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Historic capsule tower faces the chopping block under new ownership

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Nakagin Capsule Tower is seen in Ginza, Tokyo.

Time is running out for an iconic Tokyo building that, for the romantic, stands as a futuristic symbol of a bygone Showa age, and for the pragmatic, represents a decrepit eyesore well past its prime.

For nearly half a century, the Nakagin Capsule Tower has been turning heads for its idiosyncratic, LEGO-like design that has become an internationally heralded landmark on the Ginza skyline. Despite weathering previous attempts at demolition — prompted by concerns over crumbling concrete and dubious compliance with modern seismic codes — Nakagin’s upcoming sale to a real-estate developer intent on replacing the beleaguered building with a shinier mixed-use structure may prove to be the decisive blow that brings the towers tumbling down, to the dismay of the people who have campaigned to save this precious piece of architecture history. As the few remaining residents of the towers begin vacating their cramped premises, the fate of the towers continues to hang in precarious balance.

Completed in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is actually two interconnected towers, suspending 140 modular “capsules.” Ultimately becoming the calling card of architect Kisho Kurokawa (1934-2007), the building is revered as a rare extant example of the largely theoretical Metabolist school, which was one of the first architectural movements to emerge from the ashes of postwar Japan at the 1960 Tokyo World Design Conference.

As a founding Metabolist, Kurokawa was influenced by biological processes, and sought to create buildings that would organically evolve with the changing needs of its residents and the city. Yet none of the capsules at Nakagin were ever replaced. Their age shows. Over the intervening decades, the structure has fallen into notorious disrepair. More than just cosmetic concerns, the integrity of the towers’ cores has run afoul of seismic regulations revised after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

At a meeting of the building’s management association convened on March 22, capsule owners voted to sell the towers — and the prime land underneath — to a real estate developer keen on razing Nakagin in order to erect a new mixed-use office and residential complex. Under the proposal, demolition work would start in March 2022, with construction of the new building to commence in March 2023 for completion by November 2024.

The association board had previously voted for demolition in 2007, but the plans were scrapped in 2009 after the general contractor behind the proposal went bankrupt. Following the incident, the board was returned to a gridlock between pro-preservation and pro-demolition residents. That is, until the property owner began snapping up units to tip the scales in favor of demolition.

However, there is still a faint glimmer of hope for Nakagin. Demand for new property development has stagnated amid the pandemic, so it is possible that the terms of the proposal may still change if another actor willing to bring the building up to code were to appear.

A group of residents and enthusiasts continue to search for such an angel investor under the banner of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project. Although the group had been brokering talks with some promising candidates, including an overseas investor committed to the conservation of historic buildings, a solution that pleases all parties has remained elusive.

Perhaps even more appreciated abroad than in Japan, the photogenic building was, before the pandemic, the site of a pilgrimage for architecture students and tourists on their grand tour of Tokyo.

“There is an endless stream of people interested in taking tours of the building, but we’re now in a very difficult position,” lamented Tatsuyuki Maeda, leader of the Preservation Project and the owner of a handful of capsules himself. “It’s a pity.”