An asymmetric stack of similar concrete boxes in a neighborhood dominated by shining glass edifices of corporate Japan, it is an architectural novelty that draws enthusiasts from all over the globe.
However, the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which has stood in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood for over half a century, faces an unclear future.
Nakagin was the capital’s lone example of the metabolism architectural trend, which linked megastructures with organic biological development, and a physical reflection of Japan’s postwar economic and cultural renaissance when it was erected in 1972.
Kisho Kurokawa, the acclaimed architect who designed it, envisioned the 140 self-contained prefabricated capsules as pieds-à-terres for professionals who wished to avoid lengthy trips to their suburban residences throughout the week.
Each capsule included a unit bathroom, a Sony Trinitron TV, a reel-to-reel cassette/radio, a rotary dial phone, and a big circular window through which generations of Tokyo residents have observed the cityscape’s ever-changing skyline. Kurokawa, who died in 2007, planned for the capsules to be removed and changed every 25 years, in line with its metabolism origins.
However, time has caught up with the building, which is now encased in netting to prevent loosened rust and concrete from falling on passers-by.
The few surviving occupants must now accept that their houses and offices will be destroyed in the spring, according to reports that the building would be dismantled.
As Tatsuyuki Maeda, spokesman of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Regeneration Project, shows the Guardian around one of the 15 rooms he has acquired over the previous 12 years, preserving Nakagin in its existing state has proven difficult.
“We want the capsules to live on, albeit in a different form, to keep the metabolism idea alive,” says Maeda, 54, who began renting out part of his chambers and giving guided tours a decade ago to help save the 13-story structure. “This is more than simply a location for people to live and work. It motivates individuals to be inventive and creative.”
Since March, when the management firm and capsule owners decided to sell the site, almost 40 people have left, leaving just 20 renters – a diverse group that includes an architect, a DJ, a film director, and Maeda, who works in advertising. “A few people have said they’ll never want to leave,” he continues, “but they’ll have to get used to the idea.”
Due to the exorbitant expense, logistical obstacles, and concerns about the massive amounts of asbestos within the structure, plans to remove and replace the capsules were scrapped. The building, which has been without hot running water for more than a decade and, more importantly, does not fulfill Japan’s high earthquake-resistance rules, has taken a beating.
When an international investor expressed interest in purchasing the whole building, Nakagin’s future looked to be assured. According to Maeda, who lives nearby with his family but spends occasional evenings at Nakagin, discussions came to a halt when the coronavirus epidemic stopped investors from visiting Japan to examine the property.
The capsules’ survival is dependent on Maeda’s plan to deconstruct them, remove the asbestos, and give them to museums, art galleries, and other organizations in Japan and abroad — a proposal that, at the very least, follows Kurokawa’s architectural philosophy.
Museums from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Poland have contacted the preservation organization, wishing to contribute to the preservation of Japan’s short-lived experiment with metabolism.
“Europeans understand the importance of preserving buildings like this, whereas Japan is still guided by a tear-down-and-rebuild mentality,” says Maeda, who decided to purchase a Nakagin capsule while staring at the structure from his former office.
People from all over the globe went to this section of Ginza before the outbreak to photograph the city’s most iconic architectural attraction. On guided tours, foreign tourists often outnumbered Japanese fans, and fashion firms have exploited the nostalgic setting for photoshoots. Hugh Jackman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Keanu Reeves are among the celebrities that have visited. Nakagin’s exterior was included in the 2013 film The Wolverine.
“I’ve always imagined the capsules on a small island, in the middle of a forest, or even on the seabed,” Maeda says, adding that he’ll stay at Nakagin for a few nights until the capsules’ fate is determined.
“It’s possible to live in an apartment in Japan for years without seeing your neighbors. But here, everyone is nice and willing to assist one another. “We’re a genuine community.”