Demolition of the Nakagin Capsule Tower — an iconic representation of Japan’s metabolist architectural movement — officially kicked off on Tuesday, with fans of the building showing up to take a last glimpse before it is torn down.
On this week’s Deep Dive, Japan Times editor Chris Russell joins to discuss the story of Nakagin and why he thinks it has captivated so many people over the years.
- Demolition of Tokyo’s iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower officially begins
- Nakagin Capsule Tower: Saving an urban dream from the ravages of time
- Tokyo’s Tearing Down an Iconic Building. That’s a Good Thing.
On this episode:
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Chris Russell, at Nakagin 00:06
So yeah, we’re just a stone’s throw away from Shimbashi Station, standing next to the Nakagin Capsule Tower, on the day when this really famous and classic building is due to be demolished. Several people have already come down, architectural enthusiasts who are getting their last photographs of this icon of metabolist architecture.
Oscar Boyd 00:29
Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times, I’m Oscar Boyd. On April 12, demolition work began on the Nakagin Capsule Tower, one of the most famous examples of postwar metabolist architecture in Tokyo. On Tuesday, I met Japan Times editor Chris Russell at the base of the tower to see it one last time before it is torn down.
Chris Russell, at Nakagin 00:50
Looking at it, you can visibly see the rust. This one capsule right in front of us, the corner of it. I don’t know what’s gone on there or what’s happened to it. But it’s looking very, very much worse for wear. So yeah, it’s clear that the tower is in a state of disrepair. But I think the other thing I would say about this morning is that there is a feeling of sadness, I think, about the fact that it has got to this point.
Oscar Boyd 01:18
Chris has been following the story of Nakagin over the past few years as a battle has raged over its future. On one side, conservationists say it should be refurbished and restored to its 1970s retro-futuristic glory. On the other, developers have pushed for its demolition, citing issues such as earthquake safety, asbestos, and the huge cost of restoration as insoluble problems.
Chris Russell, at Nakagin 01:41
As anyone familiar with the building will know, there are these really iconic, famous round windows in each of the capsules. And you know, it’s not unusual to sometimes see things put up in those windows. On the western side of the building, lower down, one of them has this really bright, eye catching sign in red with white writing, saying #SaveNakagin. And you know, seeing that really brings home what’s happening, what is about to happen.
Oscar Boyd 02:16
Although it is now too late to save the capsule tower, this week on Deep Dive, Chris joins me to discuss the story of Nakagin, and why he thinks it has captivated so many people over the years.
Oscar Boyd 02:31
Chris Russell, welcome back to Deep Dive. Thank you for joining me again.
Chris Russell 02:34
Thanks for having me, Oscar.
Oscar Boyd 02:35
So a couple of years back, you wrote this really nice feature looking at the plan to demolish the Nakagin Capsule Tower. That day has finally arrived. And I know you’re very sad about it.
Chris Russell 02:45
I certainly am.
Oscar Boyd 02:47
To start with, for our listeners who maybe haven’t seen the tower or don’t really know much about it, what is the Nakagin Capsule Tower? And what initially drew you to it?
Chris Russell 02:55
Sure. So the Nakagin Capsule Tower is a building designed by the architect Kisho Kurokawa. And he was a part of the metabolist movement, this really significant post war modernist architectural movement. And the conceit of the building, the interesting feature, is that it’s made up of these capsules, which are these cuboid shaped rooms that literally bolt on to the main structure of the tower. So you have all these blocky things just sort of assembled and stuck on the side of this building, giving it a really interesting irregular geometry. The only window for each of these capsules is just one large, round window and so you have that as a key feature of the building too. So it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Oscar Boyd 03:51
And it also happens to be right in the center of Tokyo, next to Shimbashi Station and on the western edge of Ginza.
Chris Russell 03:58
Yeah, so it’s in this quite upscale area, it’s surrounded by these massive glass and steel tower blocks. So it sticks out in this really strange way and when the building was constructed, which was in 1972, there wasn’t really much around there — I believe there was a rail freight depot that was next to it. So it was just this weird, angular, jagged shape, cutting against the sky. But yeah, now with the development of that area, the building is much more closed in.
Oscar Boyd 04:34
Still a weird angular shape, but it’s got the giant Dentsu building just behind it, and a nice highway.
Chris Russell 04:40
Yeah, but it hasn’t lost any of that strangeness. And it’s a very retro-futuristic building. It’s very much a product of its time, I would say. The outward appearance, but also if you do go into the tower, the early 70s atmosphere is so strong. You go into the capsules — some of them have been modified or some of them fell into disrepair over time — but there are some that are in good condition or have been restored. It’s very simple but there’s a panel which has what would have been at the time cutting edge technology, and it’s this reel to reel tape player and a radio and so on. It feels very old school, but at the time, it was very forward thinking, to the extent that some of the ideas behind it still have a lot of relevance. So yeah, it’s retro-futurism that this building really exudes.
Oscar Boyd 05:40
And coming back to the exterior, again, it is an incredibly iconic building. And it’s been used in plenty of films. I think the most recent time I’ve seen it used was in the Hugh Jackman film “The Wolverine.” In that it was transported through the magic of editing to Hiroshima, where it is actually a love hotel in the film. But it’s also in all sorts of music videos. And I think it’s a pretty well known feature of the Tokyo landscape.
Chris Russell 06:04
Yeah. And fashion shoots and so on, as well. It’s a cool backdrop for people to use. And so I think between all those things, it’s developed this big fan base, not just in Japan, but internationally. And metabolism and Nakagin, they are standard stuff on any architectural course. If you’ve studied architecture, you’ve almost certainly studied metabolism and Nakagin, or you have a good awareness of what it is.
Oscar Boyd 06:34
And so today, as we’re recording this, it’s April 12. And today’s the start of its demolition. But before we get into the process of how that’s happening, and how we got to that point, let’s go back to its beginning. What is the story behind the Nakagin Capsule Tower?
Chris Russell 06:49
Yeah, so I think maybe we need to start with metabolism itself, this architectural movement. That emerged in the late 50s and it came out of the students of one of Japan’s legendary modern architects, Kenzo Tange. And for an architectural conference that took place in Tokyo in the 1960s, they drew together these ideas, combined them and presented a manifesto. Key to what the metabolists were interested in, or what underpins their philosophy and designs, was a sense, or an emphasis on process, and adaptation and renewal. Often for this, they were drawing on the natural world. They had some other Japanese cultural references that informed them as well, but nature was a big part of it and ideas of cells, modularity, spines. A common feature of a metabolist design is to have some kind of spine then, off of that, other elements that would be sort of modular, or replaceable.
Oscar Boyd 07:54
Right. It was imagining a lot of buildings as being a living part of the city, right? Not just a static thing that, once it was built, was there in perpetuity, but something that would evolve over time, as if it was a living organism.
Chris Russell 08:05
Yeah, right. Exactly. Seeing it as a living organism is key. You see a lot of this expressed in the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Again, it has that spine with the main tower structure. And then off it, you have all these capsules. And so in terms of the adaptation aspect, the initial plan was, and in theory still is, that these capsules can be removed and replaced. Now, the practice didn’t quite match up to that because of the way that they’re fitted in. To remove one capsule, you’d have to take out everything above it.
Oscar Boyd 08:40
So if you wanted to replace the capsule that was at the very bottom, you’d have to lift out every single one above it.
Chris Russell 08:45
Yeah. And also, the capsules are packed in so closely together. We’re talking probably inches between some of them, so I just don’t think it would be a very easy process, either. But that was the idea: that people could replace the capsules, or they could be moved perhaps to some other structure that could accommodate them.
Oscar Boyd 09:05
And you said the architect behind it was Kisho Kurokawa, what’s his story? And how did he become involved with the metabolist movement?
Chris Russell 09:13
Right. So Kurokawa was one of the founders of the metabolism movement, and he was a former student of Tange. He was born in 1934, so he grew up through the war, and that experience carried with him. He worked on a number of different projects, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Nakagin Capsule Tower is what he’s best known for. He lived until 2007 and it was around the time of his death that the issue of the building’s demolition was really ramping up because that was the year when they actually crossed the threshold in terms of the number of votes they needed from capsule owners to proceed with the demolition. He outlined a plan for what he thought could save the building, while still maintaining its integrity in terms of aesthetics, but also the philosophy behind it. And so that would have seen the capsules all replaced, because those capsules were only meant to actually last for about 25 years. His idea was we can keep replacing these, and then that should make the structure of the building viable for hundreds of years as a result.
Oscar Boyd 10:23
When you go up to them and actually see the capsules, they are not big rooms. I think they measure 2.5 by 4 meters wide, very small. Who were they designed for? And what was the idea behind the tower?
Chris Russell 10:36
Sure, before I answer that, just sort of a funny point. You mentioned Wolverine earlier on. Just given the small size of the capsules, basically they were too small for Hugh Jackman. I guess also, it was the technical aspects of filmmaking, the size they need for that as well, but also just because he’s a big guy. So filming in the capsule wouldn’t have worked. They had to go and recreate one on a slightly larger scale in some soundstage somewhere. But in terms of who the actual capsules are for, maybe not Hugh Jackman, but they were initially intended for businessmen working in Ginza, or nearby areas, as a place for them to stay after a long day of overtime, or perhaps dining out entertaining. And on that point, there are no cooking facilities within the capsules. You’ve got your tape deck and radio and a fold out desk but nothing to actually cook food with.
Oscar Boyd 11:36
I feel like it’s ironic that Nakagin is now in the shadow of the Dentsu building.
Chris Russell 11:46
Yeah, which has its own reputation …
Oscar Boyd 11:49
… issues with overwork.
Chris Russell 11:50
Yeah, so it was aimed at businessmen, but I suppose in line with the metabolist philosophy, that gradually changed. And, by the end, a lot of the owners, or people actually living there, were in various creative fields. And that’s a lot of what the building has been used for until those residents were made to leave for the demolition. So when I did the tour, I was told, “Actually we’ve got really good soundproofing in these capsules.” So it’s great if you want to practice your instrument, play the drums or something like that, then it’s no problem. You can’t say that about your average Tokyo home. So that’s score 1 to Nakagin, in that respect. So you had other people doing different creative pursuits, there was a cosplayer who would DJ from her capsule and livestream that. As I said, fashion shoots, photo shoots, were a popular thing to do at Nakagin. Actually, when there was this hope that the tower would be preserved — and this question of how that would work and what it would be used for — one of the ideas that was being thrown around was that it would become some kind of cultural center, that it would lean into that aspect of Nakagin and allow it to have a continued function, as opposed to just preserving it in amber, as if nothing has changed since the 70s.
Oscar Boyd 13:31
How does Nakagin go from being an icon of 1970s futurism to demolition?
Chris Russell 13:36
Sure. So as I say, in 2007, this key threshold was reached in terms of support for the demolition by owners.
Oscar Boyd 13:46
So even by 2007, it had fallen into a state of disrepair.
Chris Russell 13:50
Yeah. So that’s also the context. This state of disrepair. And we talked about the preservation project, but looking at it from the outside now, it’s clear that this is not the building that it was when it was unveiled in the 70s. Various problems have emerged over time. I think it’s been a decade since the building last had hot water. So actually, a temporary shower, something that you might see perhaps at a music festival, was installed on the ground floor outside. And on top of that, you know, there are issues in terms of earthquake resistance, the building is full of asbestos, which is actually going to complicate this demolition a little bit. It definitely has its fair share of problems. And that, I think, is the big argument for the demolition: that some of these problems are insoluble, or too expensive to fix.
Oscar Boyd 14:57
So you said in 2007 it was due to be demolished, and that a certain number of residents needed to agree to that. What was the process behind the planned demolition? And why didn’t it happen 15 years ago?
Chris Russell 16:05
I’m not entirely clear why it is, but 80% was this crucial threshold of support that was needed. And I think there had been votes before that, but it hadn’t reached that stage. But then it finally did. And the owner of the building at the time, the Nakagin Group, had these plans for redevelopment of the site. But then, because of the global financial crisis, the Nakagin Group couldn’t proceed with those plans for redevelopment anymore. And so the capsule tower continued in this state of limbo.
Oscar Boyd 16:38
So it was stuck as it was, with neither the money to actually repair it and take it back up to a standard to make it properly livable, but also it couldn’t be torn down and redeveloped at the time.
Chris Russell 16:48
Right. And so one of the things that the preservation group was trying to do was to find a conservation-minded buyer that had the money to buy it, and also the money to fix it up. And we’re talking billions of yen to do that, to replace all the capsules, to deal with the asbestos and all the other issues. So it wasn’t going to be cheap, but they did have someone that they were speaking to. But in a cruel twist of fate, we had the pandemic, and that undermined those efforts to find a buyer. On top of that, there was meant to be an international conference by this organization called Docomomo, which researches and tries to conserve modern architecture. They were going to be doing this international conference in Tokyo in the fall of 2020. And the hope was that that would be a way to highlight the building further, but also maybe gain some more momentum around the plans to save it. Obviously, because of the pandemic, that didn’t happen. And eventually, it took place in 2021, but only online. So that was also a little bit of a missed opportunity.
Oscar Boyd 18:08
What was the final nail in the coffin that actually led to it being demolished this month?
Chris Russell 18:12
I don’t know that there was necessarily one trigger as such. But they failed to find the conservation-minded buyer. And then on top of that, the building was bought by a company called Capsule Tower Building with plans for the demolition and redevelopment. They were in a position to actually go ahead with that. And that sealed the Nakagin Capsule Tower’s fate.
Oscar Boyd 18:35
And do we know what’s going to replace it?
Chris Russell 18:37
I haven’t been able to find anything on that. I think it would be safe to say that it’s going to be something a lot less interesting than the Nakagin Capsule Tower. And maybe this is something we’ll touch on later on, but I think that’s a crucial thing in this preservation debate. I think it would be easier to accept the demolition of Nakagin if you were confident that something at least somewhat as bold and daring was going to be put up in its place. But it’s most likely just going to be a bog-standard modern office building, if I had to guess.
Oscar Boyd 19:14
So what’s the reaction been to the demolition of Nakagin?
Chris Russell 19:17
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit mixed. Obviously, a lot of the most vocal people are lamenting its destruction. Earlier, when we were at the site, we spoke to a freelance architect who had gone down to see the tower on this official start of the demolition. He said he was quite sad about it, sad to see it go. But at the same time, he noted the issues around it, and that perhaps its time had come. It had served its purpose. I think there’s also a kind of emerging hot take, as it were, which is that ‘Yeah, it’s cool, but whatever. It’s no great loss.’ And then on top of that, there’s a committed group of people that really hate modern architecture full stop. We talked about the distinctive look of the building, and for a lot of people that’s the appeal and that’s what makes it so amazing. But in other people’s eyes, it’s just ugly, it’s an eyesore, especially in light of the disrepair it’s fallen into. When the tower opened, it was this gleaming thing. The capsules now are incredibly dirty. So I’m sure there are also people who are like ‘Yeah, let’s knock this thing down. Let’s move on. Let’s go to the next stage.’
Oscar Boyd 20:42
Both of us are from the UK, which has very strict laws about preserving buildings that are of note or have architectural significance or some kind of history to them. What do you think the demolition of Nakagin says about preservation of buildings in Japan?
Chris Russell 21:11
Yeah, I think the general consensus is that it’s a bit lacking. Certainly in Tokyo, there’s a really strong scrap and build culture. Walking around, it’s not unusual to come across a construction site. Or you’ll get weird plots of land that go through a life cycle of several car parks until eventually there’s an apartment block there. So it’s kind of the culture, at least in the capital. Somewhere like Kyoto, it’s a little bit different, because there’s all the history there, and there’s such an attachment to traditional culture in that city. I mentioned Docomomo earlier and their Japan chapter has, over time, built up this list of notable modernist buildings in Japan, and Nakagin is actually on that list. But a lot of them have been knocked down. In terms of the actual efforts to preserve Nakagin, there was a petition addressed to Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, asking her to step in. This was bounced around different departments and ultimately, nothing was done, with the justification that this is a private building, it’s nothing to do with us. In terms of listings and heritage, in Japan, often that is geared toward traditional architecture. Insofar as it’s something more modern, often it’s to do with the Meiji Restoration. So it’s a mine, a steel mill, or something like that. What those lack in architectural beauty perhaps they make up for in historical significance. But those can also be controversial too. I think it’s a real struggle for these buildings to survive. And the Nakagin is just one of the most notable instances of that.
Oscar Boyd 23:03
Are there arguments in favor of this lack of preservation or lack of conservation? The one that I’ve seen is that, because Japan places less emphasis on conservation of buildings, it actually allows it to knock things down and rebuild them faster, which in turn means that Tokyo has an abundance of housing stock and rent is actually lower as a result when compared to big cities like New York and London.
Chris Russell 23:30
Yeah, I think there’s something to that argument. Tokyo does have the level of construction that means that it can match demand a lot better than somewhere like London or New York can. At the same time, I feel that dragging Nakagin into that is a little bit wrongheaded. The preservation of Nakagin wouldn’t have any material impact on either the space that it occupies. And the act of preserving and what message that sends wouldn’t have any material impact on this construction frenzy, or the willingness to demolish and rebuild.
Oscar Boyd 24:11
And what do you think is the broader significance of the demolition of Nakagin? Beyond the fact that it’s an interesting looking building in the heart of Tokyo?
Chris Russell 24:20
Yeah. So at the start you asked what it means to me. And, I think there’s two aspects to this. One is a wider issue of renewal and regeneration. To me it’s this question, ‘What does it get replaced with?’ We’re seeing these larger scale regeneration projects being rolled out across Tokyo — Shibuya is a good example, but also in smaller neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa. And I feel a lot of the time these aren’t really even trying to maintain continuity with what was there before? And I think so often the replacement is an office building, a hotel, it’s another shopping mall. I’m not going to say that those things don’t have some value, they clearly will. But I think you have to ask yourself, what is the net benefit? Is there a net benefit? So with Nakagin, I think it brings that issue into sharp relief. But to me, it’s also the ideas that are contained within Nakagin, what it represents. And, you know, we’re talking about the reaction to it and that sadness, and I mentioned the retro-futuristic look of the building. And I feel you can’t look at Nakagin, without having this feeling of a future lost. I think it really taps into this idea of a nostalgia for the future, when we could really believe that there was all this exciting progress ahead of us. And it’s this kind of thought that is encapsulated in the question, “Where’s my jetpack?” or “where’s my flying car?” I was promised this and I still do not have these things. Nakagin, it’s kind of that utopian or progressive mindset. And I think that’s the stirring thing when you look at the building, But also because it has this metabolist philosophy, which underpins that, it also acts as a way into a different way of thinking. So for me, it’s this fantastic rupture in the urban fabric, it acts like a portal into asking all these different questions, thinking about these different ideas. And we live in a very — understatement — strange time. We’re over a decade from the financial crisis, we’re still in a pandemic, we’ve lived through all these big changes in the last two or so years. And, then on top of that, we’re also living in an era of climate change. But at the same time, there seems to be a sort of dearth of big ideas, big solutions to a lot of these issues that we’re facing. The dominant response seems to be quite reactionary or inward looking. So for me, to look at Nakagin is to have a reminder that big ideas are possible. I think it’s also perhaps a reminder to maintain a little bit of healthy skepticism about them as well. Of course, there can be a dark side to these things where they don’t quite work as planned. And maybe Nakagin does represent that, too. But I think it’s a monument to thinking big, and we’re in an era where that kind of big thinking is increasingly needed.
Oscar Boyd 27:57
You mentioned climate change there. One of the core philosophies of metabolism was this idea of a living city, an evolving city, stuff that could be reused, recycled — you don’t need to tear down a whole building just to replace one pod. Do you think it has ongoing relevance when we’re thinking about issues like climate change?
Chris Russell 28:14
Yeah, absolutely. And this is something that people have looked into or are starting to look into more. I know there have been some research projects examining metabolism through the frame of climate change adaptation. Building cities that can evolve, that have resilience as a result, there’s an obvious connection there between that, and the climate crisis.
Oscar Boyd 28:39
As the sea level rises, you take the capsule from the bottom and put it back at the top…
Chris Russell 28:43
… or put it on a van and drive it a little bit more inland or something. Yeah, the climate crisis is going to put cities under all sorts of stress: rising sea levels, heat waves. And so having urban planning and architectural plans that have some kind of responsiveness built into them, it just seems to dovetail very well with that need. So people have looked into it. For instance, Shimizu Corporation had this idea of what they called Green Float. And this was thinking big, crazy thoughts and so on, as opposed to a super practical project, but they came up with this plan for cities to float on the ocean. They’re kind of flower shaped and the intention is that they would be carbon neutral or perhaps even carbon negative. And they’re posited as a potential solution for island nations that are threatened by rising sea levels or could even be wiped out by those. So that’s kind of one way of engaging with metabolism through that climate lens. Just before the start of the pandemic, the Mori Art Museum had this exhibition called “Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life – How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow.” A bit of a mouthful. And this actually had a section on what it called neo-metabolism. And this is the idea that the original metabolists were ahead of their time. And the technology couldn’t really support the ideas that they had. Now increasingly, it can. So they had this section on neo-metabolism that was explicitly linked to environmental concerns and pointing to different materials now that would maybe lend themselves to that sort of modularity and fungibility that was a core part of metabolism.
Oscar Boyd 30:48
Chris, thank you very much.
Chris Russell 30:50
Thank you. Thank you, Oscar.
Oscar Boyd 31:00
That was Chris Russell, thanks to him for joining me, and I’ve linked his articles about Nakagin and its demolition in the show notes.
Also in the Japan Times this week: Although Japan’s borders remain shut to tourists, the country has begun to grant visas to a wider range of people, including the parents of foreign residents in Japan and family members who need to take care of sick relatives. However, fiances, partners and people in relationships with a resident in Japan remain unlikely to be granted visas, according to an official at the Foreign Ministry. Japan reopened its borders in March for people who have sponsors, such as business travelers, foreign students and researchers. About 30,000 foreign students have entered Japan so far, with the government estimating 80,000 more will arrive by the end of May. That story and all the latest news from Japan at japantimes.co.jp That’s it for this episode. If you’ve got a particular memory of Nakagin you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them. You can email the show at email@example.com and you can find both me and Chris on Twitter. We’ll be back next week. Until then, stay well and, as always, podtsukaresama.