The Nakagin Capsule Tower / Kisho Kurokawa | Classics on Architecture Lab

Architects: Kisho Kurokawa
Location: Ginza, Tokyo, Japan
Construction: 1970-1972
Demolition: 2022
Building Area: 429.51 m²
Total Floor Area: 3,091.23 m²
Structure: Steel and Reinforced Concrete

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, stood as a groundbreaking example of the Metabolism movement in architecture. Located in Tokyo’s Ginza district, this innovative structure featured 140 detachable capsules, each meticulously designed for adaptability and sustainability. Despite its demolition in 2022 due to structural decay and asbestos, the tower’s legacy endures through the preservation and repurposing of its unique capsules. Preservation efforts led by Tatsuyuki Maeda saved 23 capsules, which are being restored and repurposed in museums, hotel lobbies, and other venues, continuing Kurokawa’s vision of dynamic and flexible urban living.

Street view, 1975, the nakagin capsule tower, ginza, tokyo, japan - kisho kurokawa - photographer unknown
Street View, 1975, The Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Tokyo, Japan – Kisho Kurokawa – Photographer Unknown

Construction and Design

Nakagin Capsule Tower, constructed between 1970 and 1972, consisted of two interconnected concrete towers, each supporting numerous prefabricated steel capsules. The smaller tower had 11 floors, while the larger tower had 13. Each 10 m² capsule was attached to the main structure by four high-tension bolts, emphasizing the modular and flexible design envisioned by Kurokawa. This approach was revolutionary, reflecting the Metabolism movement’s focus on adaptable and evolving architecture.

The construction process involved pre-assembling the interiors in a factory in Shiga Prefecture and transporting them to the site for installation. The capsules were hoisted by crane and fastened to the concrete core, showcasing a seamless integration of prefabrication and on-site assembly. This design allowed for potential replacement of individual capsules, though this vision was never fully realized due to technical and financial constraints.

A futuristic approach to modular living

The Nakagin Capsule Tower became a community hub for artists, designers, and ordinary tenants seeking a convenient living space in central Tokyo. Each capsule, measuring 4 x 2.5 meters, provided a compact and efficient living environment, resembling a self-contained micro-apartment.

Capsule detail, the nakagin capsule tower, ginza, tokyo, japan - kisho kurokawa - metabolism in architecture book by kisho kurokawa
Capsule Detail, The Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Tokyo, Japan – Kisho Kurokawa – Metabolism in architecture Book by Kisho Kurokawa

The interior of each capsule was divided into distinct zones:

Entrance and Sanitary Facilities: At the entrance, there were sanitary facilities including a toilet and a bathroom, reminiscent of those found in campers or long-distance flights. These facilities were compact yet functional, ensuring maximum utilization of space.

Main Living Space: The main living area was divided into two zones. One wall featured custom built-in furniture, a foldable table for eating or working, and fitted equipment like a television, telephone, radio, and hi-fi stereo. This multifunctional space was designed to cater to various activities, making it ideal for the urban lifestyle.

Sleeping Corner: The sleeping area included a one-person bed, a lamp, and occasionally an armchair. The design ensured that residents had a comfortable space to rest after a long day in the bustling city.

Iconic Porthole Window: A central feature of each capsule was the iconic porthole-style window with a 1.3-meter diameter and a circular blind. This distinctive window not only provided natural light but also became a symbol of the tower’s futuristic design.

Despite the small size, the capsule apartments provided all the essentials for a comfortable night’s stay. The surrounding neighborhood of Ginza offered numerous amenities, including restaurants, pubs, and convenience stores, enhancing the convenience and lifestyle of the residents. Additionally, the building offered concierge services for laundry and other needs, similar to a hotel.

Over time, the uses of the Nakagin Capsule Tower expanded. Some units were converted into offices, meeting rooms, and art exhibition spaces. Others were even rented out on Airbnb, though not officially sanctioned by the building’s management. This adaptability highlighted the flexible nature of Kurokawa’s design, which accommodated various functions beyond residential use.

Preserving the Legacy of Tokyo’s Futuristic Architecture

In 2022, the Nakagin Capsule Tower was dismantled due to structural decay and non-compliance with modern earthquake-resistance regulations. The demolition marked the end of an era, but not the end of the tower’s legacy. Preservationists, led by Tatsuyuki Maeda, saved 23 capsules from the wreckage, ensuring the continuation of Kurokawa’s vision.

These preserved capsules are being restored and repurposed. Some are being converted into museum exhibits, hotel lobbies, and mobile trailers, reflecting the original concept of adaptability and mobility. Notably, Capsule A1302, once owned by Kurokawa, has been acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where it will be showcased as part of its Japanese architecture collection.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower remains a testament to the Metabolism movement and Kisho Kurokawa’s visionary approach to architecture. Its innovative design and modular concept continue to inspire and influence contemporary architecture. The preservation and repurposing of the capsules ensure that the spirit of the Nakagin Capsule Tower lives on, embodying the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of urban living.

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