Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo is a beautiful example of modular architecture by a well-known architect Kisho Kurokawa. Simple, compact cuboids clustered around two concrete needles must have looked straight out of a science fiction story when they were built. Completed in 1972, the structure is rather old for a building and its age (and poor to none maintenance) has been becoming obvious in the past years. Not to mention worries have been expressed as to potentially harmful levels of asbestos, well-known for its numerous positive properties in the building industry and later discovered to cause serious damage to humans’ internal organs, especially lungs, upon inhalation.
The idea behind the towers is that pinning the capsules to the towers makes it easy to replace them in case they are damaged or when they don’t meet the needs of the resident anymore. Now how does it actually work? If one took away all the capsules, they’d be left with two concrete (steel frame and reinforced concrete) towers. These towers contain shared areas, meaning hallways, staircases and lifts, and all the pipes and cables. Each capsule is attached to its’ tower using only four high-tension bolts, nothing else.
A single capsule supplies everything a single Japanese person needs (or at least needed in the early 1970’s) – a kitchen stove and a refrigerator a TV and a cassette-player, a bed under the sole circular window and a bathroom, rather modest in size. Considering the target group were hard-working salary-men without families, the minimalism probably wasn’t much of an issue at first. Later when entire families attempted to live in a single capsule, it was a whole different story.
These capsules were all manufactured off-site, drastically shortening the time spent building the structure on site, just like with any other prefabricates. If I recall correctly it was built in under half a year.
While other very practical point of the Nakagin Capsule Tower was easy replacement of the living units, none have ever been exchanged for newer ones in the 41 years since its completion. (Originally they were supposed to be replaced every 25 years at the most.) Nevertheless it is still a prime, and one of a few, example of Japanese metabolism movement – just like in living organisms, in architecture metabolism strives for constant and natural growth, maintenance and waste disposal.
Regardless of the towers’ architectural and historical value, in 2007 the last remaining inhabitants voted to have them demolished and have a new high-rise built in their place. Fortunately (in my opinion), the start of the economic recession has had possible investors carefully considering every yen and the marvel still stands today.
Prior to his death months after the vote, the architect himself protested against the demolition, but failed to find an investor to undertake the replacement of the 140 decrepit pods with some more up-to-date ones. Further arguments were raised supporting the tower’s destruction, citing low earthquake safety or inefficient land use. A new structure could increase offered floor area from the current 3,091m2 by as much as 60%.
Nevertheless, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is still standing. The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi featured it in their 2011 exhibition about the metabolism movement, showcasing a capsule. After the exhibition ended, it was moved to the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, which was also designed by Kisho Kurokawa. What is more, the tower has been on the World Heritage shortlist for quite a while now. There is definitely still hope for it, although it may take a while.