Boxed in, how a dream project for capsule living turned ugly
Nakagin Capsule Tower
Strangely when the threat of demolition hangs over you for several years you can begin to learn to live with the sense of impending disaster. Think of it as a kind of new normal. So when it was discovered that the Nakagin Capsule Tower Building Management Association had voted in favour of selling the much-loved building in March 2021, it sent shock waves through the community of tenants and owners.
Our guide to the history of a project that began with so much optimism is Yuka Yoshida, a resident of the building and an architecture guide with ShowCase Tokyo. She explains,
‘quite simply, whilst the time scale isn’t clear what the tenants do know is that sooner or later their time is up and they’ll have to move out’.
To understand the architect, Kisho Kurokawa’s vision of how the building would function we need to go back to when the design was originally conceived. The idea was that each capsule (think square pod), home for a ‘salaryman’, would be at best changed or at the very least subject to major maintenance every 20-25 years. The design seemed so flexible and adaptable, a matter of swapping a capsule in and out as required – easy to build in a factory in Shiga Prefecture. However, it became quickly clear, according to Yuka, that this didn’t work as there were some fundamental structural problems.
‘In order to remove a single capsule, every capsule above it would also have to be removed which was actually a pretty tough thing to ask other owners to leave their home for a while. Basically, all the capsules would have been replaced in one go in case of replacement. However, each capsule was sold to individual owners, meaning that agreement for the replacement would have to be obtained from 140 owners. 100% agreement would be necessary since refurbishment would include not just their capsule but the communal space as well’.
Its as if everything had been thought of but the human factor had been underestimated. Capsule owners paid monthly maintenance fees and a sinking fund for replacement capsules which Yuka noted, mathematically didn’t add up – the fund was already short of £100k+ by 2007. Boxed in, so to speak the pod owners could not reach an agreement about what to do next.
Kicking a can down the road
Everything rolled on and the problems compounded as the building deteriorated. The metaphor, ‘kicking a can down the road’ comes to mind. That is until the emergency vote in March 2021 in the middle of the pandemic. Yuka explains, that the situation is now slipping out of the hands of the tenants, the choices are now binary – the building will either be sold or demolished – if not now in the foreseeable future. The mission of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project remains simply, ‘to stop the imminent destruction of the Nakagin Capsule Tower.
End of the road
Summer 2021 Update: Sadly the building will not survive, it is due to be dismantled, each ‘pod’ is going to be separated in order to scatter them across the city for short term rentals and some will be donated to museums
All images unless noted by Howard Morris