By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
How old does a building have to be before we appreciate its value? And when does its cultural importance trump practical considerations?
Those are the questions that instantly come to mind over the likely destruction of Kisho Kurokawa’s historic Nakagin Capsule Tower.
A rare built example of Japanese Metabolism, a movement whose fantastic urban visions became emblems of the country’s postwar cultural resurgence, the 1972 Capsule Tower is in a decrepit state. Its residents, tired of living in squalid, cramped conditions, voted two years ago to demolish it and are now searching for a developer to replace it with a bigger, more modern tower. That the building is still standing has more to do with the current financial malaise than with an understanding of its historical worth.
Yet for many of us who believe that the way we treat our cultural patrimony is a fair measure of how enlightened we are as a society, the building’s demolition would be a bitter loss. The Capsule Tower is not only gorgeous architecture; like all great buildings, it is the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal. Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.
Founded by a loose-knit group of architects at the end of the 1950s, the Metabolist movement sought to create flexible urban models for a rapidly changing society. Floating cities. Cities inspired by oil platforms. Buildings that resembled strands of DNA. Such proposals reflected Japan’s transformation from a rural to a modern society. But they also reflected more universal trends, like social dislocation and the fragmentation of the traditional family, influencing generations of architects from London to Moscow.
Of the five members who made up the group, Kurokawa was the most glamorous. A photo taken in 1958 at a Moscow student conference, when he was just 24, shows him surrounded by fawning girls, signing autographs. Trim and handsome, often outfitted in elegantly tailored suits and a bow tie, he became a regular at Tokyo nightclubs. His Space Capsule Disco, opened in the 1960s, was a hot spot for young creative types.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed as the movement’s influence was beginning to wane. Composed of 140 concrete pods plugged into two interconnected circulation cores, the structure was meant as a kind of bachelor hotel for businessmen working in the swanky Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo.
Inside, each apartment is as compact as a space capsule. A wall of appliances and cabinets is built into one side, including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a television and a tape deck. A bathroom unit, about the size of an airplane lavatory, is set into an opposite corner. A big porthole window dominates the far end of the room, with a bed tucked underneath.
Part of the design’s appeal is voyeuristic. The portholes evoke gigantic peepholes. Their enormous size, coupled with the small scale of the rooms, exposes the entire apartment to the city outside. Many of the midlevel units look directly onto an elevated freeway, so you are almost face to face with people in passing cars. (On my first visit there, a tenant told me that during rush hour, drivers stuck in traffic often point or wave at residents.)
But the project’s lasting importance has more to do with its structural innovations, and how they reflect the Metabolists’ views on the evolution of cities. Each of the concrete capsules was assembled in a factory, including details like carpeting and bathroom fixtures. They were then shipped to the site and bolted, one by one, onto the concrete and steel cores that housed the building’s elevators, stairs and mechanical systems.
Read the full article on the NYTimes here!
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF