As the last of the debris is cleared from the Great East Japan Earthquake and plans are drawn up to reconstruct the devastated towns and communities, architects and planners are pondering not just to how replace what was lost, but how to improve upon it. With fortuitous timing, Tokyo this September is hosting a feast of architectural exhibitions and discussions looking to the present, the past, and the rest of the world for ideas and inspiration by which to rebuild Japan for the better.

The World Congress of Architecture, the triennial gathering of the world’s peak body representing the architectural profession, will be held in Tokyo during the last week of September, drawing an estimated 10,000 participants of professionals, researchers, students and the public. In addition to numerous small-scale satellite initiatives, two institutional exhibitions are spinning off from this event — the Mori Art Museum’s “Metabolism: The City of the Future”, opening Sept. 17, and the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery’s “House Inside City Outside House: Tokyo Metabolizing”, which closes on Oct. 2.

Although separately planned and with quite different origins, scales, and agendas, the titles reveal the shared ground between these two exhibitions — the noun “city,” the central object of concern, and the verb “metabolize,” using a biological analogy to grasp how the city evolves and transforms. Both shows interpret the legacy of the Metabolists, a legendary grouping of young Japanese architects that came together in the late 1950s to advance a radical program of architecture and city-building for postwar Japan that became globally influential in the 1960s. The Mori show looks backwards, opening the archive of the Metabolists after a half-century for a new generation’s attention; the Opera City show reinterprets the Metabolists’ take on the city through the lens of contemporary Tokyo, seeking to tease out fresh principles from an analysis and response to the city’s present condition.

‘Tokyo Metabolizing” was first shown as Japan’s official contribution to the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010. Commissioned by architect Koh Kitayama, the original exhibition presented large models at half-scale of two private houses, created by leading members of the younger generation of contemporary Japanese architects: Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House; and House and Atelier Bow-wow, by Atelier Bow-wow, the firm led by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima.

The Venice venue was venerable but cramped; the re-staging of the show in the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery’s expansive spaces have enabled the addition of one of Kitayama’s own works, the Yutenji Apartments, as well as an analytical section titled the “Index of the Coming City.”

The most conceptually innovative aspect of the show is its linking of divergent scales — the micro scale of the private dwelling and the macro scale of the collective urban organism.

“Rather than focusing on the architecture that makes up the centre of the city as a symbol of the state and capital,” the curators write, “we turned our attention to the small buildings that have been created in belts of wooden houses in the surrounding area that support people’s living.”

The aim is, in effect, to perceive Tokyo’s universe in a few of its grains of sand. This approach, whatever its limitations as a means to understand urban space, has the advantage of rendering the immense complexity of the metropolis through a popularly accessible form — the domestic dwelling.

These houses have all sought to break the hermetic seal that closes off the typical Japanese private residence from its neighbors. The Moriyama House distributes six dwellings across 10 cubic volumes scattered across its site, creating an “extended family” that gently interweaves its residents’ lives and spaces with the surroundings. Careful use of transparency and translucency in Kitayama’s Yutenji Apartments supports mutual awareness between dwellings of each others’ presence. House and Atelier Bow-wow combines an architectural office with a domestic residence, healing the split between dwelling and workplace.

These strategies are all ways of using architecture to revive an urban public realm atrophied by modernity.

The way in which these houses are shown, through half-size models, lends the show a light and charming quality belying its serious theme. Walking through the large boxy volumes of the Moriyama House between fronds of paper plants feels wonderfully bemusing, as if you had encountered the cellulose artifacts of a civilization of sophisticated children. There is an absurdist delight in peering into the half-size workspaces of the House and Atelier Bow-wow, with its little chairs and desks, on which miniature models of various projects are assembled, including one of the very same building that you are peering into.

Humor, modesty, and observant sensitivity distinguish the attitude of this generation, the Metabolists’ children, from the mega-structural dreams of their forefathers. It is qualities such as these that Japan needs most as it rebuilds its future.

“House Inside City Outside House: Tokyo Metabolizing” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs till Oct. 2, admission ¥1,000 (includes entry to the museum’s collection exhibition), open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.operacity.jp.

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