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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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