A building resembling stacks of metal blocks with round windows, in a commercial district.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, pictured in 2009. Thomas White/Reuters

The famous example of Japanese Metabolist architecture was headed for demolition—but a reprieve may be on the horizon.

In the densely packed Tokyo neighborhood of Shinbashi, one building stands out from all the others: the 13-story Nakagin Capsule Tower, completed in 1972. Its two stacks of small metal capsules, each with a signature round window, look more like a collection of washing machines than an apartment complex. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, the tower is a departure from the area’s mix of nondescript residential buildings and sleek offices.

The tower has 140 prefabricated units, intended to be replaced as they wore out over time. Noritaka Minami, a Chicago-based photographer, has repeatedly visited and stayed in the tower. “It’s a stunning space … the fact it still exists is quite extraordinary,” he says. (Noritaka Minami, from the series “1972 - Nakagin Capsule Tower”)

Yet as the 2020 Summer Olympics approaches, the fate of the unique building—located in a bustling business district—hangs in the balance. Last year, a limited-liability company bought the land under the tower (which is a condominium) from the original developer and announced its intention to redevelop it, and said it would prohibit future sales of capsules, which it can do under Japanese law. Then, last month, the news agency Jiji Press reported that a foreign company was in negotiations to acquire the land rights and possibly save the tower.

Designed by the late architect Kisho Kurokawa, the tower is one of the best surviving examples of Metabolism, a postwar architectural movement in Japan. Metabolism was a largely theoretical movement that viewed buildings not as static but as regenerative, and its architects planned megastructures composed of both permanent and impermanent parts, so they could evolve over time. As the Metabolist “Proposal for a New Urbanism” (1960) described, “We regard human society as a vital process, a continuous development from atom to nebula. The reason why we use the biological word metabolism is that we believe design and technology should denote human vitality.”

The building was originally commissioned by Torizo Watanabe, the president of the real-estate firm Nakagin. He was impressed by Kurokawa’s designs at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and wanted to see a major work by him realized in Tokyo. The tower was constructed—assembled, rather—out of 140 prefabricated units made of steel; these were connected to one of the building’s two concrete cores with high-tension bolts. Kurokawa intended for the tiny capsules, which measure about 100 square feet, to be replaced as needed, allowing for a perpetual renewal of the building.

The interior of an apartment in the tower. (Noritaka Minami, from the series “1972 - Nakagin Capsule Tower”)

But more than four decades later, none of the capsules has been replaced, and the building is increasingly decrepit. Many of the capsules are tended with care, but others have been left to decay.

Over the years, Nakagin’s enthusiasm for the building declined alongside its state of repair. As the firm told The Japan Times in 2014, “Right now, there are no ways to preserve the building at a reasonable maintenance cost, but the property cannot be destroyed without approval from at least four-fifths of [unit] owners.”

A capsule living room. “There’s something about the circular window that is quite evocative,” Minami says, noting that with the porthole window, “there’s that quality of being in a lens or in a camera itself.” (Noritaka Minami, from the series “1972 - Nakagin Capsule Tower”)

Demolition has been considered since 2007, when the building’s then-management approved plans for it to be torn down, citing deteriorating conditions and the presence of asbestos. According to Japan Property Central, a Tokyo real-estate brokerage, “The construction company chosen to lead the redevelopment filed for bankruptcy shortly afterwards and the redevelopment plan was put on hold. By 2010 the discussion was raised again, but a growing divide between owners in favor of demolition and those in favor of preserving the existing structure has led to a standstill.”

Tatsuyuki Maeda, a member of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Conservation and Regeneration Project, hopes the building will be spared both for its place in architectural history and because of its popularity with tourists. If he had his way, it would not only be preserved but improved, restored to its original state. He told CityLab in an email:

The capsule was originally intended to be replaced in 20 to 25 years, but 47 years have passed without replacement. There are many problems that cannot be solved without replacing the capsules, such as waterproofing of the capsule’s outer wall, asbestos removal, maintenance of the water supply pipe, the construction of new air conditioners, and seismic reinforcement.

Maeda currently owns 15 capsules in the building and hopes to tip the balance in favor of preservation. As of late August, he put the chances of its survival at about 50/50.

In his essay in photographer Noritaka Minami’s book about the building, 1972, architecture critic Julian Rose writes that advocates for preservation like Maeda ”[see] the tower as a nostalgic glimpse into a world of unrealized possibilities,” while proponents of demolition “see a manifestly failed proposal for a now-obsolete model of urban living, a relic whose time has come.” The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Nagakin Capsule Tower is irreplaceable—whether they see that as tragic, or a relief.

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