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Illustration showing yellow images and text against a navy blue background. The images consist of semi-circular shaped networks of capsules, cranes, and mechanical arms. The words 'FOR AN INSTANT', 'MOMENT-VILLAGE', 'soft', and 'service' are interspersed between the images.

Why would an architect want to dismantle a city? Scholar Ariel Genadt speaks to M+ about creation, destruction, and the alchemy between Isozaki Arata and Archigram ca. 1970

Sepia-toned photocollage showing a barren landscape of city ruins. Two megastructures rise from the background, and a small building sits in the centre-left of the frame. In the distance is a low range of mountains.

Arata Isozaki’s Re-ruined Hiroshima (1968), a photocollage inspired by his exhibition at the Milan Triennale XIV. © Arata Isozaki; Image courtesy of Arata Isozaki & Associates

Japanese architect Isozaki Arata first crossed paths with the British collective Archigram in 1968. Both were exhibiting at the Milan Triennale XIV, an exhibition themed around designing for the ‘greater number’, but their works could not have been more different.

In one room of the show, Archigram engineered a lively vision of the future: a life-sized jumble of speculative drawings, pop culture references, and a robot-themed film, all encased in a giant plastic tube. In another room, Isozaki presented a brooding maze of motion-activated panels covered in images of ghosts and dead bodies, lit by a projection of a megastructure collapsing into a bombed-out Hiroshima.

When Isozaki and Archigram met again at Expo ’70 in Osaka, the ways they presented their architectural visions seemed to have reversed. This time, it was Isozaki who presented a high-tech, futuristic spectacle with modular structures and a pair of giant flashing robots. Archigram, meanwhile, took the more introspective approach: on the roof of the expo’s main plaza, the collective installed a cavernous capsule, where visitors received a leaflet hailing the disintegration of cities.

Monochrome photograph showing a square podium in the middle of an outdoor expo plaza. A man stands at a microphone at the front of the podium. Five men sit behind him, and three women flank each side. In the background, a large seated crowd watches the speech. Next to the crowd is a large square-shaped robot with two circular appendages at the top. From the metallic roof of the expo plaza hang banners and elongated capsules. A number of national flags stream from flag poles in the distance.

Isozaki designed the robots and modular seating areas at the Festival Plaza of Expo ’70 in Osaka. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

What inspired this shift? And why were these architects interested in collapsing, dissolving, and dismantling cities? Following his presentation at Archigram Cities in 2020, scholar and architect Ariel Genadt unfolds the camaraderie, contradictions, and mutual inspiration between Isozaki and Archigram, revealing the insights their exchange could yield for confronting the environmental transition today.

What drew you to investigate 1960s–1970s architecture in Japan and the UK?

I see myself more as a theorist than a historian, so I often look at topics across cultures, times, and places and then imagine how the topics might relate to some of the issues we’re facing today. In this case, I examined the terms ‘destruction’ and ‘dismantling’ seen throughout Isozaki Arata and Archigram’s works. These terms are especially relevant of late due to climate change and the clashes between artificial and natural environments. During the 1960s and 1970s, there always loomed a question of how technology might interface between us and the environment, and what the architect’s role should be in that relationship.

Monochrome collage showing an assortment of high-rise buildings overlaid with an illustration of a covered, elevated walkway. Two women wearing dresses and capes are in the foreground. Over and around the walkway are the words 'CHOICE', 'RESPOND', 'COMFORT', 'INDETERMINATE', 'EMANCIPATION', 'METAMORPHOSIS', and 'HARD SOFT'. Above them all in extra-large font is the word 'OASIS'.

This collage from Archigram Issue 8 (1968) heralds an ‘oasis’ of emancipation, choice, and comfort in a city overlaid with a megastructure. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

What conditions in the 1960s led to this rise of projects exploring technology and the environment?

The early 1960s saw a new phase of post-war reconstruction in both Europe and Japan, with more financial capital and scientific innovation than in the 1940s and 1950s. But there was something strange about that time. After World War I, there had been real scepticism about technology and ‘progress’, including in architecture, because of the horrors of war that technology had brought. But we don’t see that after World War II. In the 1960s, technology was all the rage—from air conditioning to space rockets. It was seen as something that was going to save humanity, despite the growing threat of an atomic apocalypse. Those were the years when Japan built itself out of the ashes relying on technologies like energy-producing nuclear reactors.

During the 1960s and 1970s, there always loomed a question of how technology might interface between us and the environment, and what the architect’s role should be in that relationship.

Ariel Genadt

At the same time, many people associate the 1960s with a romantic return to nature and flower power movements. That idea played out in widening the field of architecture into something called kankyō in Japanese, or ‘environment’. This was an interdisciplinary artificial realm, a different concept from the so-called ‘natural environment’. We can see it as an early recognition of what we now call the Anthropocene, but without any of the guilt or responsibility associated with it in the twenty-first century.

How did these conditions bring Isozaki and Archigram together?

Politically, we need to speak of the contexts of the UK and Japan. Both countries were destitute empires, trying to make their place in the second tier among world powers. While the Americans and the Russians were occupying centre stage playing Cold War games, the British and Japanese were collaborating and developing a mutual cultural fascination. Maybe Isozaki and Archigram’s involvement can be seen as an architectural sublimation of that political atmosphere.

Isozaki and Archigram were both invited to contribute to the Milan Triennale in 1968. There, they hit it off, and Archigram co-founder Peter Cook invited Isozaki to co-teach a studio at UCLA. When they met again at Expo ’70 in Osaka, they’d already established a friendship and were aware of their common interests and differences. Their mutual inspirations continued to play out in their publications, including the final Archigram Issue 9½ (1974) and Isozaki’s collection of essays, Dismantling Architecture (Kenchiku no kaitai, 1975).

Monochrome magazine cover showing the words 'ARCHIGRAM 9 1/2' in title font. The cover includes a collage of architectural structures, interspersed with the words 'Expro', 'BUMPs' and '...and crevices'.

Cover of Archigram Issue 9½ (1974). © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

You’ve often described the works of Archigram and Isozaki as having an ‘ambivalent’ quality. What do you mean by that?

I borrow the term from Peter Cook. In 1976, Cook invited Isozaki to give a lecture at the Architectural Association (AA) in London, where he introduced his friend as an ‘architect in ambivalence’. But to understand the context of this term, we need to return to the 1960s and the loosely defined architectural movement we now call postmodernism.

A general recurring thread in postmodern thought is a critique of the modernist idea of having one absolute truth that could be applied everywhere. The late American architect Robert Venturi set the stage for the application of postmodern ideas in architecture with his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966): he preferred ‘both–and’ (‘black and white, and sometimes grey’) instead of ‘either–or’.

Venturi’s book was widely read in Japan at the time, as was Isozaki’s book Dismantling Architecture, which discussed Archigram and Venturi. Isozaki assessed how they and other architects have critiqued modernism, grouping their strategies under five key words: Apathy, Alien, Ad-hoc, Ambiguity, and Absence. Venturi, Archigram, and Isozaki shared some of those strategies. However, it seems to me that what distinguished Archigram and Isozaki from Venturi was that they were not so keen on ‘grey’ but preferred both black and white at the same time.

Sepia-toned book cover with the words 'Dismantling Architecture' and 'Isozaki Arata' in Japanese in title font. Beneath the title are several lines of subheading in Japanese. At the bottom of the cover is an illustration of a large ovoid megastructure superimposed on the ruins of a city.

Cover of Isozaki’s Dismantling Architecture (1975). Publisher: Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha Co., Ltd.

This idea of the unity of opposites has appeared in both East Asian and European philosophies since antiquity. Think of the Chinese taiji diagram. There’s a dot of white in the black yin wave and a dot of black in the white yang wave. They don’t merge into one grey circle; they define each other by opposition. This parallels the European philosophy of dialectics. In postmodern thought, there were attempts to move away from dialectics towards undecidability of meaning, but in Isozaki and Archigram’s work, you still find such internal oppositions.

How did those contradictions play out in their works?

Isozaki’s early work had archaic qualities. It was brutalist and dark, with cavernous spaces and cold materials. He was fascinated with death and ruins. All of these are yin characteristics, associated with the feminine in Chinese cosmology. An example of this style of architecture would be the Oita Prefectural Library.

Architectural sketch showing the interior cut-away of a building. On the right and right-centre of the drawing is a high-roofed lobby, connected to a wing on the left. The left wing has four storeys connected by stairs and a suspended walkway. A smaller wing on the right has two stories and a suspended walkway. Throughout the space are tables and seating.

Sketch of Oita Prefectural Library (now known as Oita Art Plaza), Isozaki’s first independent public commission, completed in 1966. © Arata Isozaki; Image courtesy of Arata Isozaki & Associates

Archigram’s work was rather yang, using lively renderings teeming with life and joy, where everything is colourful, dynamic, and in broad daylight. Its materials were vigorous, with the metal structures and powerful machines of projects like Ron Herron’s Walking City.

Blue-toned architectural sketch showing four ovoid megastructures with long appendages on the bottom. They are collaged over a cityscape. At the bottom of the page are the words 'A WALKING CITY' in title font, surrounded by notes in smaller text.

Archigram Issue 5 (1964) described Ron Herron’s Walking City as ‘the most extreme context for a building so far in Archigram: an enclosed environment of colossal size that is mobile enough to traverse the world’. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

When Isozaki first met Archigram in 1968, he was focused on human and architectural decay, as seen in his kinetic installation, Electric Labyrinth. He spoke about the aftermath of war, his childhood trauma, and being part of what the Japanese call the ‘charred ruins generation’. The Archigram members also saw ruins through the bombings of London and other cities in the UK. Yet perhaps they dealt with their experience by imagining the total opposite: something cheerful, optimistic, and technologically inspired. The Milanogram installation was an example of that outlook.

Monochrome sketch of an exhibition design plan with the words 'MILANOGRAM' in title font diagonally along the centre. A long, transparent cylindrical shape labelled 'BIG BAG' is suspended from the top of the illustration. Its cylindrical shape is supported by eleven rings spaced evenly through its interior. Below the tube is a raised podium showing a large circular bag labelled 'CUSHICLE' and two humans labelled 'HAND-PAK' and 'SUIT-PAK', respectively. A ramp and a vending machine are below them. The entire illustration is skewed at a diagonal. Below the illustration are the words 'GREATER NUMBER' aligned horizontally in the bottom left corner. In the upper right hand corner are the words 'POPULAR PAK'.

The text accompanying this Milanogram exhibition plan in Archigram Issue 8 described the installation as ‘a magazine issue of Archigram: a synthesis of inventions, projects, theories, comment, and designs wrapped together’. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Expo ’70 was the complete reverse. Isozaki was suddenly the one using industrial materials and experimenting with technology. His Osaka Demonstration Robot in the Festival Plaza was tall, rigid, metallic, shiny and could emit lights and sounds. In contrast, Archigram created a capsule—what it called an ‘environmental time machine’ or ‘environmental jukebox’—that was essentially a cave. Its interior was amorphous, pink, and dark—all these yin qualities that Isozaki had used in his earlier work.

Screen-printed poster depicting eight bronze comb-like forms with long teeth, arranged like flower petals around a stylised cherry blossom and against a black background. Red and bronze text feature below, including 'PROGRESS AND HARMONY FOR MANKIND' on the left and 'EXPO'70' in large red print on the right.

Kamekura Yusaku’s poster for Expo ’70. © All rights reserved; M+, Hong Kong

Green-toned collage with the words 'archizone 8' and 'japan' in title font near the top of the page. Below the title are the words 'ARATA ISOZAKI' and 'ROBOTS'. Along the left margin of the page are two illustrations on top of each other: the first is labelled 'Performance Robots' and shows a square-shaped robot with two orbs rising from its top; the second is labelled 'Stage-Setting Trolley' and shows a long grid attached to a circular shape and suspended with wire from a truss. In the centre of the page are smaller illustrations of modular structures from different viewpoints. In the right-hand margin are three aerial urban views on top of each other, labelled respectively 'UFO', 'GROUP', and 'CITY'.

Archigram featured the robots and multi-use structures designed by Isozaki for the Expo ’70 Festival Plaza in Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Two side-by-side, vertically oriented, green-toned illustrations. The illustration on the left is labelled 'Performance Robots' in English and Japanese. It shows a square-shaped robot with two arms extending from its sides and two orbs extending from its top. The illustration on the right is labelled 'Stage-Setting Trolley' and shows a long grid  attached to a circular shape, which is suspended by wires from a ceiling truss. On the bottom of each drawing are various acronyms in rectangular boxes.

Detail of Isozaki’s robot and stage-setting trolley from Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Two red-toned, horizontally oriented illustrations. The top illustration is labelled 'THE INTERIOR OF THE CAPSULE: RIGHT HAND ELEVATION' in English and Japanese. It shows an interior cutaway of a long room with an uneven ceiling. Stalactite shapes ooze down the wall and are punctuated by round red circles. From right to left, the red circles are progressively labelled 1-5. On the right end of the capsule wall are the words 'ASK 5 QUETIONS CITY'. The bottom illustration is labelled 'THE INTERIOR OF THE CAPSULE: LEFT HAND ELEVATION' in English and Japanese. It shows an interior cut-away similar to the top illustration, but with the words 'JAPANESE TEXT FOR "LET US ASK FIVE QUESTIONS" ABOUT THE CITY' on the left end of the capsule wall. Its red circles are progressively labelled 1-5 from left to right.

Detail of the interior plans for Archigram’s ‘environmental jukebox’ capsule from Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Red-toned magazine collage with the words 'OSAKAGRAM' in title font across the top centre of the page; the title is written again in Japanese at the bottom centre of the page. To the right of the title is the subheading 'FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CITY'. In the centre of the page are two columns of five rows featuring collaged images of urban environments, each with its own question written beneath. In the left and right margins are the page are cut-away illustrations of a capsule interior.

The Osakagram features five questions asked to visitors of Archigram’s Expo ’70 capsule relating to the organisation, facilities, and ways of life in a city. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Screen-printed poster depicting eight bronze comb-like forms with long teeth, arranged like flower petals around a stylised cherry blossom and against a black background. Red and bronze text feature below, including 'PROGRESS AND HARMONY FOR MANKIND' on the left and 'EXPO'70' in large red print on the right.

Kamekura Yusaku’s poster for Expo ’70. © All rights reserved; M+, Hong Kong

Green-toned collage with the words 'archizone 8' and 'japan' in title font near the top of the page. Below the title are the words 'ARATA ISOZAKI' and 'ROBOTS'. Along the left margin of the page are two illustrations on top of each other: the first is labelled 'Performance Robots' and shows a square-shaped robot with two orbs rising from its top; the second is labelled 'Stage-Setting Trolley' and shows a long grid attached to a circular shape and suspended with wire from a truss. In the centre of the page are smaller illustrations of modular structures from different viewpoints. In the right-hand margin are three aerial urban views on top of each other, labelled respectively 'UFO', 'GROUP', and 'CITY'.

Archigram featured the robots and multi-use structures designed by Isozaki for the Expo ’70 Festival Plaza in Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Two side-by-side, vertically oriented, green-toned illustrations. The illustration on the left is labelled 'Performance Robots' in English and Japanese. It shows a square-shaped robot with two arms extending from its sides and two orbs extending from its top. The illustration on the right is labelled 'Stage-Setting Trolley' and shows a long grid  attached to a circular shape, which is suspended by wires from a ceiling truss. On the bottom of each drawing are various acronyms in rectangular boxes.

Detail of Isozaki’s robot and stage-setting trolley from Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Two red-toned, horizontally oriented illustrations. The top illustration is labelled 'THE INTERIOR OF THE CAPSULE: RIGHT HAND ELEVATION' in English and Japanese. It shows an interior cutaway of a long room with an uneven ceiling. Stalactite shapes ooze down the wall and are punctuated by round red circles. From right to left, the red circles are progressively labelled 1-5. On the right end of the capsule wall are the words 'ASK 5 QUETIONS CITY'. The bottom illustration is labelled 'THE INTERIOR OF THE CAPSULE: LEFT HAND ELEVATION' in English and Japanese. It shows an interior cut-away similar to the top illustration, but with the words 'JAPANESE TEXT FOR "LET US ASK FIVE QUESTIONS" ABOUT THE CITY' on the left end of the capsule wall. Its red circles are progressively labelled 1-5 from left to right.

Detail of the interior plans for Archigram’s ‘environmental jukebox’ capsule from Archigram Issue 9. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Red-toned magazine collage with the words 'OSAKAGRAM' in title font across the top centre of the page; the title is written again in Japanese at the bottom centre of the page. To the right of the title is the subheading 'FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CITY'. In the centre of the page are two columns of five rows featuring collaged images of urban environments, each with its own question written beneath. In the left and right margins are the page are cut-away illustrations of a capsule interior.

The Osakagram features five questions asked to visitors of Archigram’s Expo ’70 capsule relating to the organisation, facilities, and ways of life in a city. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Archigram dissolved after Expo ’70. Cook turned to something less technological and more humane, more sensual. Isozaki became interested in space and abstraction. So, the event was a node in time—a time capsule, if you will. There was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ Osaka in both Isozaki’s and Archigram’s works.

How did Isozaki and Archigram respond to the contradictions they saw in each other’s works?

Since the early 1960s, Isozaki had been critiquing his friends in the Japanese Metabolist movement for not being as anti-establishment as they seemed. Could Metabolism really be anti-establishment if the megastructures they designed relied on large corporations or governments to realise them? So initially, he much preferred Archigram’s work, praising it for being more radical than anything his Japanese peers had produced. But he was ambivalent. He later wrote that Archigram had turned architecture into media, which undermines his admiration for their radicality: it’s easy to be anti-establishment when your design remains on paper.

Does your way of life need a city? Would you prefer to be a ‘citizen’ of the world? Need there be a gap between your dreams and the real environment?

Excerpt from Archigram’s Osakagram

Isozaki also spoke about how, when he first looked at Archigram’s works, he thought they were too technocratic and not so humane. Actually, from Archigram’s drawings, we can see that the members were thinking of the human body in a ‘cushicle’ or a capsule, but these were all connected by industrial megastructures. Their primary materials were inorganic—plastic and metal—which, today at least, we don’t consider very pleasing to the human body. Despite his initial critique, when Isozaki met Archigram, he said, smiling, ‘Oh, in fact, they’re very human!’

Multi-coloured architectural drawing showing a megastrucutre supported of a diagonal, bright green grid. Suspended between each of the grid's diamond-shaped cells are capsules, tubes, escalators, lifts, rooms, and garages of various shapes and colours. In the centre bottom cell are two people for scale; they occupy approximately 1/25 of the total cell height. Parts of the drawing are labelled with numbers, a key for which is along the bottom of the page. The numbers indicate residential units, escalator tubes, shops, monorails, craneways, and roads, among others.

Section of Peter Cook’s Plug-in City Study (1964). Peter Cook © September 1964 ARCHIGRAM; M+, Hong Kong

Archigram, meanwhile, was ambivalent about Isozaki’s work. The members praised Isozaki’s high-tech robots at Expo ’70, but that was a one-off episode in his career. Isozaki’s ambivalence as an architect grew with time, and he became increasingly interested in symbolism and meaning—a full-fledged postmodernist. Archigram was not interested in that. So, when Peter Cook called him ‘an architect in ambivalence’ at the 1976 AA meeting in London, I think it was a nice way of saying: ‘I don’t adhere to everything he does, but I still admire him as an intellectual and as a friend’.

Isozaki published Dismantling Architecture in 1975, not long after Archigram dissolved. ‘Dissolve’ and ‘dismantle’ are words that come up frequently in the writings of Isozaki, Archigram, and the Metabolists. Could you break down what this term means?

I was puzzled about this in the beginning, seeing that ‘dismantling’ is itself an ambiguous term. Architects who propose to dismantle their own discipline would soon be out of business if that proposition was realised. So, the term ‘dismantling’ should not be taken literally but rather elicit the question: which aspect of the discipline is to be dismantled, and why?

Monochrome collage showing photograph cut-outs of ruined classical pillars shown as the base for illustrations of new pillars built on top. The pillars support a megastructure. The structure's rectangular levels extend outward left and right. Towards the left, it extends over an illustrated walkway; towards the right, it extends over a barren rocky space. In the foreground is an illustration of cars on a freeway. At the top of the page are two illustrated birds or aircrafts flying towards the left-hand corner.

Isozaki’s Perspective View, Incubation Process (1962) shows a new, elevated city built upon existing ruins. © Arata Isozaki; Photo: M+, Hong Kong

First let’s talk about where the term originates. In the book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), Reyner Banham (considered by some an unofficial member of Archigram) wrote that architects who propose ‘to run with technology’ will have to dismantle the garments by which they are known. ‘Dismantle’ has two connotations. The Latin mantellum means ‘cloak’, so to dismantle is to take off your coat. But in later French it meant ‘breaking down the walls of a city’. The idea of dissolving cities echoes German architect Bruno Taut, who, in post-World War I years, imagined how human settlements could be more integrated into the environment and cease to feed the capitalist machine. With similar motivations, Metabolist theoretician Noboru Kawazoe published the book Kenchiku no metsubo (The Destruction of Architecture, 1960), arguing for a change in the definition of architecture.

The general concept, or region, of architecture is expanding its boundaries...The dissolution...of architecture has begun.

Isozaki in the Japan Architect (July 1970)

Early in his career, Isozaki wrote a highly ambivalent text called ‘City Demolition & Co.’ (1962), in which he portrayed himself as both an urban mercenary fighting against big capitalist real estate, and as his own critic. He declared that cities were killing people, so they must be destroyed. But, to my knowledge, he first used the term ‘dismantling’ in a 1970 volume of the Japan Architect, during a conversation with his mentor, architect Tange Kenzo. They were discussing the final meeting of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne in 1959, and the shift from a functional approach to what Tange called ‘an organic approach’ to urban design. Isozaki speaks of ‘dismantling’ theoretically, as in expanding the boundaries of architecture and changing the architect’s role. I assume by that he meant taking on social but also artistic responsibilities beyond drawing functional plans.

Photograph showing a large table covered in scraggled wires and a white substance. The table is in a glass metal case in a room with dark blue walls. To the right of the case, four framed illustrations hang on the wall. To the left, a small television monitor is visible.

Installation view of Isozaki’s Incubation Process (1962, made 1997/2011) at Things, Spaces, Interactions. The work was created through a performance in which viewers were invited to hammer nails or tie wires over a photo of Tokyo, simulating Isozaki’s plans for an expanding, elevated city. © Arata Isozaki; Photo: Dan Leung / M+, Hong Kong

In Archigram’s works, ‘dismantling’ is an operative term. It’s about being able to take the pieces apart, like a giant Meccano Erector set. At Expo ’70, Archigram spoke of the dissolution of the city’s role and significance in the Osakagram, which was the leaflet that visitors received at their capsule’s entrance. In using terms like ‘dissolve’ and ‘disintegration’, Archigram were not driven by anti-capitalist ideals like Isozaki. Peter Cook has said he imagined a liberal society of the kind he grew up in. He was intent on giving the unrealised social ideals of modernism another chance in a new environment by affording the masses a good quality of life, while acting within the market economy paradigm and using technology that was more advanced than in the years after WWI. Archigram wanted ‘to run with technology’.

What is the legacy of Isozaki’s Dismantling Architecture?

I think Isozaki has made a lasting contribution to the field in writing and theory, by which he built cultural bridges. He made Japanese architectural thinking of the 1970s and 1980s more accessible to architects and scholars worldwide. Dismantling Architecture did the reverse in that it presented foreign architects who could promote creative thinking in future generations of Japan.

Isozaki and Archigram’s relationship also makes you think about the value of the outsider’s view. We sometimes critique outsiders for not understanding certain contexts enough, but I think—and here I’m defending my own inter-cultural background—there is fresh insight that you can extract as an outsider. That’s perhaps why Isozaki and Archigram got along: they could see beyond the distance between their cultures.

What lessons can we take from the exchange between Archigram and Isozaki on technology and the environment and apply to our world today?

Neither Archigram nor Isozaki were concerned with energy use, carbon emissions, or fossil fuels. Archigram implicitly embraced throw-away consumerism with its plastics-heavy designs, which we now know to be environmentally problematic. At the same time, they expanded architectural thinking to consider feedback mechanisms between humans and everything that surrounds them, an idea that is fundamental to contemporary ecological thinking and sustainable design. At present, we’re certainly thinking of reciprocity between humans and their environment as opposed to unilaterally controlling the environment with technology.

Architectural model showing a large sheet attached to three floating balloons hovering over an encampment. The camp consists of three orange dome-shaped structures and is fenced on one end by a purple barrier. The camp is below a highway ramp, on which are several model cars of various colours. Behind the architectural model is an exhibition wall displaying various framed architectural sketches. The one immediately to the left-back of the model shows a street with a sketch of the model and the words 'love from ARCHIGRAM'.

Archigram’s Instant City is a transportable kit that allows residents of small towns temporary access to the attractions of larger cities, as seen in this model of Instant City—Santa Monica (1968–1970, made 1994) at Things, Spaces, Interactions. © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Both Archigram and Isozaki spoke of designing ‘soft environments’, which initially referred to replacing physical architecture with telecommunications and cybernetics. But the ambiguity of this term lends itself to reinterpretation. Today, ‘softening’ the interface between architecture and the world is relevant, not by going virtual but rather by making the physical interface permeable and open to evolving in tune with climate change.

The clashes we see between construction and natural forces often result from our attempts to outsmart nature by erecting stronger buildings. Archigram meant for its buildings to be porous and ephemeral. We now know that many of its high-tech structures (had they been built) would have been extremely wasteful energetically because of their porosity. But there were other dimensions to the part-to-whole construction that were sustainable, including standardised manufacturing, dry assembly, flexibility, and the potential reuse or recycling of building parts.

Imagining buildings as permeable, soft, and flexible is a humbler premise for practising architecture and more harmonious with our tortured planet.

Ariel Genadt

In reality, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve the sustainable reuse of building parts. The main challenge is that technology is constantly superseded. Therefore, to rely on one specific manufacturer, product, or form comes in the way of reuse, and sometimes even repair. I think that’s what sealed the fates of several Metabolist buildings, such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, which was dismantled in April 2022.

Photograph showing the interior of a large inflatable space. The inflatable has a mauve, ribbed fabric and high ceiling. Inside are several benches facing a stage at the right-hand of the frame. Above the stage is a large circular light. Nine people are distributed throughout the space: two on a bench in the foreground; the rest near or on the stage.

After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Isozaki and sculptor Anish Kapoor designed the inflatable, plastic Ark Nova (2013), a temporary relief centre and concert venue that seats up to 500. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun/Contributor via Getty images

Finally, Isozaki’s early fascination with ruins and how they can be integrated as relics into new constructions resonates with Archigram’s idea of ‘plugging in’ to an existing city fabric. This is especially pertinent to environmental thinking today. When we observe time and again the devastation following extreme climatic events, we realise how important it is to design our habitat to be adjustable to unpredictable climate conditions. Imagining buildings as permeable, soft, and flexible is a humbler premise for practising architecture and more harmonious with our tortured planet. It has better potential for allowing future generations to enjoy living on this earth as much as we do.

Want to take an even closer look at the works of Archigram and Isozaki Arata? Check out our displays at Things, Spaces, Interactions, on view at M+ until 21 May 2023.

This article is part of a series digging deeper into the talks from the Archigram Cities Online Symposium. Watch Ariel Genadt’s full talk, ‘Dismantling Architecture! Archigram and Isozaki ca.1970’ from Zoom 3: Transmissions.

As told to Gloria Furness (Editor, Web Content) and Naomi Altman (Curatorial Assistant, Design and Architecture). The above interview has been edited for clarity. Image at top: Detail of envelope interior encasing Archigram Issue 8 (1968). © Archigram; M+, Hong Kong

Ariel Genadt
Ariel Genadt

Ariel Genadt is an architect, scholar, and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on twentieth-century architecture in Japan and the relationship between construction and cultural and environmental expression in architecture. In 2012, he was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences Fellow Researcher at the Kengo Kuma Lab, Tokyo University, and in 2013, a visiting scholar at the Fondazione Renzo Piano, Genoa. He has published scholarly articles in EAHN Architectural Histories, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Baumeister, and Topos. In 2018, he curated the exhibition Critical Abstractions: Modern Architecture in Japan at the University of Pennsylvania.

M+ Members

  • Access to the M+ Lounge with your guests
  • Access to M+ Private Viewing for General Admission only
  • Priority booking and member discounts
  • Priority lanes access for General Admission only
  • Free access to the M+ galleries (General Admission only) and selected cinema screenings

... and much more

M+ Membership benefits list updated in November 2022

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