2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the completion of Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower — and the beginning of its dismantling. Instead of standing tall as a Metabolist symbol in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza district, individual capsules will be shared with the rest of the world, functioning as miniature catalysts for new creators and artists outside of Tokyo. Photographer Lisa Knight shares her thoughts on the tower, its history and the Metabolist designs that remain.
My introduction to Kurokawa’s work, like many others, was through Nakagin Capsule Tower. As one of Tokyo’s most well-known architectural icons, I was initially drawn to this building for its unusual dichotomy of retro-futurism. It was after I went on a tour inside the famed tower that I learned more about Kurokawa and, by extension, the history and philosophies underpinning the Metabolist movement.
The Origins of Metabolism
Founded in 1960 by four architects Kisho Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake, Fumihiko Maki and Noboru Kawazoe, and influenced by their professor Kenzo Tange, the Metabolist movement challenged existing architecture philosophies head-on. In the ’50s and ’60s, Japan was both rebuilding after World War II and entering a period of rapid economic growth. This combination of circumstances allowed for the complete reimagination of urban design in Japan.
Where previous architectural ideas were universal, static and machine-like, Metabolism envisioned organic and constantly-changing cities that transformed with the natural ebb and flow of societies and individuals. The movement believed that, like humans, buildings had a limited lifespan and should be designed to be replaced. Kurokawa did not want homogenized buildings where the same design was used around the world. Cities were considered living and breathing organisms, communicating and connecting cultural and social identities through the context of different civilizations.
Nakagin Capsule Tower is my favorite Kurokawa design, for both philosophical and sentimental reasons. It was the most fully-formed embodiment of Metabolism in Japan: the tower was built with two vertical ‘cores’ from which detachable pods could be plugged in and out. While at first the pods seem to be attached haphazardly, Kurokawa has explained that the asymmetry of Nakagin was purposeful. In fact, a variety of Japanese aesthetics are silently weaved within the design. The structure is bold and unique, the physical manifestation of an architectural utopia.
On a personal level, Melbourne Central Tower is another one of my favorite Kurokawa designs. Inside those walls, over the span of five years, I started my first full-time job, met my husband, grew my career, quit my career and ultimately decided to move to Japan — without ever knowing that Kurokawa designed it.
The Great Undoing
The dismantling of the Nakagin Capsule Tower is ultimately very sad, because it is symbolic of the death of a future that was imagined but could never be realized. Even though it was designed to be an almost-biological entity, an organism that evolved to support the changing needs of society, the sad irony is that it now stands as a stagnant and dilapidated relic of the past.
In one way, it represented rebirth. After World War II there was a possibility to reimagine the future of Japanese society in the context of the information age, with architecture enabling greater individual freedoms, growth and transmutation. In another way, Nakagin sought to reject a style of universal architecture favored by the Western world at the time with its insertion of abstract Japanese elements. It’s this symbiosis of connecting both a future and a past that makes the birth and death of Nakagin so important to Tokyo.
Now, though, the timeworn leftovers are full of asbestos, leaks and mold. Residents were without hot water for over a decade (bathing was done in a portable shower downstairs or a nearby sento), the water pipes were aging, there were concerns about its earthquake resistance and a large net draped sadly over the building to protect passers-by from falling debris. Nakagin, as it stood, did not meet the fundamental aims of the Metabolism movement and was simply rotting away.
The Metabolism manifesto has a variety of references to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, especially that of rebirth, renewal and impermanence. One of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines, the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie Prefecture, is rebuilt every 20 years to preserve the design against erosion over time. It is believed that repeated rebuilding renders sanctuaries eternal.
While Nakagin is not being demolished, the capsules will be dismantled and transported to museums, or turned into rental accommodation. So even though the Nakagin building will not continue in its current form, it is going through a symbolic death and regeneration into its new form. This is what, I believe, Kurokawa would have wanted.
As Nakagin will be fully dismantled by the end of 2022, it might be time for other Metabolist structures to finally shine. Just a short walk from Nakagin you’ll find the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center, built in 1967 by Tange. Its design is very Nakagin-esque: there is a central core and office capsules can be plugged in and out according to business needs. Similar to Nakagin, the capsules were never changed, so it is another representation of the Metabolist future that never came to fruition. It’s a remarkable piece of Tokyo architecture that deserves some love.
Other structures that aren’t strictly part of the Metabolist movement but designed by the fathers of Metabolism also demonstrate similar characteristics. Tange’s designs are visible around Tokyo. The Fuji Television Building in Odaiba, St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building and Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower stand out.
Photos by Lisa Knight