Trapped in a Capsule: Life at the Nakagin Capsule Tower

It can’t be missed when you’re gazing outside the limousine bus from Narita Airport to Tokyo city, heading towards Shimbashi. On the right side of the Higashi Kanto Expressway, suddenly jutting out from the quite monotonous and disarranged pre-fabricated architectural puzzle of one of the world’s most energetic cities, is a multi-cubical structure of protruding concrete blocks, so captivating it seems to envelop you inside the film set of Blade Runner.

©Alma Reyes Taiken Japan

A true iconic representation of Japanese metabolic architecture, the Nakagin Capsule Tower, constructed in 1972, was a catalytic vision of guru Kisho Kurokawa during the controversial Metabolism movement in Japan in the 1960s to 70s. It was a critical era in Japan, recovering a little more than a decade after post-war atrocities, and new ideas fusing megastructures and biological processes were conceptualized by Japan’s most revered architects that included Kengo Tange, Kiyonori Kikutake, Fumihiko Maki and Kurokawa himself, among others. The metabolism approach was geared towards propagating urban housing that could change over time according to the shifting needs of the society, and function as “organic” units that could be replaceable and recyclable. Kurokawa had already envisioned more than forty years ago that the world of the future would evolve around a satellite lifestyle wherein workers would soon have less need for grounded desk jobs, and mobilize from one point to another across borderless nations. Likewise, travelers would increase a hundredfold and opt to alter their abodes of comfort to habitats never explored before. The Nakagin Capsule Tower, therefore, stood as the physical epitome of impermanence, detachment, and transformation so that every cubicle unit in the building could be unfastened, refastened (to another location) and modified according to the demands of the times. “I designed the building to be an example of sustainable architecture, and it was the first of its kind in the world,” claims Kurokawa.

©Alma Reyes Taiken Japan

So many publications and institutions worldwide have covered and discussed the sensationalism of the Nakagin building, from The New York Times, Architectural Record, Business Insider, Domus to the American Institute of Architects, that it has been labeled with varied tag names: “space city”, “broccoli sprouts”, “huge washing machine”, and “dying animal”. Despite the edifice’s stupendous impact on the evolution of living, the beauty and ingenuity of its masterful creation gradually succumbed to its inevitable decay. Years of neglected water pipe damage, deteriorated heating system, and moldering concrete gave the structural function away. Nakagin’s stability suffered after the liquidation of the construction company during the global financial crisis, and throughout the 1990s until the present day, irreconcilable measures to either preserve the metabolic monument or demolish it have reached the peak of perilous crisis.

A first glance upon the capsule building from the entrance unmistakably exudes the air of solidified “antiquity”—the erratic insertion of cubic apartment units in unmaintained grey concrete with their conspicuous round windows and two rust-colored blade-like structures jutting out from the roof, which resemble a fearless submarine ready to submerge into colossal chaos. The lobby is gloomy, in somber colors of grey and brown, and surrounded by a stiff interplay of geometric shapes, quite reminiscent of the ‘70s style. Reaching the upper floors to seize a stolen peep of one of the cubicles is even more suspenseful as one faces the stained concrete walls, narrow corridors and low, steel entrance doors. Finally, the apartment cubicle is opened. Pure white walls guard the bright cobalt blue carpet, and capture you in an instant, inside a 2.5m x 4.0m box, pushing you relentlessly towards the overwhelmingly large 1.3m diameter circular window—the single source of room ventilation—that carries you from the interior’s claustrophobic state to the exterior’s infinite depth of Tokyo’s dazzled pandemonium. The built-in analog television, dial telephone, vintage stereo and tape recording equipment transport one to the stoic 60s and 70s era. The tiny bathroom with its submarine-inspired stylish door reveals a most constricted sensation—like a singular linear flow of the toilet, sink and bathtub trapped in a cosmic missile capsule floating in space.

These unusual, state-of-the-art interior features alone remain to be one of the outstanding grounds for mystery, curiosity and “futuristic” design that make the Nakagin Building still, a surprising catch for many inquisitive travelers and dwellers who enjoy residing alongside the fame of a historical mark. Out of the original 140 capsule units built, 105 are presently occupied. Many of these residents were drawn to the capsule tower out of a “dream” to live in metabolic architecture and in a unique space “different from what we were used to”. They possess an inclination towards the life of a “contemporary nomad”, in the words of Kurokawa, and adapt suitably to the microcosmic proportion of Tokyo’s congested residential grid. Some capsule units have been converted into minuscule galleries, art showcases or private studios aesthetically decorated.

©Alma Reyes Taiken Japan

Preservation, whether of a traditional ideology, art, or architecture cradled in the realm of history has always been a sensitive subject in Japan. There is a cringing irony in the global impression of Japan’s tradition and culture delicately embedded in the lives of the Japanese people versus the bold infrastructure of “modernity” replacing heritage. We have witnessed a heap of cultural symbols in this country that have lost their stature in present times, only to be substituted by a competitive race for the cutting-edge, displaying the shine of modern materials, such as glass, steel, metal and prefabricated components. The Hotel Okura (1964), propagated by artistic gems Yoshiro Taniguchi, Hideo Kosaka, Shiko Munakata, and Kenkichi Tomimoto; Tokyo’s Kabukiza Theatre (1889); Sony Building in Ginza (1966); Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka (1955); and the soon to be redeveloped Harajuku Station (1924); and Kudan Kaikan (1934), are among multitudes of historical landmarks that have once uplifted the Japanese identity, and consequently, may be conveniently forgotten.

Tatsuyuki Maeda is an advertising company worker who purchased one of the cubicles in the Nakagin Capsule Tower building. In 2014, Maeda embarked on a project to conserve the architectural icon, opening a Capsule Bank that linked capsule owners who wish to sell their apartment units to anxious buyers. The Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation & Restoration Project, hence, was born, and has been actively broadcasting its cry for the building’s preservation despite a strong voice from many residents to demolish the site and reconstruct an entirely new and modern structure.

Meanwhile, a progressive architectural tour group, Showcase Tokyo Architecture Tours, has also included the Nakagin Capsule Tower in its line-up of notable structures for exclusive visits. The rare tour offers a private guide to the interior of one of the selected capsule units, complete with detailed explanations of the Metabolism movement and hidden stories about the prestigious landmark.

©Alma Reyes Taiken Japan

Considering the Japanese’s deep regard for their traditional crafts, especially inherited techniques passed on to family generations, which can be viewed rather as a preservation of knowledge and ideology, rather than the actual physical representation of its heritage, one may, perhaps, comprehend the manner by which the essence of “conservation” is approached in Japan. There is also an underlying and unconscious application of Buddhist philosophy focused on detachment and impermanence, opening channels to rediscovery, regeneration, and renewal of an entire existence. Retracing Kurokawa’s original intentions, perhaps the concept of sustainability would not appear so futile based on how far the Nakagin Mansion developers and all parties concerned fully grasp the fundamental attributes of existential growth, nourishment of roots, and dissemination of historical knowledge to future generations.

“I thought that architecture is not permanent art, something that is completed and fixed, but rather something that grows towards the future, is expanded upon, renovated and developed. This is the concept of metabolism (metabolize, circulate and recycle).”

—Kisho Kurokawa, From the Age of Machine to Age of Life, l'ARCA 219, p. 6.

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