Japan’s iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower will be demolished next week

Written by Oscar Holland, CNNJunko Ogura, CNN

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

The decision ends years of uncertainty surrounding the eye-catching structure, which once offered a futuristic vision of city life but had recently fallen into disrepair.

Completed in 1972, the tower comprises 144 prefabricated units arranged around two concrete cores. Each 10 square meter (108 square foot) “capsule” features a porthole-style window, with appliances and furniture built into the structure of each home.

A furnished capsule room inside the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

The building is considered a prime example of metabolism, an architectural movement that emerged from the ruins of World War II with a radical new vision for Japanese cities. As well as embracing technology and mass production, members of the avant-garde band looked to nature for inspiration, with structural components treated like organic cells that could be “plugged” into a larger set or replaced later.
The building’s designer, Kisho Kurokawa – one of metabolism’s youngest proponents – originally envisioned that Tokyo Tower’s capsules would be replaced every 25 years. But instead they have become dilapidated and obsolete, with many apartments now empty, used as warehouses and offices, or rented out on short notice to architecture enthusiasts.

In 2007, the homeowners association voted to sell the tower to a property developer who intended to tear it down and replace it. But the company filed for bankruptcy during the 2008 recession, and the site’s fate was in limbo for years.

Curators hope some of the 108-square-foot capsules can be saved and reused or acquired by museums.

Curators hope some of the 108-square-foot capsules can be saved and reused or acquired by museums. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

The owners again agreed to sell in 2021 and the building was acquired by a group of real estate companies operating as the Capusule Tower Building (CTB). A spokesman for the joint venture, Takashi Shindo, told CNN by phone that the last residents moved out last month, with demolition expected to begin April 12.

Conservationists had long expressed hope that the building could be saved, including Kurokawa, before his death in 2007. Petitions and campaigns have called for the structure to be protected as an example of architectural heritage Japanese. (Although the Metabolism movement proved influential, very few of its proposals were realized, making Nakagin Capsule Tower a rare living example of the group’s ethos.)

The organization behind the conservation campaign, the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Regeneration Project, called on city authorities to intervene – and even considered applying for protected status with UNESCO. But neither approach has proven successful, according to project member Tatsuyuki Maeda, who acquired 15 of the capsules between 2010 and the building’s sale last year.

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A “Save Nakagin” sign is displayed in a window of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in November 2021. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

“Japan has no legislation to preserve this kind of architectural culture,” he said over the phone. “It is regrettable that one of the most representative examples of the country’s modern architectural heritage has been lost.”

Maeda said efforts to raise the 2-3 billion yen ($16-24 million) needed to renovate the tower and remove the asbestos have been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the project has focused on raising funds to renovate and repurpose individual units in the hope that institutions might seek to acquire “unplugged” capsules.

Maeda said the project had received around 80 inquiries, with the Center Pompidou in Paris among the museums that expressed interest in getting one, he added. The Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan, already has a unit in its collection.

The bathroom unit inside a residential apartment in the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

The bathroom unit inside a residential apartment in the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Kurokawa’s architectural firm, which continued to operate after his death, announced plans to keep the building in a “digital space”.

“We are determined to preserve the capsules, even if the building is demolished,” Maeda said. “Dozens of relatively unaged capsules will be recovered and rehabilitated.

“There’s no doubt that the building was famous, but the Capsule Tower also had a certain charm that appealed to people. Everyone who stayed there was creative in their own way, and the community that formed there was truly fascinating. I I’m sad to see him go, but I hope he lives on in a new form.”

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