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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Beau­ty of Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­ture: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

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

Build­ing With­out Nails: The Genius of Japan­ese Car­pen­try

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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