An obsolescent masculine dream: Remembering the Nakagin Capsule Tower


An obsolescent masculine dream: Remembering the Nakagin Capsule Tower

City, 2013. From the series 1972—Nakagin Capsule Tower. (Noritaka Minami)

The slow deconstruction of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo began on April 12 and will continue through the end of the year.  The tower’s demolition is no surprise, as its problems were well known from the start. That it survived half a century is a feat in and of itself. Kurokawa showed us a version of a possible pod world that proved to be immensely influential, for better and worse. While we shouldn’t repeat the tower’s mistakes, its optimism about alternative futures is a legacy worth noting.

To mark this moment, AN gathered remembrances in text and image from those whose trajectories brought them in close contact with the building. Below is the fourth entry in our five-part series on the Nakagin Capsule Tower, an essay by Aki Ishida. It follows contributions from Ken Tadashi Oshima, Noritaka Minami, and Filipe Magalhães and Ana Luisa Soares

The Nakagin Capsule Tower encapsulates the futuristic macho dreams of the 1970s. Its designer, Kisho Kurokawa, was the youngest founding member of the Metabolists, a group of avant-garde architects (all men) who reimagined how Japanese people would live, work, and play. Fifty years after completion, the tower has become a symbol of obsolescent masculinity.

In July 2014, I rented a unit in Tower B on Airbnb. I was born in Tokyo in the early 1970s and had come to associate the building with the Japan of my childhood. I had been following the debate over its fate, and I was keen to experience capsule living firsthand. I was intrigued by the disparity between the building’s futuristic aspirations and the nostalgia that surrounded the movement for its preservation.

Kurokawa designed the capsules as temporary residences and offices in central Tokyo for elite businessmen. The capsules had no kitchens; instead, like a well-appointed hotel, the building featured a restaurant on the ground floor and offered housekeeping and secretarial services. During my one-night stay, I encountered no women and only a few men in the lobby and hallways. The deteriorating state of the building amplified my anxiety as night fell. In the Nagakin’s nearly abandoned state, the front desk was manned by men in uniforms who resembled security guards more than concierges. I imagined that hostesses or female secretaries greeted the residents in the 1970s. All these years later, the building remains a world of men.

Kurokawa sought to depart from the nationalistic visions of the preceding generation, which looked to traditional Japanese architecture or copied Western architecture without modifications. (His father, Miki Kurokawa, was an architect, as were his two brothers.) The Metabolists, who aspired to develop a modern architectural language of their own, distinct from European modernism, looked instead to Japanese philosophies of impermanence and eternal adaptation. The Nakagin Capsule Tower was designed for homo movens, or businessmen whose high social status was associated with mobility; as such, they moved between multiple residences. After a late night at the office, they would dine and drink with their colleagues. Instead of commuting back to their homes on the Tokyo outskirts, they would sleep in their capsules until they returned to the office early the next morning. The capsules isolated the men in a world without wives and underscored their separation from domestic lives. The tower left no room for families with young children or older parents for whom the women might be caring at home.

Since the building’s completion, societal ideals for which the building stood have changed. While surveys suggesting that Japanese men today share few domestic chores and little earning power with women, relative to other countries, women expect men to share more household burdens, and both women and men consider Japanese men to be less assertive and proactive—in other words, less masculine—compared with their fathers. Despite these shifting values, the capsules did not evolve alongside them and were never replaced as the architect intended. In her book The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality, psychologist Sumiko Iwao writes that the generation of women born in the decade after World War II rejected the male-dominated households of their parents’ generation and married men whom they saw as equals, all while their male partners continued to expect their wives to perform the traditional maternal role at home. Along with the lack of equal employment opportunity legislation and support systems like child care, architecture stood in the way of women’s aspirations for change.

Admittedly an extraordinary work of architecture, the Nakagin Capsule Tower nonetheless represented a particular type of domestic and professional ethos centered on men in which women were alienated, subjected to assistive roles both at home and at the office.

The careful demolition of the tower is also a dismantling of a futuristic masculine vision. Today, the current generation of Japanese—and certainly most women—find this outlook, much like the aging tower that is now disappearing, obsolete.

Aki Ishida is an architect, educator, and writer currently serving as interim associate director of Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design in Blacksburg, Virginia.