Capsule tower stands in front of the wrecking ball

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TOKYO >> Time is running out for an iconic Tokyo building, which for romantics is a futuristic symbol of a bygone era and for pragmatists an eyesore that has long passed its heyday.

For almost half a century, the Nakagin Capsule Tower has caused a sensation with its idiosyncratic modular design, which has become an heralded landmark on the Ginza skyline. It had withstood previous demolition attempts caused by concerns about crumbling concrete and dubious compliance with modern seismic regulations. But Nakagin’s impending sale to a real estate developer who wants to replace the beleaguered building could prove to be the decisive blow that will bring the towers to the ground, to the horror of those who worked to save this piece of architectural history. While the few remaining residents of the towers begin to vacate their cramped rooms, the fate of the towers remains in precarious equilibrium.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed in 1972 and actually consists of two connected towers with 140 modular “capsules” hanging from them. It’s the ultimate calling card of architect Kisho Kurokawa (1934-2007), and the building is revered as a rare surviving example of the largely theoretical Metabolist School, one of the first architectural movements to emerge from the ashes of post-war Japan in the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo.

As a founding metabolist, Kurokawa was influenced by biological processes and wanted to create buildings that would evolve organically with the changing needs of its residents and the city. However, none of the capsules at Nakagin have ever been replaced. Your age shows. Over the decades the structure has fallen into notorious decline. The integrity of the towers’ cores has collided with seismic regulations revised after the catastrophic earthquake in Japan in 2011.

At a management meeting of the building in March, the capsule owners voted to sell the towers – and the prime land below – to a real estate developer who wanted to razed Nakagin to the ground for a new mixed-use office and residential complex. According to the proposal, demolition work would begin in March and construction would be completed by November 2024.

The building’s board had previously voted to demolish it in 2007, but the plans were abandoned in 2009 after the general contractor behind the proposal went bankrupt. After the incident, the board once again faced a deadlock between pro-maintenance and pro-demolition residents – that is, until the property owner started buying units to tip the scales in favor of demolition.

But there is still a faint glimmer of hope for Nakagin. Demand for new property developments has stagnated since the pandemic began, and it is possible that the terms of the proposal could change if an investor were willing to update the building.

A group of residents and enthusiasts continue to search for such a person under the banner of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project. Although the group brokered talks with promising candidates, including a foreign investor committed to the preservation of historic buildings, a solution that would satisfy all parties remained elusive.

Perhaps more appreciated abroad than in Japan, the photogenic building was a place of pilgrimage for architecture students and tourists before the pandemic.

“There is an endless stream of people interested in tours of the building, but we are now in a very difficult situation,” laments Tatsuyuki Maeda, head of the Preservation Project and owner of a handful of capsules. “It’s a pity.”


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