Once you arrive in Tokyo’s busy commercial district of Shimbashi, a short walk from the station brings you to a noisy highway overpass, and beside that the futuristic Nakagin Capsule Tower. The tower’s stunning design may strike passersby as something straight out of a science-fiction movie, but it stands as a unique architectural beacon amongst the common apartment high-rises and office buildings of Ginza. Designed by the late Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho, the 14-story tower is composed of 140 individual capsules that function as apartments and business offices. The tower has also served as a prototype of sorts for uniquely Japanese urban accommodations, such as business and capsule hotels.
Written by Blair McBride
But the future of the tower is uncertain. For various reasons, including maintenance concerns and a lack of local support for preservation, the building will be demolished in less than two years unless a substantial preservation plan can be formed and accepted. The possible demolition would be a disappointing loss for Japanese architecture, as few of Kurokawa’s Metabolist buildings remain in Japan.
Nakagin Capsule Tower and Metabolism
Constructed in 1972, the tower is a prime example of Kisho’s Metabolism architecture movement that focused on adaptable, growing, and interchangeable building designs. Metabolism — the word suggesting organic growth that responds to its environment — influenced every step of the tower’s construction. The capsules were manufactured in a factory in Shiga Prefecture and transported to Tokyo by truck. They were then attached to the tower’s central beam. The capsules were designed to be removable and replaceable from the central beam. Even the seemingly small space inside the capsules can be modified — it can be increased by connecting capsules to other capsules. The tower’s simple, minimalist design was deliberate. As a Metabolist building, Kurokawa believed that the inherent beauty of materials like concrete and steel meant that they didn’t need any special modifications or decorations.
But why construct a capsule building in the first place? Kurokawa observed that throughout Japanese history, frequent natural disasters — and also the destruction caused by World War 2 — meant that Japanese cities built from natural materials had temporary, even unpredictable lifespans. Kurokawa therefore wanted to continue that tradition of temporality in building design by constructing modern but changeable buildings.
The Metabolist ideas found in the Nakagin Capsule Tower were born in 1960 at the “World Design Conference” held in Tokyo. Most Metabolist buildings were constructed in the 1960s and 70s. Other than Nakagin, some notable Metabolist works of Kurokawa that use capsules include The Karuizawa Capsule House in Nagano and the Sony Tower in Osaka. Unfortunately, the Sony Tower was demolished in 2006. Also noteworthy is the gently curving, cellular-inspired Yamagata Hawaii Dreamland Resort in Yamagata Prefecture. An important Western building influenced by the Metabolist Movement is Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada, designed by Moshe Safdie.
The work of Kamakura-based architect Jin Hidaka is heavily influenced by Metabolism. Hidaka operates the Slowmedia Japanese architecture forum. He will present a talk entitled “Reconsideration of the ‘Metabolism Model’” at the upcoming Design 2050 Union of International Architects (UIA) congress, to be held in Tokyo in 2011. As Hidaka states, the Metabolist ideas of the 1960s “were very new, they saw cities as ‘moving’ and dynamic, that concept is real. Metabolism wanted to collaborate with engineers, they invited scientists, designers, and industrial designers. They wanted trans-cultural collaborations. It’s still relevant because of the ‘dynamic city’ and trans-cultural aspects. I want these collaborations to continue.”
But Metabolist buildings such as Nakagin and the Sony Tower haven’t proven as resilient as their ideas. “Metabolism wanted to create a new system of architecture,” Hidaka explains. “For example, product design where you can change different parts of it after finishing. [But] Metabolism has limits.”
Those limits are seen in the Nakagin Tower. Hidaka says that Nakagin “is a complicated building and a complicated situation.” Despite the tower’s importance as a major Metabolist project, Hidaka admits that there were faults in design. “The tower had a design period of only four months — shorter than usual, and it was rushed. The designing went on even after construction had already started.”
The capsules around the central beam were intended to be replaceable, in line with the Metabolist philosophy of interchangeability. But the capsules haven’t been replaced, and Hidaka points to the design to explain why. “The capsules can be taken apart from the center beam, but only from the top, not the bottom — a simple design problem because taking them apart from the bottom would be easier.”
The complicated nature of the tower is evident in the mixed levels of support seen for the preservation of the building. As Mr. Tanaka of Kurokawa Kisho Architects explains, there is support for repairing the building, “but then due to budgetary concerns from a small group of people, it was decided after the votes [were collected] from the residents that it is to be demolished,” making way for a new building.
On the other hand, international support for preserving the building is enormous and articulate. In a survey by London-based World Architecture News, over 10,000 architects in 100 countries were polled on their thoughts on preserving the tower. The survey results were as follows: 75% for replacing the capsules, 20% for leaving it as is, and 5% for demolition. Even if the tower is demolished, international interest remains high. According to Hidaka, “the 2010 Pompidou exhibition will showcase Japanese architecture, and they want a capsule to exhibit if it is demolished.”
Despite the unfortunate possibility of demolition, there are other options for the future of the tower. One is to buy the capsules from the owners one-by-one. That could be an expensive option, but for Hidaka, “it’s worth the cost of buying the capsules if the building can be preserved.” Other possibilities include opening a competition for new interior designs and replacing the current capsules with new ones. If the capsules are replaced, another option is to use the tower as a hotel. But according to Hidaka, Kurokawa tried to do just that and found the situation “difficult.”
No one can be sure as to what will happen to Nakagin. But the building and the ideas behind it have represented unique and appreciated contributions to architecture. Jin Hidaka is optimistic that Metabolism can still contribute to architecture and culture. Metabolism can’t be done “the same way anymore, but if we can change the direction we can do it. Because now we have the technology that they didn’t have back then.”
The Nakagin Capsule Tower certainly faces a troubled future, so if you’d like to check it out for yourself, do it as soon as possible!