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Metabolist Design: The Nakagin Capsule Tower, Japan
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Text and Images by Jessica Baldwin
Today preservation efforts in the United States and all over the world are more and more focused on post-war architecture. In Japan, rapid development and the ever rising cost of real estate leaves much of post war architecture at risk. The Nakagin Capsule Tower, arguably one of the most iconic and acknowledged pieces of architecture in the World, stands as a statement to post-war architecture and urban development.
The Metabolisim movement officially began in 1960 at the World Design Exposition. There a group of designers, architects and creators announced, through a Manifesto, their design intentions and ethos. The Manifesto clearly expressed the group’s desires for all people (both nationally and internationally) to understand cities and buildings not as individual pieces but as collective groups that expand and shrink, push and pull, and are continually evolving. “Metabolists’ designs were often characterized by the combination of a megastructure, serving as a permanent base, and numerous individual units attached to the megastructure and subject to more frequent replacement" (Zhongjie, 2011, 16). This created recognizable characteristics for each of their projects and defines their buildings with certain features. Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, Kenzo Tange’s plan for Tokyo Bay, and Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine City all posses a distinct aesthetic, making them recognizable icons of a particular time and thought, and symbolizing with concrete designs the possibilities of the future.
For the architectural community, the Nakagin Capsule Tower represents a new movement in architecture and a testament to Metabolism: “the last movement that changed architecture” (Koolhaas + Obrist, 2011, p. 12). Kurokawa pushed for a new architecture that defined metabolism in one building: components of the building that could be changed quickly, mega structure towers that could be added to, thus creating a new lifestyle for the people of Japan through architecture and design.The push to create a “lifestyle” through architecture demonstrating to the people of Japan (and eventually the World) that architecture and design could dictate and enhance everyday life was the Metabolists’ goal. The Metabolist wanted to challenge and appreciate the past, and at the same time accelerate the Japanese people into the future using avant garde design concepts through tangible designs.
Western ideals of preservation, particularly the United States, are rooted in the physical static placement of preserving a built environment, usually a specific piece of architectural history. The western world looks at preservation as a way to keep old buildings, to adapt them to the needs of today, or turn the property into a museum while still maintaining the physical appearance and materials of the original building. Western ideals can be selective about the new functions of the building in that some laws prevent new uses for buildings, and others restrict them heavily. Japan and other Eastern countries consider preservation differently. Environmental factors, natural disasters, human conflict, consistently rising real estate prices, and population demands are all considered in the Japanese interpretation of preservation.
The Japanese national government does not strictly enforce preservation law, and the lack of regulation enforcement coincides with the Japanese needs and ideals of an evolving economy. Finding the balance between historical, cultural value and the market economies of Japanese cities creates preservation problems that, while not unique to Japan, are more prevalent. The limited amount of property available for construction and the demand for real estate is the leading factor in determining preservation practices in Japan. A sense of pride (as well as inferiority from WWII, an event that “left survivors a powerful sense of themselves as victims and not perpetrators of war” (Gordon 2009 p. 223)) makes the preservation of the recent past even more challenging. “The Tokyo real estate market and the Japanese urban culture have intensified this conflict and created distinct conservation practices” (Zhongjie 2011, p. 23).
The high demand of Japanese real estate and a Japanese construction concept that buildings are not meant to last forever also plays into the role of preservation and have an astounding effect on the preservation of the recent past. The “acceptance of constant transformation of the physical environment, which has been absorbed into Japanese consciousness (Zhongjie 2011 p. 23)” is the most critical element in exploring Japanese preservation concepts, particularly the preservation of the recent past. “The short life-cycle of Japanese architecture is said to stem from a social system that guarantees change (Kitayama, Tsukamoto, Nishizawa 2010 p. 21).” This best defines the basis of preservation in Japan where change is constant. As preservationists, we must be open to this concept and accept, especially with structures of the recent past, that buildings and cities evolve.
Considering the principles of Metabolism and differences in the approach to preservation in the United States and Japan, it is easy to understand how the Nakagin Capsule Tower exemplifies the concepts of the Metabolist movement. The modular units of the Tower are designed to be to be the size of a shipping container, making easy to construct and move. The Tower was completed in 1972 using 144 capsules and plugged into two cores at a rate of five to eight capsules a day (Koolhaas + Obrist 2011 p. 388). These modules attached the core structure (megastructure) that acts as the base, and allows transportation, circulation and mechanical systems to supply each unit. The modularity of the capsules was innovative and, at the time of design and construction, completely new. “The towers rise to different heights and the capsules are arranged in a seemingly random pattern, suggesting an ongoing process” (Zhongjie 2011 p. 19). As a result the tower becomes the realization of the Metabolist manifesto. Because the capsules do not totally engulf the towers, a sense of continuation is present. More capsules could be added or taken away to change the elevation and appearance of the building based on the needs of the individuals using it. This change in appearance reflects not only the buildings use but, also the ever-changing city surrounding the building.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower is currently on DOCOMOMO, JAPAN’s list of cultural significant modern buildings. However the listing has no bearing on the Japanese government regulations. Instead, it is only recognition that the building has cultural value and is valuable in the architectural history of Japan. This list was created in hope that the Japanese government would stop the demolition of much of the Modern post- war architecture. Kurokawa, the Tower’s architect, campaigned to save the building and made headway until his death in 2007. While the list and Kurokawa’s campaign has not stopped the planned demolition, it has placed the building in to the forefront of modern post-war architecture preservation. The DOCOMOMO list and additional preservation efforts have also attracted the attention of the architectural and preservation communities of the World.
Although the Nakagin Capsule Tower was approved for demolition in 2007, it has been spared for the time-being due to a global economic recession. However, the fate of the Tower is unknown, as is similar to many buildings of the same era all over the world. Several years ago, a movement began to save the Tower, but since the death of Kurokawa all campaigns have ceased. Through these events, the Japanese government has not stepped in to protect the iconic symbol. Instead the “Nakagin Capsule Tower became more or less a monolithic and static icon in the midst of the bustling and fast changing Giza district, commemorating the ideal of a metabolic city but no longer participating in its processes" (Zhongjie 2011, p. 20).
Losing the Tower could be the fundamental downfall of the manifesto of the Metabolism movement. It could also be the fundamental basis of all Japanese preservation. The Metabolist desired for buildings and cities to constantly evolve, and now the world watches as the Nagakin Capsule Tower evolves through its own life cycle. These considerations aren’t a commentary on the Tower’s inevitable demolition being right or wrong, however understanding the context may make it a little easier to grasp for the preservationist (be it an architect, planner, designer, historian or layman) who has a love for the Tower and other architecturally significant buildings of the same era.
Jessica Baldwin is a recent graduate of Pratt Insitute where she received her Master of Science degree in Historic Preservation. She received her Bachelor's degree from North Carolina State University in Environmental Design in Architecture and has worked as a designer in Manhattan.
Boyd, Robin. (1968). New Directions in Japanese Architecture (1st ed.). New York, New York: George Braziller, INC.
Gordon, Andrew. (2009). A Modern History of Japan (2nd ed.). New York, New York: Oxford, University Press.
Kitayama, Koh, Tsukamoto, Yoshiharu, + Nishizawa, R. (2010). Tokyo Metabolizing. Japan: TOTO Publishing.