Japan’s iconic Nakagin capsule tower to be demolished next week

Written Oscar Holland, CNNJunko Ogura, CNN

One of Japan’s most outstanding pieces of contemporary architecture, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, will be demolished this month, according to the building’s new owners.

The decision ended years of uncertainty around the eye-catching structure, which once offered a futuristic vision of urban life but has recently fallen into disrepair.

Built in 1972, the tower consists of 144 prefabricated blocks arranged around two concrete cores. Each 10 square meters (108 sq ft) “pod” has a porthole-style window, and appliances and furniture are built into the structure of each house.

Furnished capsule room in the Nakagin capsule tower. Credit: Karl Court/Getty Images

The building is considered a prime example of Metabolism, an architectural movement that emerged from the ruins of World War II with a radical new vision for Japanese cities. In addition to technology and mass production, members of the avant-garde group looked to nature for inspiration, with structural components seen as organic cells that could be “plugged” into a larger whole or later replaced.
The building’s designer, Kisho Kurokawa, one of the youngest proponents of metabolism, originally envisioned that Tokyo Tower’s capsules would be replaced every 25 years. But instead, they are dilapidated and outdated, many apartments are now empty, used for warehouses and offices or leased architecture enthusiasts on a short-term basis.

In 2007, the owners’ association voted to sell the tower to a developer who intended to tear it down and replace it. But the firm filed for bankruptcy during the 2008 recession, and the site’s fate was in limbo for years to come.

Conservationists hope some of the 108-square-foot capsules can be saved and repurposed or purchased for museums.

Conservationists hope some of the 108-square-foot capsules can be saved and repurposed or purchased for museums. Credit: Karl Court/Getty Images

The owners again agreed to sell in 2021 and the building was purchased by a group of real estate firms operating under the name Capusule Tower Building (CTB). Joint venture spokesman Takashi Shindō told CNN by phone that the last tenants moved out last month, with demolition scheduled to begin on April 12.

Conservationists had long expressed hope that the building could be saved, including Kurokawa’s, before his death in 2007. Petitions and campaigns called for the building to be protected as an example of Japan’s architectural heritage. (While the Metabolism movement proved influential, very few of its proposals were ever realized, making Nakagin Capsule Tower a rare living example of the group’s philosophy.)

The organization behind the conservation campaign, the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Restoration Project, has asked the city to intervene and even considered applying for protected status with UNESCO. But neither approach has been successful, according to project member Tatsuyuki Maeda, who purchased 15 capsules between 2010 and the sale of the building last year.

BUT "Save Nakagin" the sign is displayed in a Nakagin Capsule Tower window in November 2021.

“Save Nakagin” sign displayed in the Nakagin Pod Tower window in November 2021. Credit: Karl Court/Getty Images

“There is no legislation in Japan to preserve this kind of architectural culture,” he said by phone. “It is very unfortunate that one of the most representative examples of the country’s modern architectural heritage will be lost.”

Maeda said efforts to raise the 2 to 3 billion yen ($16 million to $24 million) needed to repair the tower and remove the asbestos have been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the project has shifted its focus to raising funds to repair and repurpose individual devices in the hope that institutions can purchase “disabled” pods.

Maeda said the project has received about 80 requests, with the Center Pompidou in Paris among museums expressing interest in receiving one, he added. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Saitama, Japan, already has a display in its collection.

Bathroom in a residential apartment in Nakagin Capsule Tower.

Bathroom in a residential apartment in Nakagin Capsule Tower. Credit: Karl Court/Getty Images

Kurokawa’s architecture firm, which continued to operate after his death, has announced that it intends to keep the building in “digital space.”

“We are determined to keep the pods even if the building is demolished,” Maeda said. “Dozens of capsules with relatively little aging will be recovered and rehabilitated.

“There is no doubt that the building was famous, but Capsule Tower also had a certain charm that drew people in. Everyone who stayed there was creative in their own way, and the community that formed was truly fascinating. I’m sad to see him go, but I hope he lives on in his new form.”

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