The Nakagin Capsule Tower, one of Japan’s most famous buildings and a beloved piece of modernist architecture, will soon be demolished.
A stack of blocks of a building in central Tokyo, the Nakagin Capsule Tower, a mixed-use residential and office building, is unlike any other building, perhaps anywhere. Its 140 individually habitable 100-square-foot capsule apartments and office spaces with single portholes look like spaceship interiors landed amid the city’s bland, rectangular office buildings. Designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, the building was a rarely built example of the Metabolist style of architecture, which framed buildings as living structures that could physically change and evolve over time. This futuristic vision made the tower a science fiction darling and led to its inclusion in films such as Wolverine and the live action version of the anime ghost in the shell.
Despite calls from around the world for its preservation, the building faces the wrecking ball. France Media Agency reports that demolition will begin on April 12.
William O. Gardner, a professor at Swarthmore College, is the author of the 2020 book The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction (with the Nakagin Capsule Tower on its cover). Gardner says Kurokawa was interested in the idea of humans becoming nomads and buildings fulfilling their desire to move and change. The building was a real form of speculative fiction, imagining what a future city might look like by actually building it. “The capsule concept was influenced by the space age and spacecraft design,” says Gardner. “Kurokawa spoke of the capsule as a type of mobile architecture docking together and moving into new configurations.”
But the vision for the building was never quite realized. The capsules, instead of being updated or moved, remained in place; and over the decades, the building’s unconventional design made repairs too complicated for some owners. As this article from preservation advocacy group DOCOMOMO explains, the capsules weren’t exactly easy to change; removing one from the building would actually require the pod above it to be removed at the same time. Leaks and damage to the building’s pipes are long-smoldering problems, and deferred maintenance has left many capsules crumbling and uninhabitable. In recent years, netting could be seen draped over many capsules to prevent pieces of the building from falling onto the street below.
Efforts to preserve the building have struggled to gain momentum. The Nakagin Capsule Tower preservation and regeneration project is among the most vocal, with an active Facebook page following news and mentions of the building. Its members have advocated for various efforts to preserve individual capsules and improve those that have fallen into disrepair. Another less conventional effort sought to use cleverly designed capsule-shaped business cards to help explain the building’s preservation-worthy architecture.
Architect and preservation expert Theodore Prudon explains that there are various reasons why the building could not be preserved. “One, of course, is money. It’s always about money,” he says. “Kurokawa himself has talked about clipping new units into the structure. Obviously, it’s a very expensive proposition. He notes that discussions about demolishing the building began in the early 2000s. “In many ways it is remarkable that the building has been able to survive for so long.”
Some of the owners of the building were behind this call for demolition, citing maintenance costs that had become unsustainable. Today, 50 years after the groundbreaking construction of the building, their wish has come true.
But this will not necessarily be the end for the parts of the building. Resident Tatsuyuki Maeda said AFP that some of its individual capsules will be preserved, possibly exhibited in museums. It may not be the evolution the late architect Kisho Kurokawa had in mind when he designed this unique building, but it is at least a next step in the life of a building destined to change with the time.