Tokyo’s Iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower Will Be Demolished This Month

Published: April 6, 2022
Updated: April 7, 2022
Tokyo’s Iconic Nakagin Capsule
Nakagin Capsule Tower

According to the building’s new owners, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, one of Japan’s most distinctive works of contemporary architecture, will be demolished this month.

The decision puts an end to years of speculation about the eye-catching structure, which once offered a futuristic vision of urban living but had recently fallen into disrepair.

The tower, which was completed in 1972, is made up of 144 factory-built units arranged around two concrete cores. Each 10-square-meter (108-square-foot) “capsule” has a porthole-style window, as well as appliances and furniture built into the home’s structure.

The structure is regarded as a prime example of Metabolism, an architectural movement that emerged from the ruins of WWII with a radical new vision for Japan’s cities. 

In addition to embracing technology and mass production, the avant-garde group’s members sought inspiration from nature, with structural components treated as organic cells that could be “plugged” into a larger whole or later replaced.

Kisho Kurokawa, the Tokyo tower’s designer and one of Metabolism’s youngest adherents, had originally planned for the capsules to be replaced every 25 years. 

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Instead, they deteriorated and became dilapidated, with many of the apartments now empty, used for storage and office space, or rented out on a short-term basis to architecture enthusiasts.

The owners’ association voted in 2007 to sell the tower to a property developer who planned to demolish and replace it. However, the company declared bankruptcy during the 2008 recession, leaving the site’s fate in limbo for years.

The owners agreed to sell the building again in 2021, and it was purchased by a group of real estate firms operating under the name Capsule Tower Building (CTB). Takashi Shindo, a joint venture spokesperson, told CNN over the phone that the last residents left last month, with demolition set to begin April 12.

Preservationists, including Kurokawa before his death in 2007, had long expressed hope that the building could be saved. Petitions and campaigns have been launched in order to protect the structure as an example of Japanese architectural heritage. 

(Despite the Metabolism movement’s influence, very few of its proposals were ever realized, making Nakagin Capsule Tower a rare living example of the group’s philosophy.)

The Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Regeneration Project, the organization behind the conservation campaign, asked city officials to intervene and even considered applying for UNESCO protected status. 

According to project member Tatsuyuki Maeda, who purchased 15 of the capsules between 2010 and the building’s sale last year, neither approach was successful.

Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower

“Japan lacks the legislation to preserve this type of architectural culture,” he explained over the phone. “It’s a shame that one of the country’s most evocative examples of modern architectural heritage will be lost.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, according to Maeda, has hampered efforts to raise the 2 to 3 billion yen ($16 million to $24 million) required to renovate the tower and remove asbestos. 

Since then, the project’s focus has shifted to raising funds to refurbish and repurpose individual units in the hope that institutions will seek to acquire “unplugged” capsules.

Maeda stated that the project has received approximately 80 inquiries, with the Centre Pompidou in Paris among the museums expressing interest in obtaining one. Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan, already has a unit in its collection.

Kurokawa’s architecture firm, which continued to operate after his death, announced plans to preserve the structure in a “digital space.”

“Even if the building is demolished, we are determined to preserve the capsules,” Maeda said. “Several dozens of capsules with minimal aging will be recovered and rehabilitated.”

“There was no doubt that the building was well-known, but the Capsule Tower also had a certain charm that drew people in.” Everyone who stayed was creative in their own way, and the community that grew there was truly fascinating. I’m sorry to see it go, but I hope it lives on in some other form.”

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