A look inside the Nakagin Capsule Tower – Tokyo, Japan

Stand at a great height anywhere in Tokyo – be it the Tokyo Skytree, the Roppongi Hills Observatory, the famed Tokyo Tower – and one’s line of sight is dominated by a startlingly endless concrete jungle, with few design distinctions.  Descend to ground level, however, and the Japanese capital’s architectural diversity notably becomes clearer: historical wooden Shinto shrines, familiar luxury brands repackaged into space-age structures, or old homes converted into hipster cafes.

But even in a city that boasts nearly 14 million residents, a curious building resembling two towers of stacked cubes in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood stands out.  The Nakagin Capsule Tower dates back to 1972, just one year before the dissipation of the Japanese Metabolism architectural movement which later found roots in the Middle East and Africa.  Born at the 1960 Tokyo World Design Conference as part of a written manifesto by a group of young architects that included students of Kenzō Tange, the Metabolist Movement was part of a larger post-World War II reconstruction effort to rebuild Japan.  Its name derives from the concept that buildings should be seen as living organisms, adaptable to change.

 

Certainly this was the idea that architect Kisho Kurokawa had in mind for the Nakagin Capsule Tower, one of his earliest works.  It targeted a consumer base of single salarymen who needed to rent a place to crash if work hours extended well beyond the last train home.  Its location was also within walking distance of Tsukiji Market, then the world’s epicenter for wholesale fish and seafood.  Each of the 144 capsules, measuring 2.5 m (8.2 ft) by 4.0 m (13.1 ft), included a circular window and basic amenities, and the original intention was to disconnect, reconnect and reassemble cubes to alter interior living spaces while simultaneously updating the exterior design.

In 2014, one of these capsules was available for nightly rental on Airbnb via the Save Nakagin Capsule Tower Project – a rare chance to extensively explore a building that is mostly off-limits.  A look inside this capsule during daytime hours spoke to both the past potential of the Metabolist Movement and the current urban decay reflecting Nakagin’s uncertain future.

 

 

Don O’Keefe, then a designer with the Kobayashi Maki Design Workshop in Tokyo and now a Master of Architecture student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, gave Meniscus Magazine a tour of the building that summer.  He estimated that the towers contained 13 and 10 floors, respectively.  “It’s difficult to say how many rooms there are per floor because the capsules spiral up,” he said. “Right now only about 30 of them are occupied. The rest of them are filled with junk or kind of abandoned.”

As for the amenities, fold-down desks, clock radios, lights, televisions and a bathroom are available with each unit, but in varying degrees of usability.  “This building has some pretty severe utility problems,” O’Keefe said. “There’s no hot water anymore, as you can see there’s sort of jerry-rigged things all throughout.  Some people [have] hoses coming out of their rooms.” In fact, a lone shower stall was installed on the ground floor – outside of the building – to serve remaining residents.

 

 

Outside the capsule doors, the fragility of a structure caught in limbo between history and modernity became more obvious.  Rusty pipes, debris, chipping walls and water leakage stains were present throughout.  Although Kurokawa intended for the capsules to be moved and replaced, apparently this never happened.  “They are connected to the core at just four points with huge bolts, so they do sort of cantilever out from the core as their own independent structures, and they could be removed or replaced,” O’Keefe said.  “I think the biggest problem is not the capsules but the utilities between them. They just haven’t invested [in] repairs. Everything’s been a patch job.”

 

Much has changed during the past five years since our visit.  The capsule is no longer available for nightly rental on Airbnb, although eight rooms for monthly rental are now being managed by the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation / Regeneration Project (中銀カプセルタワービル保存・再生プロジェクト).  Fundraising efforts to save the building have come and gone.  Most of the Tsukiji Market closed in 2018, reborn as the Toyosu Market about two kilometers away; this was the same year that the Nakagin Group sold its ownership rights, affecting the livelihoods of current tenants.  Recent reports indicate that ownership could shift once again in 2020, this time to a foreign company.  One aspect, however, remains the same: somehow the Nakagin Capsule Tower has endured for the past 47 years, despite equal cries to preserve and demolish.

“Some people think that demolishing this building would be, in a way, fulfilling the mandate of the Metabolist Movement, which is that architecture should change in response to its environment,” O’Keefe said. “There’s a pretty easy argument that this building isn’t doing it.”

However, O’Keefe, like many others who remain enamored with the building to this day, does not fall into that camp.  “I would like to see the form preserved, if possible,” he said.

“I think a lot of people would say that this is the most important remaining Metabolism building,” he added.

English and Chinese tours of the Nakagin Capsule Tower are available through Showcase Tokyo Architecture Tours.  For pricing and availability, go to showcase-tokyo.com.  Japanese tours are run by the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation / Regeneration Project and can be booked through nakagincapsuletower.com.

Megan Lee contributed to this article.

Photos: Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, Japan
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine