ideas throughout his career. Kurokawa’s work moved away from Metabolism after completion of the Nagakin Capsule Tower (probably the most iconic built example of Metabolism). Maki and Otaka both moved away from Metabolism quite early, jointly developing the idea of Group Form, which Maki has continued to develop throughout his career, most notably in a series of projects at Hillside Terrace in Daikanyama, Tokyo, while Otaka became increasingly interested in prefabrication.

Nagakin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, Kisho Kurokawa (1972)

The building in context.

Hillside Terrace, Tokyo, Fumihiko Maki. Completed in six phases (1966-1992)

An example of Group Form: 'Neutral Buildings used in the Formation of Place.' Fumihiko Maki

Hillside Terrace, Tokyo, Fumihiko Maki. Completed in several phases (1966-1979)

'The street space becomes a screen, or something like the skin of the body. The exterior membranes of buildings and the street itself are the elements producing street space. But mere juxtaposition is insufficient for the creation of true street space; a morphological dialogue between the two is essential.' Fumihiko Maki

Chiba Prefectural Central Library, Masato Otaka (1968)

The beginnings of Otaka's engagement with prefabrication.

Chiba Prefectural Central Library, Masato Otaka (1968)

Entrance canopy, where prefabricated elements are revealed.

Meike Schalk, writing about the quest for sustainability in architecture, has suggested that most recent proposals are likely to have minimal impact because they are based on technical solutions to individual buildings and do not approach the wider social, cultural and political issues that must be addressed if truly sustainable communities are to be realised:

The term (sustainability) is mainly used to refer to recent ecotechnical building solutions, new materials, and ecolabeling, and rarely to social and cultural settings and practices.3

In expanding her theme she examines how the Metabolists, whilst not using the term sustainability, addressed these wider issues:

(The Metabolists) strove to mediate between an urbanism of large technical, and institutional, infrastructures and individual freedom with an architecture of customized cells and adaptable temporary configurations of dwellings, which could expand and shrink according to need.3

(Metabolism’s) architectures envisioned a complete transformation of Japan as a system of political, social, and physical structures into resilient spatial and organizational patterns adaptable to change.3

I would question the last statement. Whilst Metabolist theories may have explored these issues, Metabolist architectural proposals restricted future change at any meaningful level. Metabolist projects at the city scale presented visions of 1950’s science fiction comic-book cities in which personal freedoms and flexibility were restricted to, at most, the design of the individual cell (and more often only the interior decoration of the individual cell) within a rigid structure established by the authors. Jane Jacobs’ comment on Garden Cities is equally valid here: As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.4

Nagakin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, Kisho Kurokawa (1972)

'The right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.' Jane Jacobs

Notably absent from Metabolist planning is any notion of communal accountability or democratic decision making. Like their comic-book counterparts, the proposed cities are two-dimensional, lacking in depth and, for me, lacking in interest. Kikutake’s overtly Metabolist projects, both built and unbuilt, fall into this category.

Marine City, Unbuilt Proposal, Kiyonori Kikutake (1963).

Stratiform Structure, Various Unbuilt Proposals, Kiyonori Kikutake (1972-1992).

Hotel Sofitel, Tokyo, Kiyonori Kikutake (1994). Demolished 2007.

This strand of Kikutake’s work produced the Mr. Hyde projects. But another strand resulted in the Dr. Jekyll projects and these are much more interesting.

Sky House (1958)

The Sky House was designed by Kikutake for himself and his family and is his first built project. It investigated at the scale of an individual house some of the Metabolist theories that were to be applied at city scale: the creation of a long-life, unchanging structure inside which shorter-life, changeable components could be placed (and re-placed). However, it also introduced a number of other influences that were to appear in projects throughout Kikutake’s career and which are drawn from other sources.

The raising of the house a whole storey off the ground on four massive columns placed mid façade rather than at the corners comes directly from Takamasa Yoshizaka’s Ura House, completed two years earlier. But both Sky House and Ura House reach back to the older tradition of Japanese farmhouses. Whilst the connection is not immediately obvious, it becomes clear when we see a farmhouse under construction; it consists of a large, heavy roof space elevated one storey off the ground and supported on large columns placed around the perimeter. Ground floor facades are then added using lightweight panels and sliding screens that can be opened up or removed to create flexible, ventilated space sitting under the shelter of the roof. Indeed, Sky House eventually saw parts of the ground floor, which had initially been completely open, subsequently filled in by the addition of lightweight facades around the perimeter. Another historic precedent is the traditional Japanese granary, which is essentially the same construction as the farmhouse but with the ground floor always left completely open for ventilation.

Traditional Japanese Farmhouses.

A heavy roof space is lifted on large columns around the perimeter. The ground floor may be left open or enclosed with lightweight screens.

Ura House, Shukugawa, Hyogo Prefecture, Takamasa Yoshizaka (1956) .

Sky House, Tokyo, Kiyonori Kikutake (1958)

As it was at time of construction.

Sky House, Tokyo, Kiyonori Kikutake (1958)

As it is today.

Toyo Ito, who worked in Kikutake’s office before setting up his own practice, has confirmed Kikutake’s interest in traditional farmhouses and in other buildings elevated on columns such as Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Columns to activate space; floor plate to define space became one of the main drivers of Kikutake’s designs. This idea, coupled with his preference for using few, massive columns placed on the perimeter of the building rather than a larger number of smaller columns or internal columns, is evident in many of his projects, starting with Sky House in 1958 and continuing through to the Edo Tokyo Museum in 1993.

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

'Columns to activate space; floor plate to define space.' Kiyonori Kikutake

Gatehouse at Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

Similarities with Sky House are striking.

Administration Building, Izumo Grand Shrine (1963)

After Sky House, Kikutake’s next built project was the Administration Building at Izumo Taisha (Izumo Grand Shrine). Izumo Grand Shrine is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, and one of the most ancient. Many believe that it is the oldest, predating even Ise Shrine. What is interesting in the context of buildings raised on columns is that the shrine as it stands today is not in its original form. It is believed that the original shrine was around 48m in height and was elevated on massive columns placed around the perimeter.

Model representing what is believed to be the original form of Izumo Grand Shrine.

Note the size of a human in order to grasp the scale.

In this instance Kikutake does not pursue his interest in elevated buildings but he does utilise elements of traditional shrine construction, particularly the use of a large ridge beam, which runs the length of the building, supported only at either end, and expressed externally. In his design for the Administration Building Kikutake uses a pair of pre-stressed concrete roof beams that are expressed externally and that span around 40 metres and are supported on stair towers at either end of the building. Precast concrete roof slabs span between the two beams and a series of precast ribs lean against them. These ribs support slender precast concrete horizontal louvres that span between them and, together, these two elements form the inclined facades. Another inspiration for this form of construction is the wooden racks used to dry rice after harvesting, and this is reinforced by the pattern cast into the end walls of the building, which represents rice plants hung up to dry.

Whilst the reference for these decorative castings is Japanese, there is no precedent for this kind of decoration on Japanese buildings and this prompts me to mention another source that I suspect influenced Kikutake’s work to some extent, even if only minor. I can’t help but see traces of Frank Lloyd Wright, both in the geometries of Kikutake’s Metabolist masterplanning projects and here, in the designs cast into the gable walls of the Administration Building. There is no Japanese precedent for these and they do look distinctly Wrightian.

Administration Building, Izumo Grand Shrine, Kiyonori Kikutake (1963). Demolished 2017.

Large ridge beams, visually expressed, span the entire length of the building where they are supported on stair towers at either end.

Administration Building, Izumo Grand Shrine, Kiyonori Kikutake (1963). Demolished 2017.

Interior illustrating precast concrete louvres spanning between inclined concrete ribs.

Administration Building, Izumo Grand Shrine, Kiyonori Kikutake (1963). Demolished 2017.

Rice plant pattern cast into end walls.

Hotel Tōkō-en (1964)

Many believe Hotel Tōkō-en to be Kikutake’s masterpiece and critical study reveals that the design is related less to Metabolist principles and more to the other influences in Kikutake’s work. Whilst the building exhibits a massive structure, which is articulated and visually separated from the volumes that are placed inside it, there is no part of Hotel Tōkō-en that is realistically replaceable, at least no more easily replaced than elements of any other building, and so the idea that it could support metabolic change or growth is fanciful.

The whole structure is supported on six massive column groupings, which are clearly articulated by being separated from the façades. On the entrance side the columns sit outside the façade and on the garden side they sit inside the façade, rising through the middle of the lobby. Ground and first floors house communal facilities such as lobby and reception areas, second, fourth and fifth floors house guest rooms, and the seventh floor houses a banquet room. The sixth floor comprises storage areas and the third floor an open-air terrace.

These last two are required because Kikutake went to great lengths, and considerable expense, to suggest Metabolist principles by suspending two floors of guest rooms from a kind of megastructure. The fourth and fifth floors are suspended from the sixth floor and, in order to both achieve and articulate this, the sixth floor is comprised of windowless storage spaces in order that the facades at that level can be formed from massive girders that support the two floors hung below them, and the third floor is an open terrace in order that the fourth and fifth floors can be seen to be unsupported from below. However, the rooms on the fourth and fifth floors are not removable nor is it noticeable that they are suspended from the structure above. Indeed, a similar effect could have been achieved by conventional means.

Hotel Tōkō-en, Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, Kiyonori Kikutake (1964).

Entrance elevation as it was when opened.

Hotel Tōkō-en, Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, Kiyonori Kikutake (1964).

Garden elevation as it is today.

A refinement introduced by Kikutake’s structural engineer, Gengo Matsui, was the decision to replace massive, single columns with groups of more slender columns. Citing the example of the famous torii gate that stands in the sea at the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine, Matsui designed a cluster of three secondary columns that surround and brace the main column at the lower floors, allowing a relatively slender central column to rise alone through the upper levels. The cross beams that brace the main column by joining it to the secondary columns are staggered in height, replicating the way that timber members would be positioned in order to allow the beams to be notched into the central column.

A more detailed, and excellent, description of the structures of both Hotel Tōkō-en and the Administration Building at Izumo Grand Shrine is provided by Mark Mulligan in his article for Places Journal dated November 2015.5

Hotel Tōkō-en, Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, Kiyonori Kikutake (1964).

Lobby with column grouping rising through; central column braced by three smaller outrigger columns.

Torii Gate, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture.

Main columns rising full height, braced by lower outrigger columns.

Ossuary at Tokuun-ji (1965)

This project was featured in my previous blog: Sabi (A Matter of Life and Death) and most notable for this discussion is Kikutake’s repetition of the device he used at the Administration Building for Izumo Grand Shrine: a large central beam, referencing the ridge beam on traditional shrines, spans between walls located at either end of the building. Beam and walls support a large concrete roof slab from which precast concrete wall panels are suspended. There doesn’t appear to be any intention that the building should be extendable or that there are elements that are intended to be changed or replaced. The references are exclusively historical.

Tokuun-ji, Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kiyonori Kikutake (1965)

Osuary boxes are suspended from the central beam that spans the entire length of the building and is supported on the end walls.

Miyakonojo Civic Hall (1966)

On the face of it this project has none of the references apparent in Kikutake’s other works. A kind of Russian Constructivist fan structure unfolds to encase the main performance space. However, remove that shell and we find Kikutake’s trademark elevated floor slab supported on large columns. In this case the slab is cranked to create changes in level and raked seating areas. The only gesture towards Metabolism seems to be that the fan might be seen as a natural form. Alternatively, it might be seen as a traditional Japanese form. Had the fan been capable of folding and unfolding to create a living structure it would have been a different matter, but that is not the case.

Miyakonojo Civic Hall, Miyazaki Prefecture, Kiyonori Kikutake (1966)

Like a great beetle crouched over the town - but it's a static beetle.

Edo Tokyo Museum (1993)

This late building marks a return to an almost literal interpretation of the form of the traditional Japanese granary. It also marks the last example of Metabolist monumentality, in this case fuelled by the bubble economy of the 1980’s, which ironically had already burst by the time the museum opened in the early 90’s. In a further irony, this monumental demonstration of Japan’s, and in particular Tokyo’s, wealth and power contains an exhibition celebrating local everyday Tokyo life, the city’s human scale and its messy, unplanned spaces. Jordan Sand, commenting on the disparity between the museum building and its exhibits has written:

At the Edo-Tokyo Museum...tension is particularly evident in the contrast between the museum building itself and the subject of its exhibits. A colossal and futuristic structure, the building looms over its neighbors, testimony to the wealth of the Tokyo metropolitan government in the 1980s and to the global position that Japan achieved in those years through successes in high technology. The city it celebrates and whose vestiges it seeks to preserve, on the other hand, has through most of its history comprised only low buildings of perishable materials, and it has lacked the clarity of planning and the large monumental structures of a modern capital.6

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is both the crowning achievement of the populist historiography of Edo-Tokyo studies and the monumental embodiment of an era of cultural nationalism in Japan. It embodies the perennial tension between the city as home to a unique local culture and the city as a site of state power.6

This is the tension that Kikutake and the other Metabolists never resolved.

Edo Tokyo Museum, Tokyo, Kiyonori Kikutake (1993).


What, if anything, do we learn from the two faces of Kikutake's work? I think we learn that grand city masterplans imposed from above (such as Haussmann’s 19th century plan for Paris) were not viable propositions by the middle of the 20th century. Populations who had been led into two World Wars were no longer content to be dictated to in this fashion, as became evident in Japan through the riots prompted by plans to build the new Tokyo International Airport at Narita. In that case the state eventually prevailed and the first runway was opened in 1978, but it had taken more than ten years and had involved considerable violence and several deaths. It took another ten years to complete a second runway, again in the face of delays and ferocious protests.* The state had neither predicted nor expected any of this; it had assumed that, as in the past, the population would fall into line with its plans. It appears that the Metabolists made a similar assumption.

I’m reminded of Takamitsu Azuma’s comment on the formation of ARCHITEXT, a counter Metabolist group established by Azuma along with Minoru Takeyama, Makoto Suzuki, Mayumi Miyawaki and Takefumi Wada in the 1960's. ARCHITEXT offered an alternative to the ‘movements’ that dominated architectural thinking in the 1960’s. In a Japanese context, its direct target was the Metabolists.**

We were a group who vowed not to have a slogan. We were not one of those elites trying to educate the people with our slogans. To us, they looked rather dubious, with a gap between what they said and what they did.7

We also learn that the Metabolists, along with almost everyone else, totally misread the future. There would be a megastructure (not just city-wide but world-wide) into which individual cells could plug, unplug and move around with complete flexibility, and through which individual cells could cluster in an infinite variety of groupings, but it wouldn’t look like a 1950’s, space-age, comic-book city. The megastructure would be the internet and the individual cell would be the mobile phone.

And so Kikutake’s masterplanning projects now look seriously dated and quaint. Not only that, they look like seriously sterile places to live. Who would want to live in that version of Tokyo in preference to the messy, vibrant, human, infinitely varied Tokyo that already exists? I’ve included a link at the end of this article to a visualisation of Kikutake’s Marine City project created by Studio Earth.8 I guess the authors intended to celebrate the project, but the result simply exposes what a barren and restrictive environment it would have been.

Kikutake is at his best, not when he's promoting wholesale change with roots that go no deeper than a paper manifesto, but when he adds incremental change and improvement to existing systems that are deeply rooted. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to the Metabolists. After all it's the way nature actually works : through evolution, not revolution.

*After years of indefinite postponement due to continued opposition, the Japanese government only announced in March of this year that they intend to construct a long-planned, third runway at Narita. Local municipalities have agreed in an effort to halt population drain and spark local revitalisation. How the local population will react remains to be seen.

**See previous post: Two Houses : Part 2 (Azuma House).

1. Mutsuko Smith-Kikutake speaking at Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2012.

2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Longmans Greene

and Co.,1886.

3. The Architecture of Metabolism : Inventing a Culture of Resilience, Meike Schalk, Arts

2014, 3, 279-297; doi:10.3390/arts3020279, Published: 13 June 2014

4. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, first published by Random

House Inc., New York, 1961.

5. Kiyonori Kikutake : Stucturing the Future, Paper by Mark Mulligan in Places Journal,

November 2015.

6. Monumentalising The Everyday : The Edo-Tokyo Museum, Jordan Sand, Routledge,

Critical Asian Studies 33:3, 2001, 351-378.

7. INAX Report 180, interview of Takamitsu Azuma by Nobuaki Furuya, January 2012,

translated by Yushin Toda.

8., CG Animation of Kikutake’s Marine City by Studio Earth.

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