What do a Post War Japan and Pre-Crisis Miami have in common?
By Wesley Kean and Christan McConnell of KoDA
After learning more about the Metabolists, their ideas for a new architecture and an entirely new urbanism, I couldn't help but see the parallel to a Sea-level vulnerable Miami.
It starts with the basic idea of detaching the built environment from the ground plane. The Metabolists - a group of young Japanese architects, graphic designers and product designers- wanted to show respect for the ground plane. After all, the ground is where we grow our food, store our water and re-generate our resources such as wood, sand (concrete and glass), stone, water, etc. When Hiroshima devastated the northern Japanese territory, these creatives realized that the only thing remaining was the natural landscape. Everything man-made was completely gone, forgotten, erased; as if it never really existed. At this moment, the Metabolists realized that the land should be reserved and preserved, and the built environment, since it's artificial anyway, should be built above ground and detached. The result was arguably the last avant-garde movement in architecture and urban planning, among other design trades.
Why is this important within the Miami context? Well, because once you detach the built environment from the ground plane, the threshold, boundary, or "edge" becomes irrelevant! If you look at development across the entire east-coast, especially Miami, you will see that the highest values are on the water. In fact, developers try to get as close to the water as possible- even going through structural gymnastics with expansive cantilevered balconies. Imagine for a second that your hotel is not on the beach, next to the ocean, but actually IN THE OCEAN, or in our case, Biscayne Bay.
The answer is not in Venice, not in Amsterdam, certainly not in New Orleans, but in a post-war Japan. A time where architects were forced to become critical thinkers, re-inventors of urbanization, and archetypes as we know them.
Miami has always been a MARINE CITY. Looking back to the early raised structures of the Tequesta tribes, who were the early occupiers of the land, to modern day developments like Stiltsville, or the man-made islands such as the Venetian, Bay Harbor, etc. There's also the Miami Marine Stadium, a structure built on the edge to celebrate power boat racing.
The idea of developing Biscayne Bay may make most ecologists cringe, but what if there were a way to design the structures to strengthen the ecology, specifically coral reef and mangrove regeneration? Could foundation structures serve as artificial reefs- ecosystems for harvesting local fish? Could we return the mangroves back to the bay by defining the MARINE CITY parks with mangroves and other coastal landscapes?
Miami is the perfect city to be under water. The majority of our buildings are wrapped with Florida keystone, which at one time was a reef. When the city eventually becomes taken over by the sea, the buildings will return to their natural state- a coral reef system. This will drive the preservationist crazy. But at a certain point, we need to consider what we are preserving. Does the experience of staying at a hotel in Miami Beach change when you no longer enter through the historic lobby, but rather from the floor above it? Are there elements of these historic structures that could be reinterpreted in place? In this scenario, what does the lobby become? In our pursuance of the MARINE CITY, we plan on addressing these issues along with many others.
Once we realize that we can detach from the ground plane, the location of the edge is less important. Urbanization and development becomes limitless. We become completely resilient! It just so happens that Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists had the answers to the test more than 50 years ago.
Each year, we ask our summer interns to focus on a research project in addition to contributing to our on-going projects in the office. This summer, Christan McConnell, a 3rd year Masters student at the Florida International University, School of Architecture, dove into the book, PROJECT JAPAN, Metabolism Talks... By Rem Koohaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Her goal was to continue the conversation of the link between Metabolism and Sea-Level-Rise vulnerability because she felt a particular responsibility to do so as an intern architect, mentoring in Miami Beach. Here are her thoughts..
When I first began studying the Metabolism movement I was very confused as to what exactly it was. The Internet is full of brief explanations of it, but the thing that I had the most trouble understanding was why it is not a prominent way of looking at design in today’s industry? It seemed to be a lost idea that came about in the 1960s. This bothered me because from each brief explanation that I read online, it seemed like a very advanced and revolutionary way of thinking about future urban development. I began to dig deeper into this movement, and the more I learned, the more I realized that the movement has actually had a huge impact on architecture, it is just not always clearly vocalized.
The first thing I had to figure out was what exactly this movement was all about. If I had to describe the metabolism movement in just a few of my own words I would describe it as a way of combining all our urban needs into one city that is in itself flexible, transformable, and capable of growth depending on specific needs at specific times. It starts with the basic idea of detaching the built environment from the ground plane. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolists wanted to show respect for the ground plane after an atomic bomb destroyed everything man- made in the Japanese Territory during World War II. They took a very philosophical approach to architecture and urban development, a biological growth of architecture. It is based on the idea that spatial relationships, change, process, and growth are meant to take the place of actual location.
The founders of the metabolism movement are Kisho Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Masato Otaka, and Kiyonori Kikutake. The designs that they presented all proposed technological advancements far beyond their time and many people were very skeptical of their effectiveness. They continued to pursue their designs anyway. The thing that really stuck with me is that these architects realized that a new way of living and a new type of urban development would eventually be necessary. I feel like if more architects had began incorporating the concept of metabolism into their designs early on, then we may have been more prepared for the current impending issue of the sea level rising, a topic I will discuss later.
In my research of examples of Metabolism, one that stood out was Kenzo Tange's 1960 Plan for Tokyo. It was his interpretation of how to expand the city across the bay, since the water was rising at such a rapid pace. He designed one axis built across the bay that was specifically for cars and traveling, while pedestrians could travel through a series of expressways. The design also consisted of a huge fleet of units up to 300m wide, with roots that appeared to float in the water. Tange’s design really initiated the Metabolism movement.
The Sky House, a much smaller scale example of metabolism, was designed by Kiyonori Kikutake for himself in 1958. The house consists of both permanent and temporary spaces that allow for other subspaces, with the possibility of removal. This house immediately caught my attention because of its practicalness. Families are always expanding and contracting, new babies are born, and other kids are moving out on their own. It only seems logical that houses be movable and transformable to accommodate changes in growth. In the Sky House, the children’s room, kitchen, and bathroom were designed as units that could be moved or changed in size. The roof acts as a floating volume that also allows for movement. It is one elevated single volume with an endless amount of possibilities on how you can use the spaces. This is my favorite example of metabolism because it shows a more attainable goal of what metabolism could be in today’s world.
This leads me to the most important issue of today, the sea level rising, most specifically in the Miami area. After learning more about the Metabolists, their ideas for a new architecture, and an entirely new urbanism, I couldn't help but see the parallel to a sea-level vulnerable Miami. Sea level has risen about eight inches in Miami Beach since 1915 and according to the bipartisan Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, seas in South Florida could rise another half a foot by 2030, and two more feet by 2060. Sea-level rising also threatens the source of Miami Beach’s drinking water—the Everglades. Miami has the largest amount of exposed assets and the fourth-largest population vulnerable to sea-level rise in the world.
As real as this threat is, I rarely see people who are passionate about making a change, and more frequently come across people who deny the problem entirely. For example, one of my professors sent out an email invitation to an event that featured a discussion on sea level rise and how it affects our city. Not one architecture student attended the discussion. This blew my mind because these future architects are the ones who will have to decide on a new way to build Miami; they will need to figure out new and innovative ways in which we can continue to accommodate a growing population while also accommodating the rise in sea level.
The idea of building a civilization on water that can grow and expand when necessary is a civilization that is able to adapt to new conditions and thrive. In earlier phases of metabolism, technology was not able to support these types of designs, but in today’s world, these ideas can become a reality. If architects draw inspiration from an example like “City on Tokyo Bay”, they could create this type of civilization in Miami. The idea of developing over the water is nothing new. This time, however, we need to learn from our mistakes and collaborate with ecologists, engineers, stakeholders, politicians, etc. to develop a new urbanism capable of accommodating the inevitable rise in sea level.
I personally like the idea of building up instead of out. One example of this would be Isozaki’s “Clusters in the Air”. This example featured tree- like structures that grew into the air. The central “trunks” contained circulation and services, and the “leaves” were cantilevered residential units. Although, something like this would come with many obstacles and difficulties, I believe that these innovative examples need to be examined more closely so that we can begin applying them to future design and sustainability.
Sea- level rising is a controversial issue, and unfortunately ignored by many in the Miami area, where it could impact the most. To be completely honest, I never took it very seriously myself, but after studying the effects of the rising sea levels, I am definitely nervous. I am scared for my future children and their children not being able to enjoy the same coastal attractions I get to enjoy. Instead of developing more inland, I believe we should start focusing on more efficient solutions and begin developing ways in which we can adapt to water levels rising and build upon it so that our cities can continue to grow. I, myself, hope to continue studying this idea throughout the rest of my college career and into my professional career. I hope to be a part of the movement that decides to begin facing the issue of sea level rise and creating ways in which urban development can be reinvented on water.