Informal Metabolism


How do we search for subaltern solutions to the insatiable need for safe and affordable housing in our systemically and spatially oppressive urban environments?

Can the successes and failures of previous architectural movements inform our approach towards understanding and tackling urban informality?

Completed as part of the Master’s Degree in Architecture and Urban Design at the Politecnico di Milano, the thesis presented here locates itself at the intersection between the recent turn towards a ‘Southern’ planning theory, calling for a subaltern urbanism, and the renewed interest in the Metabolist movement. The research was carried out across 2021 and 2022, between Italy and South Africa, during the period of restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting accessibility to certain locations and in-person interactions.


This thesis tackled the issue of urban informality by proposing an analytical framework developed by rethinking the utopic urban paradigms of the 1960s Metabolist movement. In my work I argued that the Metabolists’ futuristic urban paradigms provide alternative perspectives of urban informality, stimulating subaltern approaches to understand the multi-layered complexities of informal settlements. To substantiate this claim, I investigated the morphological and physiological parallels between the movement’s urban paradigms and informal dynamics of urbanism, directly informing the development of a research framework to address informal settlements, acting as a precursor to possible design interventions. 

Considering Kishō Kurokawa’s philosophy of symbiosis and Patsy Healey’s reflections on the transnational flow of planning ideas, I proposed the ‘transnational symbiosis’ of the Metabolist movement’s paradigms and dynamics of informal urbanism, informing the development of a Symbiotic Analytical Framework. I substantiated this by employing the developed framework in the study of Joe Slovo informal settlement, located in Cape Town, South Africa. While not exhaustive, the proposed research approach stimulated a rich understanding of the settlement’s dynamics, providing an informed proposal for a subaltern informal urban framework.

Figure 1: Schematic diagram illustrating the research structure of this thesis.
(by author)

Thus, how can the rethinking of the utopic urban paradigms developed by the Metabolists in postwar Japan, and their processes of transnational export, inform a methodological framework to address the urban condition of informal settlements, observed through the South African milieu?


Despite widely stereotyped pop sci-fi imagery of the Metabolists’ work, their paradigms are informed by philosophies of social sustainability that promote the metabolic proliferation of urban structures in response to constantly changing urban needs. In contrast to hegemonic Eurocentric notions of architecture as artefact, Japanese architectural tradition values the transient relationship between space and time, considering design as a process rather than a final outcome. 

Presented at the World Design Conference in Tokyo in 1960, the Metabolist Manifesto set the shared intentions of a group of young Japanese architects who claimed to “regard human society as a vital process” adopting the biological term ‘metabolism’ to symbolise the importance of human vitality within design and technology. Despite sharing these core values, the architects developed widely different, and occasionally contradicting, paradigms. These nuances are described both in the architects’ own writings and the numerous built and unbuilt projects. For the scope of this thesis, I investigate three of these paradigms that I consider to be most pertinent to the research question.

Figure 2: Three paradigms developed by the Metabolist architects related to relevant local projects.
(sources on image)

The first of these is Megastructures, generally characterised by a large structural service frame and smaller flexible units housing individual functions. This is illustrated in Kenzō Tange’s 1960 Plan for Tokyo. An attempt to open up the existing centripetal urban system of Tokyo, Tange took inspiration from the linear cellular growth of vertebrates, proposing an urban plan characterised by a central civic axis, affording the horizontal expansion of individual residential communities across Tokyo Bay. 

The second paradigm is Group Form, characterised by a system of inherently linked generative elements, upholding an urban system that can respond to fluctuations in society. Fumihiko Maki’s Hillside Terrace illustrates this, informed by notions of linkages and open linkages. What started off as a masterplan for a mixed use residential block evolved into a ‘master-process’, designed in six phases over two decades, resulting in a heterogeneous, yet cohesive development. 

Lastly, Social Sustainability forms the core of various design strategies, characterised by the affordance of individual flexibility within urban frameworks. Masato Ōtaka’s Motomachi Apartment Complex in Hiroshima boasts elements of social sustainability. It’s constructed following principles of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ structures, allowing for the internal flexibility of individual units over time. Additionally, it adopts the notion of artificial lang, both in the central public space and in the corridors and accessible rooftop, replicating the essence of the organic communal streets of the Atomic Bomb Slum, previously home of the original residents of the development.

The young architects saw globalisation as a valuable tool for the exchange of knowledge and human experience. While the Osaka Expo ‘70 is widely considered the swansong of the Metabolists in Japan, it also acted as a global launchpad for international commissions. The event of the 1973 Oil crisis further launched the transnational export of their locally developed paradigms. These processes of transnational export demonstrate the international value of the legacy of the Metabolists’ paradigms, not only specific to the context of Japan. 

Figure 3: Three international projects proposed by the Metabolist architects.
(sources on image)

Tange’s Masterplan for Pilgrim Accommodation in Mina, Saudi Arabia, embodies a truly dynamic temporary city, exemplary of the harmony between the urban paradigms of Megastructures and Group Form, while simultaneously respecting the symbolic nature of the site. 

Kurokawa’s As Sarir New Town in Libya harnesses the symbiosis of Japanese and Arab cultures, through the use of local technologies and knowledge for the development of a megastructural urban plan and generative architectural model. 

The PREVI experimental social housing project in Peru is the only occasion in which multiple members of the Metablosit group have collaborated. Despite their masterplan not being realised, their architectural model was – a structure allowing for the horizontal and vertical expansion of individual units over time.


Recent literature concerning informal urbanism has called for a Southern turn in planning theory, rejecting hegemonic notions of ‘best practice’ design models. Among these, Healey highlights the value in traveling ideas, substantiated by an origin narrative, describing the nature of the milieu in which they were developed. Similarly, Kurokawa’s philosophy of Symbiosis describes intercultural architecture as a hybrid architecture in which elements of different cultures exist in symbiosis.

To investigate the Transnational Symbiosis between Metabolism and Informal Urbanism, I propose a series of ‘contingent universals’ that characterise most informal settlements. These included:

  • Limited or no legal tenure;
  • Autonomy in the construction of dwellings and urban forms;
  • High density, accessible materials, and improper land preparation, exacerbating natural disasters;
  • Temporal nature of structures;
  • Strategic location in terms of transport routes and economic centres;
  • Limited municipal intervention, and informal circular economies.

Having outlined parallels between the Metabolist urban paradigms and the dynamics of informal urbanism, I then proposed the development of a symbiotic analytical framework, providing actionable parameters towards a research approach tailored to individual informal settlements. The foundation of this analytical framework is developed through the symbiosis of Metabolist urban paradigms and informal urban dynamics and aims to guide the research phase of individual informal settlements in preparation for the proposal of urban interventions. The parameters in the framework are designed to stimulate actionable research processes, to be translated into design approaches following the initial research phase. The symbiotic analytical framework proposes five research parameters: 

[01] Origin Narrative ; [02] Spatial Occupation ; [03] Social Sustainability ;
[04] Linkages ; [05] Megastructure

Making use of this proposed framework I approached the study of Joe Slovo informal settlement, in Cape Town. 


The origin narrative involved tracing the historical, cultural, political, and social background that led to the establishment of the informal settlement in question. This begins on the national level, to establish the wider socio-political context, followed by its localisation within the city-wide context, both on a spatial and socio-political scale. Having established its wider context, the birth and growth of the settlement’s social, political, cultural and spatial developments should be researched.

Figure 5: A timeline indicating key socio-political and spatial events in Langa’s history.
(by author)


The observation of changes in spatial occupation over time at the urban and architectural scales determine the dynamics of growth of a given informal settlement. Joe Slovo is located within Langa, a predominantly residential township, with limited connections to neighbouring areas, and confined within a system of highways and buffer strips. 

Figure 6: Spatial analysis of Langa illustrating public/private spaces, key landmarks, and urban tissue patterns.
(by author)

Langa is a palimpsest of urban patterns, each reflecting key moments in its brief but rich history. The most dense of these urban patterns is Joe Slovo informal settlement, located in the south-eastern corner of Langa.

Observing the informal settlement’s footprint since its inception in the early 1900s, its size has seemingly shrunk over the decades. A direct result of the N2 Gateway housing project eroding at its extremities. This has, however, led to the densification of the settlement in certain areas, as well as the shifting of its boundary to previously unoccupied land.

Figure 7: Visual observation of changes in spatial occupation at the urban scale.
(source: Google Maps/edited by author)

At the architectural scale, changes in spatial occupation are extremely responsive to immediate individual needs, with the autonomous emergence and alteration of structures resulting in a kinetic environment. 

Figure 8: Visual observation of changes in structures at the architectural scale.
(source: Google Maps/edited by author)


Social sustainability observes the self-determined logic of informal settlements, characterised by circular economies, locally sourced skills, materials and produce, and the multidimensional adaptation of spaces. This is exemplified in the autonomous provision of community services, independent businesses, cyclical social activities, and the efficient use of interstitial spaces. 


Linkages are observed through the processes of social and spatial mapping of the relationships between people and the physical environment. 

The repetition of informal structures constructed with similar materials or methods indicates a similar language among generative elements. 

Informal settlements are defined by physical and political boundaries, not only uniting them, but also separating them from nearby urban areas. 

Networks of sequential paths at various scales stimulate a cohesion among the entirety of the settlement. 

Spaces of mediation are encapsulated by organic and dynamic street fronts which define interstitial spaces of movement and pause within the settlement.


In the context of informal urbanism, Megastructure refers to the multi-layered structure of governmentality involved, and is split into three categories determined by the life cycle and permanence of given actors: long, medium, and short life-cycles. 

Long life-cycle refers to national and international level actors whose sphere of influence is wide and whose actions are generally characterised by a sense of permanence. 

Medium life-cycle refers to municipal or city level, as well as some non-state actors, whose sphere of influence is more localised, and the life span of their actions is semi-permanent. 

Short life-cycle refers to local agents whose sphere of influence is more concentrated to the settlement and whose actions have a direct and immediate effect.  


With this manifesto I challenge hegemonic notions of design approaches towards informal settlements, rejecting the decontextualised application of best practice models across heterogeneous contexts. I rebuke the preconceived assumption of communities’ needs and instead propose a series of operational categories that investigate the intrinsic logic of informal urbanism, harnessing them into contextualised tools for design. Informal Metabolism borrows fundamental notions of the Metabolist urban paradigms and reconsiders them through the lens of informal urbanism. As such, I propose the following operational categories: 

[01] To Support Organic Spatial Occupation 

[02] To Reinforce Active Linkages 

[03] To Promote Social Sustainability 

[04] To Optimize Megastructures


The outcome of this thesis does not intend to be a comprehensive methodological framework. Rather, it prompts the investigation of urban informality in varying contexts to inform the further development of the proposed framework. Key questions for future research challenge the assumptions made by the limitations of my research:

Does the proposed framework respond to dynamics of urban informality in different contexts?

Is the framework successful in highlighting empirical and systemic nuances in different informal settlements?

The transnational investigation of informal settlements through the employment of my proposed methodological framework will substantiate its successes and highlight its flaws, in the hope that it could eventually lead to an applicable subaltern urban planning framework for the collaborative and respectful development of informal settlements – to aid in the provision of a safe and secure urban environment for the millions of people living in inadequate urban conditions.

(Reduced) References:

> Coetzer, Nicholas. ‘Langa Township in the 1920s – an (Extra)Ordinary Garden Suburb’, 2009.
> Dados, Nour, and Raewyn Connell. ‘The Global South’. American Sociological Association 11, no. 1 (2012): 12–13.
> Healey, Patsy. ‘The Universal and the Contingent: Some Reflections on the Transnational Flow of Planning Ideas and Practices’. Planning Theory 11, no. 2 (1 May 2012): 188–207.
> Isozaki, Arata. Japan-Ness in Architecture. MIT Press, 2011.
> Low, Ian. ‘A Perspective of Emergencies: A Case of Langa’. In African Perspectives – [South] Africa. City, Society, Space, Literature and Architecture., 64–73. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2012.
> Kawazoe, Noboru, Kiyonori Kikutake, Masato Otaka, Fumihiko Maki, and Kishō Kurokawa. Metabolism/1960: The Proposals for New Urbanism. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1960.
> Koolhaas, Rem, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks. Taschen America Llc, 2011.
> Kurokawa, Kisho. The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Subsequent edition. London : New York, NY: Academy Pr, 1994.
> Pernice, Raffaele, ed. The Urbanism of Metabolism: Visions, Scenarios and Models for the Mutant City of Tomorrow. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2022.
> Roy, Ananya. ‘Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35 (1 March 2011): 223–38.
> Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong. Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
> Satgé, Richard de, and Vanessa Watson. Urban Planning in the Global South. Conflicting Rationalities in Contested Urban Space. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.