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Kisho Kurokawa Dies at 73

October 17, 2007

by David Sokol

For admirers of the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, the 73-year-old’s death on October 12 culminated a year of disappointments. In April, Kurokawa lost an election bid for the governorship of Tokyo; then, in July, he and his wife, actress Ayako Wakao, were both unsuccessful in their campaigns for seats in Japan’s Upper House of parliament. Concurrent with Kurokawa’s candidacies, plans were announced to raze Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, completed in 1972, which was an icon of the Metabolism movement; it closely follows last year’s demolition of Kurokawa’s Sony Tower in Osaka.

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Recent events would seem to suggest that Kurokawa had lost a receptive audience, but his work remains remarkably prescient. As a political candidate, Kurokawa’s proposals to move governmental administrative offices to satellite cities, and to sell Tokyo City Hall and Tokyo International Forum—designed by Kenzo Tange and Rafael Viñoly, respectively—echo similar efforts by cities as diverse as Seoul and Boston. Architecturally, Kurokawa was involved with Metabolism during the 1960s and, later, Symbiosis—relevant precursors to the contemporary design trends of prefabrication, sustainability, and biomimicry.

Kurokawa was first indoctrinated into the Metabolism movement as a student under Tange at the Graduate School of Architecture, Tokyo University, and then as the youngest architect of the Metabolist Group alongside peers Fumihiko Maki and Arata Isozaki. Its members, who were in part influenced by scientific observation of cellular growth and of biological structures, argued that buildings, too, could be designed as adaptable organisms or as flexible frameworks comprising replaceable parts. The Metabolists also extrapolated this point of view to the scale of urban planning.

Nakagin Capsule Tower provocatively encapsulated these insights, with modular units clipped onto the building’s 11- and 13-story tower cores: Kurokawa imagined that, to accommodate changing urban conditions and new expressions of culture, these modules would be switched out every three decades or so. He deployed these principles again in designing the Sony Tower, completed in 1976.

As his career progressed, Kurokawa’s perspective evolved into a group of concepts that he dubbed Symbiosis. Although these insights were largely reserved for the printed page—indeed, many of his atelier’s later projects, such as the National Art Centre in Tokyo’s ritzy Roppongi district, completed last year and to be featured in RECORD’s November 2007 issue, are beautifully executed works of architecture rather than realizations of theory—Symbiosis did find one of its fullest expressions in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia, opened in 1998. Merging thought and practice, the airport is surrounded by a large manmade rainforest and was intended as one component of a larger eco-city within Kuala Lumpur.

Kurokawa completed only one American project, Chicago’s Sporting Club, in 1990. Even so, this May he opened a satellite office in Irvine, California. A spokesperson says that despite Kurokawa’s death, the firm plans to continue its expansion into the U.S. market.

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