The life and death of the original micro apartments


Nakagin capsules suggest a sort of utopian urban lifestyle. Their lack of space and equipment meant that activities typically done at home, such as eating and socializing, would instead be done on the streets. The Nakagin capsules were not full-time residences but pied-à-terre for suburban businessmen or miniature studios for artists and designers. The individual capsules were pre-assembled, then transported to site and plugged into the central cores of the towers. Each unit – two-and-a-half meters by four-by-two-and-a-half meters, dimensions which Kurokawa noted are the same as a traditional teahouse – contained a corner bathroom worthy of an airplane. , a fold-down desk, lamps and a bed that stretches from wall to wall. Televisions, stereos and tape recorders could also be included at the buyer’s discretion.

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In some ways, Kurokawa’s vision of a home architecture that prioritizes mobility and flexibility has proven prophetic. Capsules were the original micro apartments, an ancestor of today’s capsule hotels and an ancestor of Airbnb’s shared and temporary spaces. “In the future, space and tools for free movement will be status symbols,” Kurokawa wrote. “High mobility has become a way of life.” Kurokawa used the capsules as the modular unit of many of his architectural projects, incorporating them into designs for private residences, office buildings, and hillside summer residence complexes. He envisioned a future in which people would live in traditional apartments in the city during the week, then “roll in a moving capsule” to the sea or the countryside at the weekend.

In Kurokawa’s original plan, the Nakagin capsules were to be replaced every twenty-five years with updated iterations. This did not happen, in part because of the funding that would have been required. Each capsule would have cost, according to some estimates, nearly nine million yen, or about seventy thousand dollars, to repair. A single capsule could not be removed without removing all of the ones above it, so all units would have to be released and updated at the same time. Over time, the building fell into disrepair. Concerns about asbestos rendered the towers’ ventilation system unusable, and residents complained of mold and constant leaks during thunderstorms. The homeowners association first voted in 2007 to sell the building to a developer, but the company soon filed for bankruptcy, throwing the building’s fate into uncertainty. Kurokawa, who had lobbied for renovations, died the same year. In 2010, the hot water in the towers was cut off. The building had become more of a work of art than the dynamic architecture envisioned by Kurokawa.

Witnessing the disappearance of the Capsule Tower is sad, but a certain aesthetic of slight melancholy, simplicity and natural decay, which Kurokawa identified with the Japanese aesthetic of sabi (half of the familiar wabi-sabi), was part of his own philosophy. “The relationship between society and nature is open,” he writes. The building will undoubtedly have a long life after death. It will be amazed in social media posts and used as inspiration on architectural moodboards; it will continue to command admiration simply for the fact that it was built once. And some parts of the building can also survive, in a way. A few years ago, Tatsuyuki Maeda, an advertising veteran who owned up to fifteen of the capsules, started running the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project, which now hopes to save around forty units, restore them and bring them into museum collections. “The capsules will take on a life of their own, scattered in different places,” Maeda said recently. The Economist. Future visitors might enter a gallery of white cubes and find one of Kurokawa’s cubes, then rummage through the bed and built-in devices. The remains will serve as a reminder of the minimal spatial needs of a city-dwelling human in the late 20th century – and the vast possibilities that metabolists saw there.


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