Kikutake's Sky House: Where Metabolism & Le Corbusier Meet

Kikutake's Sky House: Where Metabolism & Le Corbusier Meet

In this article, first published in the Australian Design Review as "The Meeting of East and West: Kikutake and Le Corbusier", Michael Holt outlines the cross-fertilization of ideas that helped spawn the Japanese Metabolist movement, focusing on how Le Corbusier's ideals were key in the design of one of the movement's most enigmatic projects, Kiyonori Kikutake's Sky House.

Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake’s Sky House (1958) remains an exemplary project that defines the Metabolist agenda but, more significantly, underscores the notion that a single-family dwelling can be ideologically recursive and strategic. Kikutake, however, was not without a somewhat unlikely precedent in the renowned Le Corbusier.

Both architects established an order and method of working via their smallest designs – Kikutake in Sky House and Le Corbusier at Villa Savoye (1929) – and developed their notions through written accounts (Kikutake’s Metabolist Manifesto, 1960 and Le Corbusier’s Purist Manifesto, predating the built work, in 1918). Finally, each scales up their ideas to the level of the urban through Kikutake’s Tower-Shaped Community Project (1959) and Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme at Chandigarh, India (1953). To locate the origin of the influence, it is necessary to first examine Le Corbusier’s position as the figurehead of Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM).

Read on for more about this unlikely chain of influence

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. Image © Flavio Bragaia

CIAM was a crucial discursive platform in postwar Europe, enabling policy-making and urban discourse, paramount to metropolitan reconstruction. However, as cities redeveloped, aggregated and expanded, CIAM’s impact began to wane. The apex of disintegration was CIAM 8, Hoddesdon, UK (1951), ending officially at CIAM 10, Dubrovik (1956). Catalan architect and CIAM president, Josep Lluís Sert, invited Britain’s Mars Group to form the agenda for CIAM 8, focusing on the civic ‘core’ or ‘the heart of the city’.

Interestingly, this meeting was the first to recognise non-European architects, notably Japan’s Kenzo Tange, Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura. Incidentally, Maekawa and Sakakura had previously worked for Le Corbusier between 1928–1930 and 1931–1936, respectively. It is not only the global recognition of Japanese architects that CIAM 8 should be noted for, but rather as the precise point Le Corbusier’s star was fading in favour of Team X and the British Hi-Tech.

Kenzo Tange, working in the office of Maekawa between 1938–1942, presented the first project from a non-Western architect at CIAM 8 – the Hiroshima Peace Centre and Memorial Park (1955). While CIAM 8 was progressive in its inclusion of Tange, it was fundamentally flawed by its Western bias to issues of housing, given that such concerns are not limited to Europe. However the decisive split came in CIAM 9, when Team X’s Alison and Peter Smithson (with Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck), undermined the functionalist categories of work, dwelling, recreation and transport by proposing a cellular approach as the ‘aggregation of urban growth’.

Axonometric drawing showing the slab detail and movenette structures. Image

In overthrowing the established order, Team X had formed their own position, but also gave the Japanese contingent an opportunity to return home with plans to create their own solutions to urban issues following the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It came in the form of Metabolism. Where CIAM promoted a platform for architectural discourse, giving rise to what is more commonly referred to as International Style, Metabolism was a radical, utopian movement in response to urban issues in postwar Japan.

Indeed, the founding declaration of CIAM was largely the work of left-wing humanists Mart Stam, Hannes Meyer and Hans Schmidt, suggesting architecture must be dependent upon (rather than distanced from) the industrialised world. It was a marked attempt to remove architecture from traditional craftsmanship in favour of a rationalised method of production. An ideal to which the Metabolists followed suit.

The Metabolist Manifesto – a series of four essays entitled Ocean City, Space City, Towards Group Form and Material and Man, devised by Kisho Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, Masato Otaka and Kikutake – was presented at the Tokyo World Design Conference (1960), with an insistence on the need to separate parts of buildings or cities that have different rates of change, allowing for certain structures to remain undisturbed as others naturally deteriorate.

The term Metabolism, coined by Kikutake, was a biological analogy – perhaps referential to Le Corbusier’s concepts of the house as a ‘machine for living’. And although Metabolism’s speculative and creative proposals were ultimately unfeasible, they instigated a discourse, refocusing architecture as a socially powerful tool for regeneration and interactivity – the very core of CIAM. Curiously, a feedback loop occurred: as Team X mediated European discourse away from such discussions, Metabolism’s ideals returned with vigour in, for example, the work of Dutch architect, Jaap Bakema.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, a later metabolist masterpiece from 1972. Image © Arcspace

Kikutake, having previously worked alongside Tange, designed possibly the most emblematic Metabolist building, Sky House. Designed and built in 1958, the project was an exploration into changeable systems. Kikutake designed ‘permanent spaces’ – where changes are not needed – and ‘temporary spaces’ that allow for ‘subspaces with the possibility of removal’. The latter were ‘movenettes’, which controlled the relationship between building and surrounding. The children’s rooms, kitchen and bathroom, for instance, were designed as units that can be moved, enlarged or decreased in size, to facilitate future needs or change; an interchangeability of space. Such flexibility and programmatic exchange highlights the crossover with CIAM through standardisation, volumetric clustering, (notable at Le Corbusier’s Shodan House, 1956), and hybridises Team X’s cellularisation.

Aesthetically, the building may resemble the formal functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright, but in the design of the roof, the free-plan, the free-facade and the pilotis, Kikutake is closer to Le Corbusier. Most notably, the building’s roof acts as a floating volume, a structure that can allow for movenettes hanging below and changing freely – an idea noted in Le Corbusier’s parasol or universal roof (Chandigarh’s Parliament Building, 1953 or Heidi Weber Museum, Zurich, 1968).

Kikutake juxtaposed the traditional Japanese roof truss with its Western equivalent in a bid to prevent any practical failures in the construction of the roof. He noted the Western roof is ‘more practical against a short period load of instantaneous wind speed’ and finds a dynamic strength, allowing it to span greater distances with a minimal amount of materials. In terms of constructability such a roof was straightforward, difficulties arose when the truss system was to operate in Metabolic programmatic flexibility.

Le Corbusier's Heidi Weber Museum. Image © Samuel Ludwig

His solution was simple yet effective: the detailing of the roof truss required Japanese expertise in the application of the right angle or end joints. The abutment of the roof end joints, an overspill from the Japanese penchant for ornament, allowed for greater balance and strength. Kikutake believed that inventive redesign of the end joints was the very component that could allow for a Metabolic roof construction, interchangeability and flexibility.

In Le Corbusier’s Five Points Towards a New Architecture (1926), buildings are said to require: supporting structure or pilotis – regularly spaced, used mainly to elevate the ground plane; a flat roof for domesticity; facade and interior walls to remain independent of structural significance enabling a free-plan; and, horizontal windows. Key examples are at Brazilian Student Dormitory, Paris (1959) or the Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles (1952). Aside from the domesticity of the flat roof, all points are in full use at Sky House and mark a step towards ‘critical regionalism’ – the reappropriation of Modernist principle.

According to Robin Boyd, ‘The postwar generation of Japanese architects used Le Corbusier as a stepping stone out of the past to avoid parodies of the past.‘ In effect, Le Corbusier became a template to be understood and manipulated to suit the specific needs of Japanese culture. What transpired was the instigation of an ideological framework that has since established a distinct way of working and design sensibility. As a reinforced concrete construction, located on a sloping site, on a 10m x 10m grid plan, with its elevated structure supported by four pilotis on the Cartesian axes of the square living zone, allowing the structure to float, with continuous interior volumes of clustered services around one central core, mutating into urban-scale investigations, suggest the Sky House was the Corbusian- infused seed from which Metabolist organicism bloomed.

Michael Holt is the editor of Architectural Review Asia Pacific and a studio co-ordinator at the University of Technology, Sydney. He was previously a project architect at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York.

About this author
Cite: Michael Holt. "Kikutake's Sky House: Where Metabolism & Le Corbusier Meet" 19 Feb 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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