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Green Architecture Spotlight: Nakagin Capsule Tower

7/14/2009 3:35:36 PM

Tags: green architecture spotlight, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Kisho Kurakawa

Another giant has fallen. After two years of fruitless preservation attempts, a cultural icon, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Japan, is going to be razed.

Designed by architect Kisho Kurakawa, the Tower was completed in 1972. It was intended to serve as a bachelor hotel for businessmen working in the affluent Tokyo neighborhood of Ginza. Kurakawa was a leader in the Metabolist movement of the 1960s and 1970s which envisioned cities formed of modular components designed for flexible and organic growth.

nakagin capsule tower
The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Japan was an architectural icon. Photo By damon.garrett/ Courtesy Flickr 

The Nakagin Capsule Tower was the world’s first example of capsule structural design built for actual use. Two towers rise 11 and 13 stories respectively, and are surrounded by an outer layer of prefabricated living units attached to the core by high tension bolts. The 140 capsules on the Tower were all pre-assembled in a factory, and although the capsules can be added or removed as necessary, none of them have been replaced since construction.

Capsules act as offices or small living spaces, and can be linked together to create a larger space. A one-person capsule is 4 meters by 2.5 meters and contains a built-in bed, bathroom, circular window, kitchen stove, refrigerator, TV and tape deck.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower has become emblematic of post-war Japan. So why is a building of such historic and cultural value going down?

Over time, and because of lack of care, the Nakagin Capsule Tower slowly sank into disrepair. To bring the building back to its original glory would take a full-scale restoration. Residents also began voicing concerns about the presence of asbestos.

On April 15, 2007, the management decided to raze and replace the Tower. They cited concerns about the Tower’s ability to withstand an earthquake. It didn’t hurt that the new 14-story building planned for the site would increase floor space by almost 60 percent, bringing in a lot more rent money.

Kurokawa protested, asking them to remove and replace the capsules with updated versions. Japan’s four major architectural organizations backed Kurokawa. The Tower was designed for flexibility, to morph and change with the times. Such an endeavor would also generate far less waste than building a new Tower. But the cost was simply too much.

With Kurokawa’s death in October of 2007, much of the advocacy for the Tower ended. All attempts to save the building in the last two years have come down to a simple property rights issue—if you want it, you pay for it. So at long last, demolition day draws near for this landmark building.

It is a tragedy that housing developments of historical and cultural significance are torn down simply because they are not considered sexy investments. But until our mentality changes, it’s sayonara to buildings like the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

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