There’s a building in Tokyo that, to my mind, represents Tokyo. When I looked at the Nakagin Capsule Tower yesterday and imagined what lay behind it’s rusting porthole windows, I realised that it fits with all of the pre-conceptions I had of Tokyo, of people living in tiny modular spaces, futuristic, geometric buildings, grungy concrete facades with anonymous, gloomy peepholes. Brutally modern, but still unmistakably Japanese in origin, the Tower has the same appeal as an old Casio digital watch. It’s obviously a past attempt at realising the future, but it succeeds at doing this on so many levels. It still puts to shame every shiny steel structure in the vicinity in terms of it’s presence. A brutal, decaying monolith sticking out between two high rise buildings in the Tokyo business district of Shinbashi.
The building was completed in 1972, designed by a young Japanese architect called Kisho Kurokawa. The designer himself said, in an interview with TAB, that the capsules were meant to be replaced and maintenance was supposed to be carried out every 25 years, but the building is now 37 years old, and nothing has been done since it’s original construction. For this reason, it has recently fallen into disrepair, with problems arising from water leakages and electrical faults, as well as the rusting and general degredation of the capsules themselves. The building has 13 stories, with each of the capsules which make up the floors being attached to the enormous central shafts by just 4 high-tension bolts. The idea was that the capsules could be individually changed without disturbing the others, fulfilling objectives of sustainable architecture rooted in the metabolist architectural movements popular at the time. The Nakagin Capsule Tower was the first of it’s kind, designed to provide affordable housing to office workers unable to make it back to their real homes on weekdays.
When Nakagin went bankrupt some years ago, they were bought out by U.S. hedge funds. Now the companies behind the acquisition are planning to have it demolished. Some architectural preservation groups are campaigning to save the tower and have it listed as a world heritage site, and I agree with that. It’s unlike any building I’ve seen before – it’s got a kind of immortal quality, probably derived from its very sci-fi appearance. Trouble is, there are doubts as to whether the building is resistant to earthquakes, and there is some controversy over the possible use of asbestos in the building’s construction. Time will tell as to whether such a doomed building is possible of saving, or whether such a seemingly invincible, obtrusive, controversial structure is capable of being destroyed at all.
And so I’m stood in the side street with The Tower looming overhead and there are some business men in suits smoking cigarettes outside the convenience store at the foot of the building. I’m looking in their direction, and further up the street there’s a small shop or office which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a small real estate agent. I thought it would be too good to be true if they had an advertisement in the window for a capsule to rent in the Nakagin Capsule Tower itself, but there it was.