A Brilliant Building the Nakagin Capsule Tower

Built in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is a former symbol of Japan’s postwar orientation toward the future. Located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, the building was designed by the now-deceased Kisho Kurokawa, a much-celebrated Japanese architect. Kurokawa was perhaps best known as one of the founders of Metabolism, a modern Japanese architectural movement. The movement was premised on the belief that buildings and cities are not static entities. Rather, they are alive and evolving, like organic matter that is constantly renewing itself.

Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower was the perfect example of metabolism in architecture. Its structure consisted of 140 self-contained, prefabricated capsules stacked and rotated at various angles on two interconnected towers. Using his considerable design skills, Kurokawa devised a method of attaching each capsule to a concrete core using only four high-tension bolts – the capsules were then easily interchangeable and replaceable (in accordance with the principles of Metabolism). The Nakagin capsule tower was built in just thirty days – Kurokawa’s intention was to replace the capsules every twenty-five years. Unfortunately, this intention was never realized, and the tower is now in a considerable state of disrepair.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower units were designed as a collection of pieds-à-terre, providing refuge for busy professionals who wanted to avoid long commutes to homes in the suburbs. The capsules measured 4 by 2.5 meters and offered amenities that were state-of-the-art for the time. Each pre-assembled unit had a large round window and featured a built-in bed and bathroom, a kitchen stove and refrigerator, a Sony Trinitron television, a cassette radio and a dial telephone.

On the eve of its 50th birthday, the Nakagin Capsule Tower faces an uncertain future: the tower will likely be demolished and dismantled in the spring of 2022. The decaying building is currently shrouded in netting to prevent debris from falling on passersby. The few remaining residents of Nakagin must come to terms with the fact that their beloved home will soon disappear. Despite efforts to preserve the tower, the logistical challenges, large amounts of asbestos, and requirement to meet Japan’s strict earthquake safety regulations have proven too costly. Instead, a Nakagin resident, Tatsuyuki Maeda (who is also a representative of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Regeneration Project), plans to dismantle the capsules, remove the asbestos, and donate them to cultural institutions in Japan and abroad. Maeda has already received requests from several European museums and believes that “Europeans understand the need to preserve buildings like this, while Japan is still guided by a demolition and reconstruction mentality.”

Kisho Kurokawa’s plans for the Nakagin Capsule Tower were based on utopian ideals, but were never fully realized. Nevertheless, over the course of his career, Kurokawa became an advocate of sustainable design, drawing on the principles of metabolism. He later founded the Kisho Kurokawa Green Institute at Anaheim University in California, which offers programs in sustainable management. Whatever its future, the Nakagin Capsule Tower will remain in the hearts and minds of architecture lovers around the world. With its science fiction-like façade, Kurokawa has created a building that stirs the imagination, evokes a sense of wonder, and conjures up images of a futuristic cityscape that could have been. Once it is gone, a small corner of Ginza will never be the same.