Goodbye to the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo’s Strangest and Most Utopian Apartment Building

On many of my trips to Japan I’ve stayed at the Capsule Inn Osaka, which is exactly where and what it sounds like. To any foreigner the place would be an intriguing novelty, but to those interested in Japanese architecture it also has great historical value. Designed by architect Kurokawa Kisho, the Capsule Inn Osaka opened in 1979 as the world’s first capsule hotel, a form of lodging now widely regarded as no less quintessentially Japanese than the ryokan. At that point Kurokawa had already been advancing capsule as an architectural unit for years, contributing a “capsule house” and capsule-based corporate pavilions to the Osaka World Expo 1970, and even building a curious masterwork of the genre in Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower.

The other architects involved in Expo ’70 included Tange Kenzo, Kawazoe Noboru, Maki Fumihiko, Kikutake Kiyonori, and Isozaki Arata — all associated to one degree or another with Metabolism, an architectural movement inspired by the rapid economic growth, enormous urban expansion, and unprecedented technological change then transforming postwar Japan. The Metabolists “approached the city as a living organism consisting of elements with different metabolic cycles,” writes Lin Zhongjie in Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan. “To accommodate a city’s growth and regeneration, Metabolists advanced transformable technologies based on prefabricated components and the replacement of obsolete parts according to varying life cycles.”

When it opened in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower did so as the first fully realized Metabolist project. Abroad in Japan host Chris Broad introduces it as “not only my favorite building in all of Tokyo, but in all of Japan.” He also contextualizes it within a brief history of Metabolism, as well as of the postwar Japanese society that fired up its practitioners’ aesthetically brazen, techno-Utopian ideals. Geared to the work-dominated, peripatetic lifestyle of what Kurokawa called “homo movens,” the Nakagin Capsule Tower actually consisted of two concrete cores onto which were bolted 140 capsules (architectural theorist Charles Jencks likened their aspect to “superimposed washing machines”), each a self-contained living space replete with cutting-edge amenities up to and including a bathtub ashtray Sony reel-to-reel tape player.

Kurokawa envisioned the capsules being replaced every 25 years over a lifetime of centuries. Alas, the difficulty of such an operation meant that the originals were simply left in, and by the end of the twentieth century many had badly deteriorated. “Ironically,” writes Lin, “Tokyo is growing and transforming itself so rapidly that it even outpaces the ‘metabolism’ that the Metabolists envisioned, and requires renewals on the scale of entire buildings instead of individual capsules.” First announced in 2007, the year of Kurokawa’s death, the building’s demolition began this past April, and it has occasioned such tributes as Studio Ito’s elegiac animation just above. The Nakagin Capsule Tower stood for half a century, long outliving Metabolism itself, but its capsules will now scatter across the world, suggesting that there was something to the biological metaphor all along.

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New York’s Lost Skyscraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tower

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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