Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower set to be demolished in April

End Of The Road

Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower set to be demolished in April

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, completed in 1972, in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district. (Sava Bobov/Unsplash)

In recent months, it has been less a matter of if Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, the famed Metabolist landmark designed by the late Kisho Kurokawa, would be wholly dismantled to make way for new development—rather it has been more a matter of when. According to the Agence France-Presse, the end is now quickly approaching: the 13-story mixed-use office and residential tower completed in 1972 on the fringes of Tokyo’s Ginza district is scheduled to come down on April 12 (unless there are further delays).

That specific date was relayed to the AFP by Tatsuyuki Maeda, a preservationist who first bought his unit in 2010 and now owns more than a dozen of the tower’s compact cuboid capsules that feature built-in furnishings and oversized, washing machine-esque circular windows. Maeda has been leading the charge in the ongoing campaign to save and revitalize the aging structure, which is in a serious state of disrepair. More recently, the efforts of Maeda along with fellow capsule owners and activists have been focused on extracting and preserving individual capsules as it became increasingly clear—particularly during the pandemic—that the tower would be razed despite their best efforts to save it from destruction.

detail of capsule tower
(Roman Davydko/Unsplash)

“We don’t know yet how many capsules we’ll be able to save, but we plan to repair some deteriorated parts and refurbish them to send them to museums, for example,” Maeda told AFP. “It’s not a complete end to the building, and I’m looking forward to seeing the capsules’ new life.”

The Nakagin Capsule Tower originally hosted a total of 144 utility-fitted prefab living units, each of them measuring roughly 107-square-feet and all attached to two interconnected concrete-and-steel cores by high-tension retaining bolts. Initially envisioned as compact pieds-à-terre for Tokyo salarymen, the diminutive dwellings were designed by Kurokawa to be removable and, as such, replaced every 25 years by new capsules—an act in line with the Japanese Metabolism movement’s vision of utopian structures that, like living organisms, would be adaptable, regenerative, resilient, and capable of mimicking patterns of biological growth. None of the units had been removed or replaced in the 50-year history of the tower.

In recent years, a modest number of the capsules were still used as residential dwellings although many were converted into storage units, small offices, or abandoned altogether due to advanced deterioration. One unit was discovered by its current owner as previously being a “pink capsule” used by sex workers during the tower’s 1970s and 80s heyday. Ahead of the tower’s demolition, that capsule was treated to an Instagram-ready farewell makeover involving buckets of pink paint and plenty of imagination.

looking up at a capsule tower in tokyo, the Nakagin Capsule Tower
 (準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia/Flickr /CC BY 2.0)

As detailed by AN last May, a plan to offload Nakagin Capsule Tower to a conservation-minded buyer reportedly crumbled in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, the tower’s tenant-comprised management association moved to sell out of fear that the nearly 50-year-old building could “deteriorate further,” according to Japanese daily newspaper The Asahi Shimbun. 

“It feels like the coronavirus pandemic destroyed the opportunity for people from overseas to see and experience this building to reconfirm its value,” Maeda told The Asahi Shimbun in reference to a nixed architecture conference that had been planned for Tokyo in 2020. During the conference, there were tentative plans to showcase the building and make the case for its saving. Maeda noted that he and other members of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project had hoped that a flurry of renewed international interest in the tower would have led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Alas, none of that happened.

a large circular window inside a tiny apartment.
(urbz/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Relatedly, last year architect and former capsule dweller Akiko Ishimaru launched the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building A606 Project crowdfunding campaign in an effort to detach and relocate Capsule A606, which she and a small team had restored to its space-age glory while converting it into a functional coworking space. As part of the campaign, Ishimaru pledged to donate the capsule to a museum with the hope that it can be rented by architecture enthusiasts for overnight stays.

AN will track the afterlife of the individual units saved from the Nakagin Capsule Tower during the demolition phase.