Japan’s iconic capsules are becoming museum pieces

Nakagin Capsule Tower, a famous capsule hotel in Ginza district, shows its unique architecture of small cubic rooms, as parts of the capsule hotel were demolished on April 8. (AP photo/Hiro Komae)

TOKYO (AP) — Nakagin Capsule Tower, a building nestled in a corner of downtown Tokyo made up of boxes stacked on top of each other, is a cutting-edge honeycomb of science-age housing fiction long admired as a masterpiece.

It’s now being demolished in a painstaking process that includes preserving some of its 140 capsules, which will be shipped to museums around the world.

Preparations have been going on for months to clear the surrounding areas, to safely dismantle the landmark near Ginza. The first capsule will be removed in the coming weeks.

Built in 1972, the 13-storey building embodies the so-called “metabolism” vision of its architect Kisho Kurokawa: the idea that cities and buildings are constantly changing, reflecting life, at the rhythm of the human body.

“No one exists apart from the thoughts of those around him. Everything comes into existence through an assemblage of causes. All things are interdependent. In accordance with this principle, our goal is to build an ideal world, step by step,” Kurokawa wrote in his 1994 book, Philosophy of symbiosis.

Kurokawa died in 2007, aged 73.

Although striking in appearance and concept, the building survived modern building guidelines and had to be demolished.

Skyscrapers sprung up nearby, dwarfing Nakagin. A developer took over the property in 2021.

Tatsuyuki Maeda, who started using Nakagin as a second home in 2010, said he simply loved being in the 2.5-metre-wide space, which was so small but cozy it felt like a kid’s hideaway. And that spurred his creativity, he said.

“The view from that round window was so lovely. At night when the cars were speeding by, their lights on the nearby freeway were pretty. And the cityscape was beautiful,” Maeda said.

Appliances and shelving are recessed into the walls. A desktop appears in a section. In another is a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, state-of-the-art electronics from the 1970s that is now a historic memento like the building itself.

Only about a third of Nakagin residents have lived there full time in recent years. Most have used it as offices and workspaces. They tended to be creatives, musicians, filmmakers and architects, as if that appealed to people with similar values.

Maeda, who works in public relations, owned 15 capsules, mainly to have a say in the fate of the building, and had rented some of them. Residents would party together, he recalls.

He and others had worked together since 2014 to save Nakagin, first to prevent its destruction and rebuild it, but ultimately to pass on his legacy as a work of art. The project raised funds through crowdfunding and published a book, complete with photos, in March titled, Nakagin Capsule Tower: the latest record.

The preservation project calls for some of the capsules to allow real-life living in a separate location. Those in the museums will be refurbished by the Kurokawa Architecture Office, which reviewed the original designs to understand how each box could be detached with minimal damage, a particularly difficult feat in the crowded Ginza district.

Will Gardner, a professor at Swarthmore College who specializes in Japanese modernism, says the Metabolist movement had its “moment” of recognition for its organic approach to 20th-century urban planning issues in Tokyo, such as overcrowding and scarcity. of infrastructure.

It was a time when Japan was rebuilding from the ruins of World War II, experiencing rapid economic growth, buzzing with creative energy, and trying to define itself.

But metabolist designs haven’t been widely accepted by real estate developers, construction companies or consumers, who have all turned to more conservative prefab housing, said Gardner, who wrote The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction.

“It was a generation of architects that came out at that time when everything had been destroyed. But at the same time, there was a lot of momentum, and the economy was rebounding, and there seemed to be a time when this grand vision could really thrive,” he said.

“For many reasons, Japan today is very different.”

Kurokawa was heavily influenced by Kenzo Tange, who designed the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. An art museum in Tokyo’s Roppongi that resembles an undulating glass wall, which opened its doors in 2007, and the 1999 new wing of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam were designed by Kurokawa.

Nakagin was one of his first plays. Its provocative and repetitive pattern both celebrated and challenged mass production, appealing to individuals, especially those lost in conformist Japan.

Kurokawa developed the technology to install the units into a central concrete shaft with four high-tension bolts. The capsules were designed to be detachable and replaced with new ones, or recycled, every 25 years.

It never happened.

Instead, after 50 years, the pieces fall apart.

Kurokawa used to say that long after his buildings were gone, his thought would live on.

Kurokawa’s designs address sustainability and social responsibility, said Tomohiro Fujisawa of Kisho Kurokawa Architect and Associates, issues that remain pressing today.

“The world may have finally caught up with him,” Fujisawa said.