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Recurring views of Tokyo’s utopian dream

by

Special To The Japan Times

When the Nakagin Capsule Tower opened in Tokyo in 1972, it embodied the energy and optimism of Japan’s postwar boom. Considered architect Kisho Kurokawa’s opus, its completion was also a major moment in the development of metabolism, the much publicized Japanese avant-garde architectural movement that believed cities could cope with rapid modernization by mimicking biological systems. Beginning in 1960 with their founding manifesto, the metabolists relied on hypothetical proposals, both drawn and written, to disseminate their ideas. The Capsule Tower made these proposals a reality: Each unit — or capsule — could be added, subtracted or replaced in a manner approximating organic growth. While it was not the first realized metabolist project, its scale and charisma brought the movement international fame.

1972, Photographs by Noritaka Minami, Text by Julian Rose, Ken Yoshida.
100 pages
KEHRER Verlag, Photobook.

Over time, metabolism, and the rapid-growth economy it fed on, faded away and the Capsule Tower fell into disrepair. Despite this, images of the tower’s circular windows — and the modular units that comprise the tower’s jumbled form — remain in wide circulation. The tower’s striking geometry remains instantly recognizable and the clear articulation of individual capsules communicates the building’s underlying concept with advertisement-like efficiency.

U.S.-based photographer Noritaka Minami celebrates the iconic aesthetic of the Capsule Tower in his photo book, “1972.” These recently taken photographs expose and reinforce the building’s formal legacy, and provide a breadth of visual information not easily found in other circulated images of the tower.

The bulk of “1972” is a series of repetitively framed photos of capsule interiors. The condition of the capsules varies drastically, as do their contents. Some brim with belongings while others are completely uninhabited, but in each case the photographs are structured by the totalizing architectural backdrop of the tower. Even severe dilapidation cannot distract Minami’s camera from its constant and predetermined angle. Repeated again and again, the centered view of the circular windows becomes glyph-like.

These interior shots are punctuated by images of the tower’s windowless stairwell. Here, small collections of personal objects sit by doors, hinting at what lies behind them; boots and umbrellas are left unattended, plastic bags collect condensation, and stacked chairs bar entry. These cramped corridors have played little part in how the Capsule Tower has been publicized, so the photos feel something like views into the building’s subconscious. It is worth noting though that, even here, Minami shoots looking straight ahead. He refuses to pan toward the floor or ceiling to highlight the specific features of each space. This perspective suggest that Minami was more interested in showing the architecture as it is than presenting a subjective view.

Two writers contributed essays to accompany the photographs. The first, by Artforum senior editor Julian Rose, acknowledges that media fervor is essential to the Capsule Tower’s existence. He describes the building itself as a proposal for further development, and as a tool of media-savvy architect Kurokawa. Despite this, Rose feels that the Capsule Tower has become “haunted by images” and that Minami’s honest documentation corrects this overexposure. He views the photographs as investigations of the architectural peculiarities and state of habitation of each capsule, despite the camera’s constant angle and what Rose describes as “conspicuously absent” residents.

The other essay, by University of California professor Ken Yoshida, begins with a helpful socioeconomic contextualization of the Capsule Tower. He spends the rest of the brief text careening through contemporary Japanese history, stopping along the way to make largely unsubstantiated political claims. For Yoshida, the building is a consumerist monument that robs its residents of all agency. He concludes that “dreams dreamt here did not fulfill or expand on an individual’s aspiration.”

Like Rose, Yoshida acknowledges the importance of the Capsule Tower’s media presence, but he sees Kurokawa’s utopian proposals as servants of an oppressive neoliberal agenda. He views Minami’s photographs as evidence of the diversity of conditions and lifestyles within the capsules — images that discredit the notion of mass standardization that Yoshida claims the tower promoted.

The essays in “1972” do not discuss current efforts to preserve the Capsule Tower, which is now threatened with demolition. The building’s owners plan to construct a new condominium tower on the site, but they cannot proceed without the agreement of 80 percent of capsule owners. There is no incentive to maintain the building, and with basic services like hot water no longer functioning, only around 30 of the 140 capsules remain occupied full time.

Various campaigns to preserve the building have emerged, including ones led by international modernist preservation group Docomomo and private capsule owners. Even architect Kurokawa has weighed in, arguing for a complete renovation including replacement capsules. These proposals may have left the owners unconvinced, but likely help buoy the Capsule Tower’s profound popularity with the wider public. At the moment, a night’s stay in a capsule through Airbnb can run as high as ¥100,000.

Whether or not it continues to stand, the Nakagin Capsule Tower will be viewed as a significant point in the history of design, symbolizing an era of rapid growth and technological optimism. Its formal structure, now dulled by wear, is the clear focus of “1972,” and Minami’s photographs are evidence of its importance in the vocabulary of contemporary aesthetics.