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Megastructure Visions—an extract from Last Futures

Douglas Murphy 5 February 2016

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In this edited extract from Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture, Douglas Murphy examines the architectural aesthetic of megastructures — massive, disparate structures combining strict artificial forms with an organic growth of spaces within  from the famous Nakagin Capsule Tower (designed by Kisho Kurokawa), through to the work of Norman Foster, and more recent futuristic fantasy megastructure proposals.

- USA Pavilion, Expo 67

Many architectural proposals and experiments of the early 1960s were eventually gathered under the umbrella term of ‘megastructure’. This word evoked not only the sheer size of the new architecture but also the method in which a single initial construction would serve as a frame, augmented by infrastructure such as transport and electricity and capable of being added to or dismantled. Once all this was in place, the population would be given freedom to create their own living environment, moveable and ready for its own obsolescence, while commercial units and workplaces could come and go as needed.

But megastructure also referred to an architectural aesthetic – massive, disparate structures combining strict artificial forms with an organic growth of spaces within. It was a serious attempt at developing the ongoing practice of addressing large urban problems through planning while simultaneously incorporating the rapidly changing lifestyles of the post-war era. The alienation that people reported feeling in social housing, where they had no opportunity to customise and make the space their own, the flowering of pop music, fashion and youth culture, the sudden proliferation of white goods and other consumer items all pointed towards a demand for differentiation and choice in the urban environment.

Despite the predictions, and in spite of the more progressive architectural press of the late 1960s being full of tantalising glimpses of new forms of architecture, there were few examples of megastructural innovations actually being created. It was almost entirely in Japan, in fact, that anything was built which seriously attempted to achieve the interchangeability of function and units that was such an important aspect of megastructural thinking. While a number of large concrete buildings completed during the ’60s give an aesthetic taste of megastructure, with overextended service cores and empty spaces where new units could be built – like in the UK, it was almost always for show, suggestive of ephemerality.

One example was the Shinjuku bus-body building by Yoji Watanabe of 1970. Watanabe was a Japanese architect a generation older than the Metabolists, whose apartment block achieves an apparently capsule like arrangement through the use of a serrated facade in which each room appears to be completely separate from the next. This idiosyncratic design looked almost as if a set of aluminium Airstream caravans had been stuck onto the central funnel of a battleship, and created only slight interest in the architectural media outside Japan. After a number of years of being left to rot, however, it has recently been refurbished and continues to exist as an apartment block.

- Nakagin Capsule Tower, Kisho Kurokawa

The nearest achievement and the most celebrated of any of the Japanese Metabolist projects is the Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the most successful young architects of his generation, and completed in 1972. Occupying a corner site, the capsule tower consists of two service cores over ten storeys each, which have doors and service connections rising up the sides. Plugged into these cores via four large steel bolts are small, rectilinear boxes with a porthole window at one side, resembling something half-way between a washing machine and a space capsule.

Each of the tiny boxes was conceived as a self-contained living unit, divided into two rooms, with a corner cubicle given over to a shower and W.C. Towards the portal window was a bed, and along one wall ran an ingenious furniture unit containing a fold-out desk, sink, refrigerator and plastic modules for various appliances and media devices. The aesthetic of the interior was of cold, clean surfaces, something akin to the inside of an aeroplane or spaceship, and the tiny size was aimed at the Japanese ‘salaryman’ market.

On the exterior, the capsules are clearly staggered as they rise around the building, and some of them face in different directions, which along with occasional missing capsules creates formal interest and emphasizes the adaptability of the structure. Rudimentary but visionary, with hints of both Habitat 67 and the ziggurats at UEA, the Capsule Tower was one possible first step towards a more flexible system of planning, but tellingly none of the original capsules have ever been replaced, and at the time of writing it faces demolition as it stands on land too valuable for its current use.

It was thus in Britain that the next development would occur: by the end of the 1960s the UK had already been building huge amounts of system-built housing, some of the most experimental large-scale architecture in the world. Because there was a strong culture of encouraging young architects to take charge of projects soon after leaving university, and since the aims of the radical architects, the demands of the establishment and the expertise of the construction industry seemed to converge, commentators assumed that it was just a matter of time before a fully articulated British megastructural project would make it off the drawing boards and out into the world.

Archigram would continue working on the Plug-In City concept for a few years, until getting bored and moving on to other interests such as ‘Instant Cities’, which were partially inspired by the new phenomenon of music festivals – settlements that would appear from nowhere, last a few days and promptly vanish. The later studies that they worked on for Plug-In City are of interest, however, because they show the idea being worked at a closer level of detail than before, and they thus provided a further link that ties the flamboyant experimentalism of the Plug-In City to the actually existing system-built housing of the time.

A housing study that Peter Cook completed while teaching at Hornsey College of Art shows a step towards the execution of the megastructural method. It proposed a steel frame, with a grid about eight metres wide, reaching up a number of storeys into the sky. Every ten metres, or three storeys, there was a shallow space-frame deck which ran along the length of the structure, from which all the other units could be suspended. The houses were to be installed into the large gaps created within this frame, and Cook developed these in some detail, creating plans for various sizes of units made out of moulded plastic, which could be connected into the frame as desired.

These flats, as drawn, were garish and groovily coloured, had the rounded windows which were then fashionable, and featured lightweight furniture and odd, organic-looking media entertainment devices. Balconies could be extended out from the building, suspended from the frame immediately above, while pedestrian and vehicular access could run along within the frame at intervals. In this study (which apparently came close to having a small prototype made), we can see all the different megastructural ingredients, all of which already existed, coming together: there is raised deck access like so much housing of the time, a space-frame infrastructure, manufacturable units of varying sizes, and all the while, lurking in the background of the drawings, was the gigantic space frame from the original plug-in study.

Although it seems fantastic, and although its architectural merit was dubious at best, upon closer inspection everything depicted in the Plug-In City was something that already existed. The proposal seemed to suggest a housing estate that would have been a cross between the densely stacked clusters of units of Habitat, UEA or the Nakagin Capsule Tower, with a plastic aesthetic recognisable from old airport terminal buildings or perhaps the offices on a building site, pre-fabricated units set on steel frames, ready to be moved at a moment’s notice. If it sounds ugly, there’s every reason to believe it would have been, but the implication was that in a future of greater freedom, the static house itself and all of its social and historic meanings would become less and less important, and the more nomadic lives of the affluent society would no longer demand such frippery.

Megastructure, and its vision of the future, reached its peak at the universal exposition held in Osaka, Japan, in 1970, an event at which both its potentials and limitations became clearly apparent. It was the first world expo since Montreal and was the very last of the ‘big expos’ of the twentieth century that would capture the imagination of the public so readily, with visitor figures exceeding 64 million. Osaka 1970 was intended as a triumphant celebration of the exceptional economic and industrial growth of Japan, and visits beyond the expo site dazzled many Westerners with the speed and scale of ongoing development. It contested the idea that America was the sole vanguard of technological modernity, and where the architecture of Expo 67 began to define the new high-tech, immersive architecture being developed at the time, Osaka 1970 would be the triumph of this form.

- The inhabited space frame: Expo 1970 Theme Pavilion, Kenzo Tange

The expo, situated within its own park, was planned by Kenzo Tange, and as usual, alongside a selection of global architecture, there were various theme buildings and attractions by Japanese architects. Expo 1970 had the banal theme of ‘Progress and Harmony for Mankind’, providing the typical glossy, heartwarming message seemingly devoid of politics or ideology. Dominating the expo park was a massive space-frame roof, nearly half a kilometre long and fifty metres high. This roof was designed to hark back to the immersive qualities of the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition.  In addition, it created a focal space in the centre of the expo site while also allowing for a diversity of architectural styles in  the pavilions, expressed in a hyper-modern form according to the technological dreams of the day. As Tange put it, ‘the problem … is to evolve spatial harmony and order within diversity’, which is an almost perfect expression of the megastructural impulse.

The space-frame roof covered much of the public space of the expo and was fully inhabitable at upper levels. While functioning as a plaza, there was also a defined route through the structure that took visitors through a series of exhibitions, beginning in the basement, which represented the history of humanity, up onto the plaza, which depicted the present, and then up into the space frame, which – naturally – represented the future. Embedded into the space frame, perhaps one of the closest actual attempts to build a Spatial City like that of Yona Friedman, were various different installations and experiences (including one by Archigram).

The Osaka expo was the apotheosis of the space frame as a symbol of a future world. Along with the roof over the plaza, there was an abundance of geodesic domes, such as the Expo Tower, which contained a Japanese tea room, or the West German pavilion (in which Karlheinz Stockhausen performed daily), and all manner of space-frame structures, ranging from the pragmatically experimental, like the Takara Pavilion, to the frighteningly mantis-like Toshiba Pavilion, all spikes and claws, both of which were designed by Kisho Kurokawa.

- NASA’s vision of a Space Colony

Far too often, megastructure proposals today appear too much like fantasy, like something from the cover of a cheap 1970s sci-fi novel. Giant tents over cities, cities built out over the ocean, underwater cities, space cities – mostly these appear to us now like trite fantasy. Even the rise of ‘Google Earth urbanism’, such as the giant island reclamations of Dubai from the first decade of the twenty-first century, carried nothing of the promise of new ways of living that these earlier schemes did. In a certain way, we could think of this as the curse of the expo, the instilled assumption, based upon a mixture of experience and propaganda, that rapid technological growth was changing everything, forever. But it is worth looking further into how these ideas disseminated into the mainstream of building, as they inevitably did. The most obvious individual case, and one that Banham picked up on as the last word in megastructure, was the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano and completed in 1977. Frequently seen as the last hurrah of Archigram’s ‘Zoom’ wave of indeterminate, flexible and replaceable architecture, it’s both a hugely successful public space and a monument to the failure of that new idea of the city to take proper root, never achieving even a fraction of the potential social uses that it was originally envisioned to accommodate.

Even in its compromised reality, it is one of the most remarkable buildings of the era. Almost completely lacking in the refinement or grace that would later inflect high-tech architecture, its simple yet vast structure, its cheap plastic details and exposed services point to the political reality suggested by megastructure, where the monumentality of the bourgeois city is abandoned in favour of a functional egalitarianism.

After this flawed high point, the trajectory of high-tech architecture led off into the more corporate environment of the 1980s. Rogers’s next major building was Lloyd’s of London, and with every project afterwards he would gradually abandon his youthful experiments in order to succeed in the world as it was. In 1971, another young architect of the era collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on a speculative project called the ‘Climatroffice’. This was a variation on the Expo 67 dome, with the dome squashed to allow for a wider and more practical internal space. Inside, steel platforms were to function as work rather than exhibition space, and the entire interior was shown as being swathed in foliage. This young architect was Norman Foster, perhaps the most influential architect the world has seen in the last forty years.

Foster’s influence has been primarily due to his firm’s innovations in the design of corporate workplaces and transport buildings, but in his early years he was deeply influenced by Fuller’s call for more materially conscious design. Foster’s early projects of the 1970s, with their light-weight structures and exquisitely refined details, all seemed utterly remarkable when compared to the heavy concrete that surrounded them, appearing more like product design than what was conventionally thought of as architecture.

In the 1970s Foster would build a remarkable art facility on the grounds of the University of East Anglia, facing Lasdun’s complex of ziggurat housing. This new building, donated by the Sainsbury supermarket dynasty as a vessel to display their incredible art collection, was a shed with a space-frame roof enclosing a large flexible internal space, clad to the outside in featureless white panels. It was a rather shocking juxtaposition of a high-culture space with the clean and featureless architectural technology of a computer chip factory, and to this day is a thrillingly odd architectural experience – Bacons and Giacomettis in an airport lounge.

But the imagination of these and other projects by high-tech architects, so clearly indebted to the previous experiments, was not enough to stop their ideas being gradually diluted into the banality of the contemporary office block as we understand it today. A modern office block does satisfy many points of the megastructural ethos. It is typically built with the most blank plans possible, including a raised floor containing electrical connections and a suspended ceiling containing lights and ventilation. This blank, polished interior is then typically completed by designers working for the companies who are renting the space. In go carpets, desks, partitions and all the rest, flexible and replaceable. Within the curtain walls of an office block, and indeed in the robotic arms which run on rails and hold the window-cleaning cradles, some flickering echo of the megastructure dream continues to exist.

On a larger scale, Norman Foster again pioneered the large envelope as the dominant approach for another typology, this time at Stansted Airport, built throughout the 1980s, which became a new model for airport terminals. Today one can still get a hint of the megastructure ideal when passing through an airport, with their massive roof structures, their miles of continuous internal space, the flexible shops and security facilities that can be taken down and moved over time without disturbing the exterior, not to mention the connecting arms which rotate and extend towards the aircraft, the ever-so-futuristic monorails and the intersecting transport facilities.

Elsewhere, Martin Pawley’s vision of the space frame at the Osaka Expo in 1970, the blankest of boxes serving an interior of constant change and mediated consumption, gradually mutated over time into the gargantuan sheds that serve as distribution points for goods – vast blank forms connected into transport infrastructure at important nodes of activity and capable of being erected and taken down in a remarkably short space of time. Pawley believed that these buildings, known as ‘big sheds’, were ‘the architecture that will dominate the twenty-first century’, and it has been said that in their massive blankness ‘they render architecture redundant’. But in their way they really are the technology that Fuller and Otto and all the others were dreaming of, especially now in their roboticised form, with their optimised networks of demand and distribution.

If we move further back in the distribution chain, we come to the  container port, these eerie zones celebrated as the utterly blank spaces of  trade, their giant robot cranes unloading and loading ships in automated, computerised synchronisation. It was in 1968 that the shipping container was standardised, and the effects are well known: the sudden increase in size of ship that the container made possible meant that many of the old ports were rendered useless and had to be moved to deep water locations where they could spread out further, leaving millions of people across the world without jobs. And of course, what is the shipping container if not a plug-in unit par excellence? Mobile, lifted and carried anywhere and everywhere around the world, it is a flexible, universal spatial unit. The piles of containers at ports are the real plug-in cities, endlessly shifting, stacked high, never the same from one moment to the next.

The megastructure future does therefore exist, in a great many places, and affects our lives in innumerable ways. But never has it been implemented in the functional role for which it was originally envisaged: housing. The reason for this is political. One the one hand, megastructure would have required new legal structures, new forms of procurement and new standards for the construction industry, massive undertakings within each individual state and throughout the globe. But they also required a leap of faith in what the individual was prepared to demand from their living space – trends for greater consumer choice and demand were apparent at the time, but these failed to translate into demand for more nomadic housing, and the tendency towards nostalgia was fully reasserted by the 1980s. Furthermore, the idea of the house as an ephemeral product went against the very notion of land and territory.

The dream of megastructure was not simply a formalist explosion in optimistic times. Rather, it was an attempt to allow the state to create spaces in which people could consider themselves individually fulfilled, while never hiding from view the infrastructure and service provided. Unlike in conventional housing, where heating, plumbing and waste infrastructure are all hidden, megastructure was in the last instance an attempt to make clear the functions and systems that are constantly required to live in a city at all. We should understand it not as an indulgent fantasy but as a political aesthetic of togetherness, immune to the deliberate aesthetic atomisation that would so often occur in architecture in the decades to come. It was an attempt to resolve the antagonisms between conformity to society and individual freedom, and in that way it represents many of the important struggles of the time. That it lost out in the end to changing fashion, growing cynicism about institutions and the very notion of progress, should not blind us to the potential of the options that were closed off in the process.

- Edited extract from Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture by Douglas Murphy

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