Time Capsule

The impending demolition of Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower strikes a nostalgic nerve in writer Tom Vanderbilt, who travels to Tokyo for a look at a future that never was.

kisho kurokawa illustration lead

Even as a child in 1970s suburban America, I had a firm, if skewed, vision of modern architecture. My modernism demanded not rational Miesian boxes but structures whose form proclaimed the future: anything space-related (the Space Needle—how the very name evoked modernity!); anything that moved (revolving restaurants); anything molecular (the Brussels Atomium); anything underground (Welcome, Mr. Bond…); and virtually anything spherical.

My juvenile imagination was particularly enraptured by Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, built in 1972. A towering stack of prefabricated concrete cubes jutting at myriad angles out of a central core, the Nakagin looked more like a docking station—the mother ship of modernity primed for takeoff. Its interior was composed of startlingly compact white pods (under 100 square feet) whose walls were mounted with every necessity, from a sleeping bunk and desk to a rotary phone, calculator, and reel-to-reel tape player. The hallway doors looked like airlocks. The sole window in each pod was circular.

kisho kurokawa illustration peake

The impending demolition of Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower strikes a nostalgic nerve in writer Tom Vanderbilt, who travels to Tokyo for a look at a future that never was. Illustration by: Nigel Peake

I was convinced that the Nakagin was the future, not least because it came from the proving ground of the future Japan. With its small windows set into white facades, it even seemed to evoke the shinkansen, or bullet train. Like the Sony Walkman, the Nakagin seemed a marvel of miniaturization, a harbinger of a new way of living, a self-contained cocoon. Someday we would all live in capsules, eat capsule food, digest capsulized bits of information, make encapsulated love.

I hadn’t thought much about the Nakagin until a few months ago, when I heard the startling news that it would be demolished. The building was obsolete, it was said, beyond repair. The units leaked and were tinged with asbestos. Its original raison d’être, that its modularity would allow residents to replace outmoded systems with the latest upgrades—every 25 years, ideally—hadn’t been honored. The tower’s architect, Kisho Kurokawa, insisted that this modularity could, in fact, save the building. Replacing the capsules would cost less than rebuilding, he argued. But, in light of Tokyo’s rampant development and a preservation ethos that prioritizes temples and shrines, the end seemed imminent. I knew I had to go to Tokyo to see the Nakagin, and I quickly made plans to meet with Kurokawa.

Then came more unexpected news: Kurokawa had died, at age 73.

I went to Tokyo anyway, with no certain plan beyond a pilgrimage to what now seemed like the ruins of my own imagined future.

In Japan, Kurokawa was a confirmed celebrity—the country’s “third most famous person,” Charles Jencks once joked. A founder of the Metabolists, Kurokawa completed dozens of major commissions, from Tokyo’s National Art Center to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport; hosted a television show; wrote best-selling books; and, most recently, ran mercurial campaigns for public office. However broad his reputation grew, though, Kurokawa could never quite escape the Nakagin Tower—he was long known as the “capsule architect.”

In the context of late ’60s and early ’70s design, the capsule tower almost seemed preordained. Long-haul space flights had introduced the world to confined, multifunctional, technology-intensive living. In Where’s My Space Age?, Sean Topham chronicles the capsule’s emergence as a leading leitmotif of the architectural avant-garde. Archigram, which extolled the “poetry of countdown,” had its Plug-In Cities and Living Pods. In 1969, Joe Colombo unveiled his Habitation Capsule, which, like everything else in those days, from Vico Magistretti’s Eclisse lamp to Vernor Panton’s furniture, was heavy on the white, plastic, and spherical. Sanyo Electric had its own prototypical white sphere, the 1970 Living Capsule, with everything one would want in a space-age bachelor pod: bar, TV, phone, bed. Blast off!

But of all the prefab capsule projects swirling around, the only one constructed was the Nakagin. That it was built at all still seems incredible: As alluringly futuristic as capsules were, who would actually want to live in one? Moreover, Kurokawa was just another late ’60s wild man with a manifesto and an arsenal of fictive works-on-paper. Metabolism, as wonderfully abstruse as most architectural philosophies, was a sort of Japanese-influenced spin (a little more organic, a little more Buddhist) on high-tech, imagining structures and entire cities as biological entities subject to decay and renewal, with constituent parts replaced as they outlived their usefulness. (“Capsule architecture,” wrote Kurokawa, “was an architectural expression of the living cell.”) After a decade of scheming, he designed the Discotheque Space Capsule in Tokyo’s Roppongi district (“a capsule,” he declared, “for those who want to release what is pent up inside them”), and then debuted two capsule projects at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka.

As a pioneering urban prefab project, the Nakagin Tower was incredibly innovative—but also imperfect. The steel units were built in a shipping-container factory several hours outside Tokyo, with no storage space on site. Only units delivered that day could be hoisted up and bolted onto the central truss. The capsules, in spite of this, were “no cheaper than conventional rooms,” Jencks noted: “Kurokawa offers them not as economic panacea but rather as forms for a new way of living.” And though people compared the units to birdhouses and to washing machines, all 140 of them (which included sheets and toothbrushes, but not kitchens—it was assumed residents would eat out) sold within a month. The buyers were commuting salarymen, for whom the capsules would be pieds-à-terre; foreign corporations who wanted a cheaper alternative to hotels; and even families simply looking for an extra room.

In his 1969 book Homo Movens, Kurokawa had envisioned a mobile society, with people time-sharing among five or six different environments. Like astronauts protected from solar rays, Kurokawa suggested, “individuals should be protected by capsules in which they can reject information they do not need and in which they are sheltered from information they do not want, thereby allowing an individual to recover his subjectivity and independence.”

When I finally made it to the tower, on the far edge of the Ginza neighborhood, I was struck first by how small it now seems, dwarfed by the looming high-rises on the edge of adjacent Shiodome, one of Tokyo’s glittering new infill districts. My next impression was of the toll that decades of weather and pollution had taken on the building: With black streaks of rain running down

it like tears, the new way of living was looking rather old. Next to the building’s entrance sat a single preserved capsule, with a sign attached to the window meant to ward off architectural tourists: “Because I do not open it now, this model room cannot do a visit from inside.”

I took the battered elevator to the fifth floor to meet with Seibei Yamashita, director of the building’s owners association. The hallway was dark, with paint-chipped walls. Shoes and umbrellas rested outside every door.

I found Yamashita, bespectacled and soft-spoken, in a room that barely resembled the original photographs: Its once-white enameled walls were painted red and green, the small black-and-white television had been supplanted by a larger color model, and the original clock was stuck at 5:29. A plastic owl perched in the window (to ward off Tokyo’s many pigeons, Yamashita said). Outside, cars raced by on the Shuto Expressway. Where every window once had a custom radial blind, Yamashita, like every other owner, had covered his with standard drapes. My arms outstretched, I could reach from wall to wall.

Yamashita bought the capsule several decades ago, as a place to sleep three nights a week when business kept him downtown late. For years, a series of progressively mounting problems have been plaguing the owners—from leaks (the original weather stripping was cork) to hot water issues to, most seriously, asbestos. The owners (many are absentee) would have preferred to save the capsules, but the cost was such that most voted to have the building demolished and a new, more standard tower built in its place. Whether this is true or not, the damage was evident everywhere: holes punched through to reveal plumbing, caulking tracing zigzag cracks, strange innards spilling out. I asked what would be done with the relatively pristine demonstration capsule. Surely some museum planned to save it? He shrugged and suggested that if I wanted it, it was mine.

Yamashita had told me that most people, even in space-starved Tokyo, could no longer imagine living in such small spaces. But if Kurokawa’s “capsulized existence” failed to take hold, notes architectural professor Akira Suzuki in Do Android Crows Fly Over the Skies of an Electronic Tokyo?, its DNA survives in two architecturally denuded forms. First are the famous “capsule hotels,” those morgue-like rows of sleep chambers for businessmen too tired—or too inebriated—to make the long commute home. Second are the city’s “one-room mansions,” 100-square-foot units with prefab bathrooms, brutally expressive of Tokyo’s real estate market. Suzuki argues that residents transcend their small confines through cyberspace. “A link to huge communication networks that spiral around us as we crouch in our tiny, atomized spaces,” he writes. “This is what we are after.”

Call them myPods—residents installed in their docks, downloading information, recharging before striking out again into the city. Kurokawa had forecast this: The capsules were “cyborg architecture,” he wrote, inside of which humans could “equip themselves with various devices with which to perform complicated roles which are beyond their capabilities as living creatures.”

The Nakagin’s place in architectural history is more secure than the building’s future. “Without Kisho’s capsule building,” Jencks argues, buildings like the Centre Pompidou and Richard Rogers’s Lloyd’s of London “are unthinkable.” Kurokawa was asking radical questions in built form: Could buildings renew themselves by adding new “cells”? How much (or little) space do we need to dwell—and what does it mean to dwell, anyway? Can architecture inspire new forms of living? His work, which took the idea of the American mobile trailer, among others, and made out of it an urban monument, resonates in the dreams of future-minded architects, in everything from houses made of shipping containers to any number of mini-living schemes.

The fact that the building seems set to be destroyed is strangely poignant: Not only do we lose a sense of how the past imagined the future, we lose a future that never came to be. Kurokawa, vocally and publicly, called for the building’s preservation—but he was also fond of discussing the contradictions of preservation in Japan. His own architectural career was forged in the wreckage of Japan’s destroyed postwar cities, and he liked to cite the Shinto shrine at Ise, which is rebuilt every 20 years. After all, preserving the building itself was not the point; what mattered was spiritually preserving the shrine’s “invisible tradition.”

In his own writings, Kurokawa, a Buddhist, offered a fitting and, especially now, quite haunting encomium to the capsule tower: “We used to consider things that could live forever to be beautiful. But this way of thinking has been exposed as a lie. True beauty lies in things that die, things that change.”

Originally published

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