Living in a Washing Machine.
March 25, 2012 5:41 PM   Subscribe

The Nakagin Capsule Tower (slyt) is a prime example of the uniquely Japanese architecture known as "Metabolism", as well as the main inspiration for Tokyo's famous Capsule Hotels. The most unique feature of this building style is the interchangeability of the individual units, supposedly to allow it to adapt to changes in density and lifestyle (although that plan hasn't exactly panned out). Local residents are calling for the tower to be demolished, although a group of architects are trying to preserve it as an architectural landmark posted by steamynachos (14 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Mid-20th century industrial architecture. Are there any of these types of structures that are genuinely beloved?
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:21 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

According to the article, the architect wanted to "continue the tradition of temporality in building design" --- near as I can tell, that means he'd be okay with tearing the thing down.
posted by easily confused at 7:37 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, and it's never the people that live near these buildings and actually have to see them every day that want them preserved.
posted by 6550 at 7:39 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It may be less about the type of the structure than about the age of the architecture. In the context of another city and another building, this article made a good point, I think:
Architecture from any given period tends to follow a common trajectory of public support in the decades after it is built: at first people like it, and then it starts to look 'dated' and people stop liking it, and then it gets neglected and starts to look like an eyesore and people really start to hate it...

And at this point, many such buildings are torn down. Those that survive what we might call the Trough of Public Appreciation eventually get old enough that they start to look charming rather than dated, and someone decides that it is financially viable to invest in restoring the building and adaptively reusing it for a new purpose.

By that time, the public is generally grateful for the foresight of those people who decided not to demolish it and regard it as an architectural gem and a valuable public heirloom of the time in which it was built. They shake their heads in incredulity that anyone would have looked upon it and thought it not worth preserving.

posted by parudox at 7:42 PM on March 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

There is so little preserving of historic architecture here in Japan that it's really kind of shocking. The expected lifespan of a building is absurdly short. Preservation of any buildings besides certain shrines and temples is virtually unheard of. So I welcome any movement for historic building preservation that manages to make any headway whatsoever in educating the public at large and instilling the idea that architecture is part of a cultural heritage that should be considered worthy of preservation, at least sometimes.

There was an interesting display a while back here in Tokyo: on a sidewalk plaza in Roppongi, one of the Nakagin Capsule cubes was placed for a while, for public viewing. You couldn't go in, but you could peer through the windows. I took some pictures of it:

built-in calculator!
sidewalk observer
some dude who posed for me


explanatory text that accompanied the sidewalk exhibition
more of that
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:41 PM on March 25, 2012 [8 favorites]

It's an interesting experiment in lateral thinking. Instead of constructing a building as a single piece that people have to adapt to, construct a building out of interchangeable pieces and adapt the building to their needs. I remember reading about something similar in a science fiction novel, except in the story each modular unit was completely independent, with its own power source and closed cycle recycled utilities, and could be removed and hung on a different building when the occupants wanted a change of scenery. Maybe the real problem with the Capsule Tower was that 1970s technology just wasn't advanced enough to fully realize Kurokawa's vision, and the result was a compromise that satisfied few people.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:06 PM on March 25, 2012

Kurokawa's intention was for the capsules to be replaced when they became out of date. This was a popular idea at the time in both Japan and Europe though unfortunately no one quite realized that the growing costs of renovation in general would make this economically prohibitive in the future. It is obvious to everyone that the current capsules are out of date (maybe for the last 20 or more years), but the real question purely a matter of whether replacing the capsules will do enough to update the structure or whether it is hopeless and should just be left as a built memory or destroyed.

Anways, metabolism is a hot subject in architecture right now with Rem Koolhaas and OMA publishing a kind of retrospective on the movement. If you are interested a quick google with turn up hordes of recent articles. The residential aspects of the movement certainly live on today consciously or not through the renaissance of small customized spaces being built in cities today. It's become a niche culture for some people to minimize personal space and possessions and truly live integrated into the city. Obviously in most cities it is not necessary, and many of us have taken taken the opposite road, happily building personal fortresses in the burbs with everything we could ever need within them. However, It was and is still a relevant and important discussion for many cities today.

Also, really guys... historic preservation has little to do with what the neighbors think. In fact, it exists largely to stop them.
posted by tmthyrss at 9:08 PM on March 25, 2012

LOL I remember seeing the Nakagin Tower on my first trip to Tokyo. I recognized it and thought "WTF? How do I recognize this? I've never been in Tokyo before."

Anyway, you had me excited for a second by that link to Ping Magazine. They've been "on hiatus" since 2008, I saw the logo and thought maybe they were back and active again. It was a great online magazine and is sorely missed. I'm glad that people are enjoying some of their past work, and I hope it stays online.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:16 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jin Hadaka's critique of the tower in the PingMag article really stands out. On his own website, he walks one through the construction process of the Nakagin Capsule Tower (NCT). It quickly becomes apparent that the reason none of the capsule units have been replaced is that it's physically impossible to do so without replacing all of them en masse.

Hadaka has also looked into the structural condition of the tower and there seems to be some significant water damage on at least one the brackets that hold up the housing units. If the concrete core of the building has also been seriously compromised by water then it may be a safer idea to remove the housing units, sell them to collectors/cultural institutions, and demolish the rest of the building.

The NCT remains a unique work of architecture, though. It's the only built project in the world that features "plug-and-play" high-density modular housing units. Conceptually, it's preceded by Archigram's Plug-In City Study (1964), but as a built work, it is the first Plug-In Building.

In the end, a Plug-In City is bound by the economic realities of urban development. If it can be shown to be both profitable and livable, it'll probably become a reality sooner or later. My own guess is that such a city is better suited to an environment where it's a lot easier to attach and detach structures; perhaps underwater, in space, or maybe even on the moon?
posted by lemuring at 9:34 PM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Reading the Wikipedia article on the building, this struck me:
On April 15, 2007, the building's residents, citing squalid, cramped conditions as well as concerns over asbestos, voted to demolish the building and replace it with a much larger, more modern tower. In the interest of preserving his design, Kurokawa proposed taking advantage of the flexible design by "unplugging" the existing boxes and replacing them with updated units, a plan supported by the major architectural associations of Japan, including the Japan Institute of Architects; the residents countered with concerns over the building's earthquake resistance and its inefficient use of valuable property adjacent to the high-value Ginza. A developer for the replacement has yet to be found, partly because of the late-2000s recession.
OK, there's safety issues as mentioned here as well as in what tmthyrss said, but I still would like to know what they're going to replace it with.
posted by mephron at 12:31 AM on March 26, 2012

I thought of this sort of thing myself. My notion was that of an urban trailer park. The units plug in to the structure much like a mobilhome is plugged in to its site, with water, sewer, and other utilities. I was going after variety for owner/tenants, in the choice of unit design, as well as mixed income levels together (a socially positive thing).
posted by Goofyy at 1:50 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hadaka has also looked into the structural condition of the tower and there seems to be some significant water damage on at least one the brackets that hold up the housing units. If the concrete core of the building has also been seriously compromised by water then it may be a safer idea to remove the housing units, sell them to collectors/cultural institutions, and demolish the rest of the building.

There have been other buildings that had a similar idea -- plug in prefabricated units into a built frame. Unlike the NCT, they weren't intended to be swapped out, it was a way to speed onsite construction time.

One of them was Disney's Contemporary Resort at WDW -- the rooms were constructed offsite and hoisted into place on a steel frame built onsite. It also has a monorail running through it (and, in case of hurricanes, it's where they park two of them, the rest are parked in the monorail shop.)

They all had similar issues -- water seal. The units generally were fine, but water would get between the units and cause mold issues. In the end, nobody came up with a really great way to fully seal a building made in this manner, and so, they've fallen by the wayside.

NCT definitely kicked things up a notch by allowing swapping the units during the life of the tower, but as with so many of these style features, nobody was willing to actually do so. So, a feature never used becomes a flaw.

It is an interesting looking building, but the real question is structural. It's simply not safe to save if the core has been compromised by water damage. The plumbing looks a mess, but that's at least theoretically fixable -- indeed, it may not even be that hard, compared to redoing the plumbing in an conventional tower of that size -- pull off the pods, replace the plumbing.

But, really, it's all money, lots of money -- and if there's no demand for the building, there's not going to be any money. Chicago is unusually aware of its architectural heritage, and has saved a great number of historical and unique buildings, but has destroyed even more, because, in the end, if nobody wants to stay there, if nobody wants to pay to save the building, the building will fall.
posted by eriko at 5:52 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite] reminds me of Moshe Safdie's Habitat, which was constructed for Expo 67, five years before this tower. Habitat appears to be still going strong, although it wasn't designed to be so dynamically reconfigurable as the capsule tower and didn't quite meet it's design goal of affordability.

I'm kind of a sucker for this kind of design, but it does appear that the capsule tower needs a significant investment to get it safe and updated. It might be best just to preserve some representative modules in a museum, and maybe turn the rest into hipster mobile homes (the capsules are 4x2.5m/13x8 ft.).

It looks like the architect used a similar idea for 1976's Sony Tower, but using stainless steel modules instead. This is sort of a precursor to the use of modular shipping containers in design.
posted by foonly at 6:54 AM on March 26, 2012

I would quite happily live in this building. I would LOVE to have a big round window! And those interior views seal the deal, for me.
posted by Rash at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2012

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