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The floating world of Kisho Kurokawa

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Kisho Kurokawa: From the Age of the Machine to the Age of Life At the RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 13 June

Kisho Kurokawa is a well-connected architect. He mingles with past, present and future prime ministers; his retrospective committee chairman is the chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co, and Mr Toyota (of guess what) is another board member. Perhaps the architect's ability to envision the future is more welcome in Asia than here; and when its practitioner mingles with powerful ideas - philosophical references litter his writings - as readily as with powerful men, the combination might be electric.

But lurking in the background to this impressively designed and curated show is the question of whether this enormously prolific, energetic and fortunate architect is a charlatan or a genius. Does his work find some symbiotic path between the worlds of finance, politics, academia and architecture, or does it flirt without consummation? The simple answer is that it does both, a conclusion prefigured when an architect acquaintance told me as we studied the exhibition that he had visited two of Kurokawa's buildings and found them at either end of the quality spectrum.

Kurokawa emerged through the Metabolist Group of the 1960s, the second time in 100 years that Japanese architecture had captivated the west. After the opening of Japan in the 1860s, its art gave a new aesthetic which influenced, among many others, Frank Lloyd Wright and Giacomo Puccini. In 1960 Japan ranked lower than the uk among the world's industrial powers, but the Metabolists crystallised the enormous impetus its industrial development then had in such projects as Kurokawa's 'floating' and 'helix' cities. Using formal metaphors from biology - especially dna - they offered a vision of rational planning for modern life, based around technology.

This phase of Kurokawa's career was covered in an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre last year. Its projects have a ghostly presence in this show, the drawings looming out of a red background to symbolise the past of spilt blood and revolution. Against this, the more recent projects which Kurokawa wants to highlight at the riba, emerge with a stark clarity, aided by sharp black-on-white printed drawings at an appropriately large scale and exquisite models which can be magnified by a Star Trek-like viewing device that is issued to every visitor. On the floor are sketches which actually relate to the material on the walls nearby; visitors are literally immersed in Kurokawa's world.

And that world is a strange, floating, shifting, drifting one, the creation of an unquiet mind. It is as if Kurokawa circles a design challenge, subjecting it to many modes of analysis, before it crystallises as a formal idea. The problem is that sometimes these formal ideas are trite and repetitive. There is the ubiquitous cone, a shape which pops up as the entrance to the Ehime Science Museum, in a hotel in Menorca, as a foyer at Lane Crawford Place (a commercial development in Singapore), and like so many tacks in an upturned piece of carpet in a Malaysian Eco-Media City.

Other favourites are the giant egg - as seen, appropriately, in the Fukui Museum of Dinosaurs - and the serpentine glass wall, especially when contrasted to a grid-patterned frame. I do not know enough about Japanese architecture to understand the formal significance of these shapes; unfortunately I see them with a Eurocentric perspective and that reduces the latter, at least, to a cliche of commercial architecture.

Another curious effect is the designs' ascalar character. When similar forms are reproduced so often, even if they are different sizes, they tend to be a constant reference point for the observer. Even though common sense (and careful observation) dictates otherwise, it is sometimes tempting to read the very large as very small and vice-versa; that, I suspect, is how Kurokawa thinks, but it generates some confusion as to whether his strengths are in urbanism, formal generation (though the final section on fractal design wasn't wholly convincing), or clever internal planning.

There are some exquisite projects here. I was quite taken with the Shiga Kogen Roman Art Museum, with Roman artefacts displayed in (you guessed it) upturned cones - and there are plenty more seductive images. But the work is most powerful when it is unambiguously urban in scale: whether in the uncompromising 'Floating City' of 1961 (huge double helixes integrating the motor car and housing) or the recent Shenzhen city centre masterplan (where an area about the size of New York's Central Park will be lined with large buildings, excavated for a car park and covered with a landscaped garden). It is these projects that have the widest palette of life for an ever-restless mind to explore. And, as in the biological metaphors which underpin Kurokawa's work from Metabolism to the Age of Life, that work is never complete and always open to change.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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