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It is impossible to avoid cyberpunk or sci-fi evocations while standing in front of the legendary Nakagin Capsule Tower. It’s one of the Tokyo buildings that has ignited more passions in Japan and the rest of the world among architecture enthusiasts, not only for its unconventional aesthetics but also for the wealth of innovative approaches behind it. Its construction in 1972 based on architect Kisho Kurokawa’s radical design caused a sensation from the very first moment. It’s one of the greatest banners of Metabolism architecture and a cultural icon in its own right.

Unfortunately, its days are numbered.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower building in Tokyo
The Nakagin Capsule Tower building in Tokyo is one of the greatest stalwarts of Metabolism architecture.

Nakagin Capsule Tower: Of capsules and men

Nearly 50 years after its construction, a handful of residents are waging a quixotic crusade in which the cultural value of historical heritage is pitted against the immediate economic gain. What was once a marvel of innovation and design is now barely surviving amid economic and structural problems. But they continue to militantly live here in an act of defiance and unconditional love for this building despite all the drawbacks. Such is the greater importance of what this building symbolizes for them.

Japan in the 1950s and 1960s is a phoenix rising from the ashes. These are years of great cultural dynamism. Rapid economic growth brings with it massive migrations from the countryside to the big cities amidst profound social changes. The country is a blank canvas, a laboratory of ideas, and an open field of opportunities where a group of utopian mad lads took it upon themselves to change the world through new urbanism.

In theory, the building’s 140 capsules were to be replaced every 20-25 years. Kurokawa had conceived the building as a metaphor for an organic structure with renovation and evolution capabilities. Each capsule consists of a tiny 10m2 living space, whose furnishings were designed to optimize the small space as much as possible, including state-of-the-art appliances for the time. Self-contained components that could be modified or removed to suit the demands of professionals on the move. The capsules lacked a kitchen, reinforcing the idea that they were not intended to be permanent dwellings. Their facilities were more akin to something halfway between an aparthotel and a co-working space. Residents had room service and secretaries at their disposal and a cafeteria that used to be on the 2nd floor.

Interior view of Nakagin Capsule Tower
The interior of a capsule of the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

In practice, the concept execution ended up being more problematic. The tower’s inhabitants realized that in order to replace a single capsule, it was necessary to remove all the capsules on top of it. Coordinating something like this with the row neighbours proved to be so complicated that not a single capsule was renovated according to plan. As a result, lack of maintenance combined with the wear and tear of time turned the utopian dream into a nightmare. Moisture and leaks are frequent problems in all units. Since 2010, a serious failure in one of the pipes was impossible to repair for structural reasons. It left the building without access to hot water. After the 2011 earthquake, it was also necessary to cover the building with a safety mesh to protect pedestrians from parts that could fall into the street.

From an economic point of view, the high repair costs do not justify its survival. It’s estimated that the cost of renovating each capsule could be as high as 10 million yen (about 75 thousand euros). Its location in Ginza also makes the site a very attractive place for new real estate investments. No need to explain what the logical consequence is.

And yet there it remains against all odds. It was supposed to be demolished in 2007 after asbestos was detected in its structure, but it was saved ironically by the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The company that was to handle its demolition went bankrupt. Since then, its status had remained in a limbo of uncertainty, as residents and activists make as much noise as possible. A multitude of proposals are on the table and several projects have been carried out to try to prevent it from falling into oblivion.

Facade of Nakagin Capsule Tower
The portrait of architect Kisho Kurokawa adorns the window of one of the capsules.

What’s the current state of Nakagin Capsule Tower?

Around 40 capsules are still inhabited, while a similar number of others are being used as offices. Most of its users are artists or architects, but there are also professionals of all kinds. One of its residents, Tatsuyuki Maeda, is the head of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project, a collective and multidisciplinary effort dedicated to saving the building through proposals for reusing the spaces and marketing campaigns for the building’s recognition as a cultural heritage site. Maeda began acquiring capsules in 2010 and currently owns 15 of them, some of which he has rented to other residents.

At times the end seemed near in 2018 when the Nakagin group sold the property management and grounds to a real estate fund that had clear intentions of recouping the investment. The 2020 Olympics were on the horizon and the Japanese capital was (even more) a hotbed of new construction, although there were also negotiations on the table with an unidentified foreign company that seemed interested in possibly retaining the building. The pandemic blew everything out of the water. That included Maeda’s hopes of presenting the building at an international architecture conference that was to have been held in Tokyo in September last year, which would also have served as an impetus for its preservation.

Another of Nakagin Capsule Tower’s legacy conservation efforts has been undertaken by the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building A606 Project, led by architect Akiko Ishimaru, who restored her capsule as if it was freshly made, including the operation of all the appliances. The capsule currently functions as a shared office, although it’s also possible to contact them in case you would like to take a guided tour in Japanese. Once the building demolition is confirmed, the aim is to remove the capsule and preserve it for posterity. Ishimaru herself has been chronicling her efforts on her crowdfunding page, such as becoming certified in asbestos removal in order to remove it as safely as possible.

For those who don’t understand Japanese, there’s also the possibility (still) of taking a guided tour in English through Showcase Tokyo, a group of architecture enthusiasts who, in addition to offering tours of the Nakagin Tower, also give tours of other highlights of contemporary architecture in Tokyo.

It’s been recently confirmed that the building is scheduled to be dismantled after March 2022. So the die seems to have been cast for the building’s future, while its advocates continue to run a race against the clock to prevent its demise or shift their focus to preserve its legacy. For the time being, there’s a capsule in permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art of Saitama, which was also designed by Kurokawa. It’s difficult to quantify how great an influence this movement and this building has had on the Japanese urban landscape, beyond the failures of its implementation. Not surprisingly, its architect was also the first capsule hotel’s architect, the Capsule Inn in Osaka, which is still in operation, maintaining the original design. This type of hotel continues to enjoy great popularity throughout Japan among locals and foreigners alike. Likewise, the ideas he formulated decades ago seem almost prophetic, given that they seem even more relevant today:

The mobility that characterizes modern society cannot be explained simply in terms of the development of transportation. The fact is that in our information society, mobility has begun to possess considerable value for its own sake. It is choice that makes movement possible. According to your own inclinations and values you can now choose things that are not found in the place you were born. People today look on the availability of choices as one of the riches of life — “a wealth of choices.” The city of the future, as we continue to evolve into a information society, should be a city that guarantees freedom of choice and taken positive steps to make movement possible.

A Theory of Network Cities for the Age of Homo Movens – Kisho Kurokawa, 1969

When did the architecture of Metabolism emerge in Japan?

Metabolism was a groundbreaking Japanese architectural movement that surprised architects around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Within the context of postwar architecture in Japan, the Metabolists sought to offer a comprehensive response not only to the recent atomic devastation but also to the archipelago’s propensity for natural disasters. A spiritual heir to the International Congress of Modern Architecture, many of its ideas and influences, such as modernism or brutalism, were synthesized by Kenzo Tange, who by then was already one of the most internationally prominent figures in Japanese architecture.

The movement’s official debut was during the Tokyo World Design Conference in 1960. Tange was the mentor of a group of young and promising architecture students, among them Kisho Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake and Fumihiko Maki, as well as designers such as Kiyoshi Awazu or the critic Noboru Kawazoe, among others. This is how they began their manifesto:

Metabolism is the name of the group, in which each member proposes future designs of our coming world through his concrete designs and illustrations. We regard human society as a vital process ー a continuous development from atom to nebula. The reason why we use such a biological word, the metabolism, is that, we believe, design and technology should be a denotation of human vitality. We are not going to accept the metabolism as a natural historical process, but we are trying to encourage active metabolic development of our society through our proposals.

It is thus understood that the movement was not limited to the aesthetic or purely architectural dimension. It also encompassed philosophical concepts related to its conception of the best form of social development. Metabolism is the translation of shinchintaisha (新陳代謝), which is not only an allusion to its ideals of organic and sustainable growth but also to the spiritual concept in the context of Buddhism, about the possibilities of renewal and regeneration.

Where can we find Metabolism architecture in Japan?

Though Nakagin Capsule Tower is the most famous exponent of the movement, there are also other buildings by other architects linked to Metabolism that, although sharing common ideas, show individual aspects of each of their designers. You can consult the location of each building on the map at the end of the article.

Kenzo Tange

The undisputed spiritual father of Metabolism and one of the most prominent Japanese architects of the 20th century.

Kiyonori Kikutake

Part of the founding group of Metabolism and a leading figure thanks to his innovative ideas regarding urban planning schemes.

Fumihiko Maki

Still active, and throughout his career, he’s been characterized by the fusion of modernist and Japanese traditions in each of his works.

We can see, therefore, that the influence of Nakagin Capsule Tower and Metabolism as an architectural movement in Japan, endures to this day through its aesthetic approaches and concepts such as the promotion of mobility or sustainable growth.

Toshiko Sakurai

Toshiko Sakurai

I shoot (with my camera!), therefore I am. I paint with light and try to put letters together to the best of my abilities. I arrived in Tokyo from Barcelona the autumn of 2017 and since then I've devoted myself to capture the city corners while riding my bicycle. When I'm not carrying my camera, I'm usually defying the culinary ortodoxy mixing styles from everywhere I've ever lived.

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