Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa (image via Flickr)

Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by 20th-century Metabolic Architecture proponent Kisho Kurokawa and completed in the early 1970s, will be disassembled and demolished this month. The first example in the world of capsule architecture — in which constituent units of the building can be removed and reinstalled — it is perhaps Kurokawa’s most famous building.

The decision caps over a decade of discussions on the building’s slated dismantlement, which Kurokawa opposed before he died in 2007 and which has spurred valiant preservation efforts such as ex-resident Masato Abe’s campaign to raise sufficient funds to purchase all its capsules, “Save Nakagin Tower.”

But the deteriorating condition of individual capsules and the failure to update them with newer ones, as was Kurokawa’s original intention, left the building practically uninhabitable. The asbestos insulation is reportedly dysfunctional, leaving the building overheated during the summer and chilly in the winter. Neither hot water nor cooking stoves are available in the capsules, and their circular washing machine-esque windows cannot be opened. A net covers the structure to prevent people on the street from being struck unawares by pieces falling off it.

Since 2006, Nakagin Capsule Tower’s demolition has been subject to ongoing discussions. (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2007, the building’s owners’ association voted to sell the building to a property developer who intended to replace it with a more modern one. But when that developer filed for bankruptcy, the building’s fate once again hung in the balance, until it was finally sold in 2021 to a group of real estate firms incorporated under the name “Capsule Tower Building.” A spokesperson for the group told CNN that the building’s last residents moved out last month, with demolition scheduled to begin on April 12.

The capsules, 140 in total, were proportioned with the ratio of a tatami mat in mind, an instance of Kurokawa’s attempt to marry Japanese traditionalism and futurism in his design. He liked to call this meeting of the ancient and the modern “antagonistic coexistence.” The capsules were meant to be used for a host of purposes — mini-offices, ateliers, hotels, homes, meeting rooms, or holiday cabins — and at just ten square meters in size, they were aimed to serve the modern traveling bachelor who might have found himself needing accommodations in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo. Each capsule came with built-in furniture, much of which would strike a contemporary renter or buyer as fantastically retro, including a bedside control console, a stereo tape deck, and calculators. Bathrooms are the size of airplane lavatories. Originally fashioned from shipping containers, the capsules appear more like control rooms than living environments today.

Capsules in the Nakagin tower include built-in furniture. (via Wikimedia Commons)

“My intention is to change the structure of the architectural industry, of mass production,” Kurokawa declared in the late 20th century. With each capsule fabricated in Osaka, transported to Tokyo, and jiggled into place by a crane, capsule architecture envisioned not only a new aesthetic ideal but also a transformation of the construction process. The Nakagin Capsule Tower was not the only example of his capsule architecture in practice; he was also behind the Takara Pavilion for the Osaka World Expo in 1970, a capsule hotel in Osaka that remains open, and a summer retreat he built for himself, both which had movable parts connected by a central spine. 

“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,” Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times, wrote in 2009.

“My intention is to change the structure of the architectural industry, of mass production,” Kurokawa declared in the late 20th century. (image via Flickr)

Once representing a utopian post-Fordist vision for the future in which humanity was on track to achieve infinite movement and a symbiosis between work and life, Nakagin Tower now represents a failed dream. Its failure may, on the other hand, be cause for celebration: Its idealization of single life, erasure of feminized labor, and dream of a flat world devoid of place can alternatively be considered dystopian. Fortunately, many of the capsules themselves will not be destroyed; according to Japan Today, they will be donated to museums and “accommodation facilities.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.