Decaying but beloved, Tokyo’s Capsule Tower faces uncertain future

一世t is an architectural curiosity that attracts admirers from around the world, an asymmetric stack of identical concrete boxes in a neighbourhood dominated by the gleaming glass edifices of corporate 日本.

But after occupying a corner of Tokyo’s Ginza district for almost half a century, the Nakagin Capsule Tower faces an uncertain future.

When it was built in 1972, Nakagin was the capital’s only example of the metabolism architectural movement, which fused ideas about megastructures with those of organic biological growth, and a physical expression of Japan’s postwar economic and cultural revival.

Its designer, the celebrated architect Kisho Kurokawa, envisioned its 140 self-contained prefabricated capsules as pieds-à-terre for professionals who wanted to avoid long weekday commutes to their suburban homes.

With an area of 10 square metres, each capsule came with a unit bathroom, a Sony Trinitron TV, a reel-to-reel cassette/radio, a rotary dial phone and a large circular window through which generations of residents have viewed Tokyo’s ever-changing cityscape. In keeping with its metabolism roots, Kurokawa, 谁死在 2007, had intended for the capsules to be removed and replaced every 25 年.

But almost half a century on, time has caught up with the structure, now shrouded in netting to keep dislodged rust and concrete from falling on to passersby.

The few remaining residents are now having to accept that their homes and office spaces will soon disappear, amid reports that the building could be demolished next spring.

Preserving Nakagin in its current form has proved impossible, says Tatsuyuki Maeda, representative of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Preservation and Regeneration Project, as he shows the Guardian around one of the 15 rooms he has bought over the past 12 年.

“We want the capsules to survive, although in a different form, to keep the metabolism idea alive,” says Maeda, 54, who started leasing some of his rooms and conducting guided tours a decade ago to raise money to preserve the 13-storey building. “This isn’t just a place where people live and work. It inspires people to be creative and innovative.”

关于 40 people have moved out since March, when the management company and capsule owners decided to sell the plot, leaving just 20 tenants – a small but eclectic band that includes an architect, a DJ, a film producer and Maeda, who works in advertising. “There are a few people who have said they never want to leave, but they’ll have to get used to the idea,“ 他说.

Plans to remove and replace the capsules were torn up due to the high cost, logistical challenges and concern about the large quantities of asbestos inside the building. Time has not been kind to the structure, which has not had hot running water for more than a decade and, critically, does not meet Japan’s strict earthquake-resistance regulations.

Nakagin’s future appeared to have been secured when an overseas investor showed an interest in buying the entire building. But negotiations ended when the 新冠病毒 pandemic prevented investors from travelling to Japan to view the property, according to Maeda, who lives nearby with his family but spends occasional nights at Nakagin.

The capsules’ survival hinges on Maeda’s project to disassemble them, remove the asbestos and donate them to museums, art galleries and other institutions in Japan and overseas – a proposal that is at least in keeping with Kurokawa’s architectural 哲学.

The preservation group has received inquiries from museums in the US, 英国, 德国, France and Poland hoping to play their part in protecting the legacy of Japan’s short-lived experiment with metabolism.

“Europeans understand the need to preserve buildings like this, whereas Japan is still guided by a pull-down-and-rebuild mentality,” says Maeda, who resolved to buy a Nakagin capsule while gazing at the building from his old workplace.

疫情之前, people from all over the world flocked to this corner of Ginza to photograph its most famous architectural landmark. Foreign visitors regularly outnumbered Japanese admirers on guided tours, and fashion houses have used its retro backdrop for photoshoots. Celebrity visitors include Hugh Jackman – Nakagin’s exterior appeared in the 2013 film The Wolverine – Francis Ford Coppola and Keanu Reeves.

“I’ve always thought the capsules would look perfect on a small island, in the middle of a forest or even on the seabed,” says Maeda, who adds that he will spend a few nights at Nakagin until the capsules’ fate is decided.

“In Japan you can live in an apartment for years without even seeing your neighbours. But here everyone is friendly and ready to help each other out. We are a real community.”