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Isozaki Arata Incubation Process

designed 1962, made 1997/2011
Close-up on a sculpture in which numerous iron nails stick out of a tabletop. They are haphazardly arranged and hammered at different depths and angles. Blue, red, and yellow plastic wires wrap around the nails, connecting them. The work is covered in lumps of dried white plaster.

M+, Hong Kong, © Arata Isozaki. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

This arresting table-top piece is by acclaimed Japanese architect Isozaki Arata. Since his debut in the 1960s, Isozaki has arguably been the most important connection between the architectural communities of Japan and the wider world. 

Thomas Daniell, a professor of architecture at Kyoto University, told us how, like so many of his generation, Isozaki was shaped by the destruction of Japanese cities during the Second World War.  

Isozaki was fourteen years old when his hometown Oita was firebombed in the final months of World War II. And he survived obviously, but, in his own words, it was standing in the ashes of his family home the next morning, seeing around him an entire town that had been destroyed, was the moment he first became aware of architecture itself. And the darkness ruin and loss of that night has tinged everything he's ever done since then, by his own admission. 

We asked Thomas about this piece, titled Incubation Process. 

It's obviously not a work of architecture or of city design. You could think of it as an artwork, but in fact, what it really is, is the aftermath of a performance.

Though this is a later version, that original performance took place in 1962 at an exhibition of Japanese urban design called This Will Be Your City. There, Isozaki sought to demonstrate that for city design to be successful, no single individual could impose their own idea of order, but instead, should enable participation by many other people.

He set up an installation that comprised a wooden trestle table covered with an aerial photograph of Tokyo. Beside it, he placed hammers, nails, and coloured wires with a sign inviting visitors to hammer in the nails and connect them with the wires, wherever they wished. And this was intended as a demonstration of the bottom-up participation of many people. But the gallery visitors put nails and wires everywhere: the table, the walls, the floor, the ceiling, turning the whole room into a giant spider web. Isozaki visited halfway through the exhibition run and cut most of them away, but they had reappeared by the final day of the exhibition, when Isozaki returned and poured liquid plaster over the tabletop. He was admittedly inspired by the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, but it was also his representation of the chaos and energy of a city and reminding us of the necessity for occasional destruction as a basis for ongoing creation.


Incubation Process is a proposal for future city development conceived by Isozaki Arata in 1962. The project is represented in the exhibition Things, Spaces, Interactions with a sculpture titled Incubation Process, and related materials including three images, one magazine, and one video.

The sculpture is the result of two public participatory performances staged by Isozaki in 1997 and 2011 to demonstrate his proposal. The medium includes wood, plastic-coated wire, iron nail, and plaster. On a flat wooden table that measures about 4 feet by 8 feet is a maze of countless nails. Some of the nails are packed together while the others are more dispersed. Some stand straight while the others slant. They are of different lengths and hence of different heights when mounted on the wooden table. The shortest ones are about the height of an adult’s pinkie finger, and the highest ones are about the height of an adult’s hand. Each nail is twined with plastic-coated wires of red, yellow, and blue colour. Some wires twine one or a few turns around a nail, then go on to wrap a neighbouring one. Some have loose ends that point upwards. Some twist and tangle in spaces among the nails. Almost all nails are interlaced by colourful wires. On these nails and raised wires lie lumps of dried plaster that are white in colour and partially orange for the areas stained by the rust from the nails. Some plaster piles up or hangs from the wires, some lies on the wooden table as if the plaster has piled up too heavily and fallen off the wires. There are bare areas on the wooden table that are not covered by plaster, where a black-and-white aerial photograph of Tokyo from the 1960s is partially visible.

In addition to this wooden table, the work also includes three images, one magazine, and one video. The first image is a piece of printed paper with a text and a drawing of a city network in black and blue ink, stacked on top of an image of ruins. The second image is a black-and-white aerial shot of Tokyo that is covered by an image of ruins. The third image is a collage work that combines modern architectural drawing overlaid with black and white cut-out photographs of massive stonework of Greek architecture ruins. For the magazine, it is a Japanese magazine called ‘Bijutsu Techo’ published in 1962.

The video is a documentary of Isozaki conducting a performance at an exhibition in Japan in 2011, showing how the sculpture was created. It starts with Isozaki hammering metal nails on a table whose top was covered by a black-and-white photograph, and then he connected the nails with coloured wires. Eventually an audience group participated by adding more nails and wires. In the video, Isozaki is an older man with grey hair. He pours plaster from a bucket onto the nails and wires on the wooden table.