Since the announcement of its impending demolition in 2007 (an act that has yet to be realized, though appears ever present on the horizon), Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower has proved a conundrum. Is the building history, or theory? Postwar exemplar, or failed mission? Worth the expense of renovation, or long past its expiration date?
None of these questions allow for easy answers, and it is a credit to Rima Yamazaki’s short documentary film Nagakin Capsule Tower: Japanese Metabolist Landmark on the Edge of Destruction that it does not try to answer them. Not providing an answer, however, does not imply that the film remains unbiased in its assessment (as its subtitle clearly shows): we are meant to view this structure as a unique and irreplaceable piece of history. But is that enough to save it?
Yamazaki’s film operates primarily through interviews and quiet pan shots, interspersed with a select number of archival film clips detailing the tower’s construction and initial presentation. Completed in 1972, Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower arrived in Tokyo on the wave of the enticing display, at Expo ’70 in Osaka, of Metabolism’s techno-utopianism and the capacities of a war-destroyed cityscape to envision not only a new future for itself but also a new future for architecture. Arata Isozaki, interviewed in the documentary, places Metabolism as the “first Japanese movement which succeeded [in showing] originality after the war,” as opposed to simply “absorbing and applying the concepts of Western architecture.” Hiroyuki Suzuki, an architectural historian also interviewed by Yamazaki in the film, posits Metabolism as a defining moment in postwar architectural thought and the space where Japanese architecture enters the international context on its own terms. Both Isozaki and Suzuki operate within the film as the building’s—and Metabolism’s—strongest supporters, displaying a zeal for preservation grounded in the importance of recognizing the cultural legacy at stake in the Nakagin Capsule Tower’s potential destruction.
The residents interviewed in the film, and indeed the initial voices used to situate the importance of the structure, speak about the Nakagin Capsule Tower in far more banal terms. “I like anything that is small,” reports Takayuki Sekine, a resident in the tower, who admits later in the film to purchasing his capsule in hopes of being able to vote to save it from demolition. Another resident, Seibee Yamashita, comments on his more than twenty-year tenure in the building with a far more nuanced appraisal by recognizing the powerful appeal of the design alongside its worrying list of deficiencies: sky-high water bills, unfeasible economic prospects of renovation compared to reconstruction, and the bureaucratic inefficiencies of a structure with over a hundred individual owners trying to come to a conclusive consensus.
Such a division—between the fan and the sage—provides a primary tension to Yamazaki’s documentary, especially when she posits a counterweight to Isozaki in the figure of Toyo Ito. While not exactly squaring off, these two giants of twentieth-century architecture outline the well- measured responses to the conundrum of Nakagin and its possible future. Placing the building within the broader legacy of Metabolism, Isozaki remarks that the movement began “as a theory of architecture and planning. At the time, the theory was simply about engineering. As it was realized, the architecture then turned into art.” Ito, in contrast, views the building within the context of a contemporary architecture culture beholden to economic activity, the necessities of habitation, and the potential for continued functionality: “I do not appreciate the idea of keeping a building once it becomes a carcass.”
Their contrary points of view revolve around an approach to postwar building culture in Japan and the idea of legacy, but on a more abstract level about the idea of “culture” in general. This appears most clearly in a small—though perhaps telling—sleight of hand in the documentary’s subtitled translation. In his brief comment above, Isozaki calls attention to the point at which “the architecture then turned into art.” At this moment, however, Isozaki does not use the word bijutsu (art) but rather bunka (culture). The shift may seem only a matter of semantics, but it has telling consequences. Figuring the structure as “art” lends a greater moral component to its undecided future, as the destruction of an art object invokes a more readily accepted derision. Culture, especially building culture, appears far more malleable though also far harder to defend, as the building culture of Tokyo in particular has proved over the past fifty years to be almost maniacally focused on a process of constant reinvention, especially in a district as dense and desirable as the Ginza.
Such desires, oddly enough, proved a driving force behind Metabolism as a movement in the first place. The significance of Kurokawa’s initial design and conception of the Nakagin Capsule Tower, and indeed of the idea of a “capsule” to begin with, was that it could capitalize on improved technologies and changing situations to renew and reinvent itself, denying any kind of “permanence” or calcification that a city like Tokyo—already twice-destroyed in the fifty years leading up to the Nagakin Capsule Tower’s completion, first by the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923 and later by Allied firebombs in 1945—was almost hardwired to avoid. Ironically, Tokyo appears to embody the Metabolist dream in practice if not in form, a reality that now threatens to consume its most famous and longest-lasting example. The structures of Expo ’70 have all long since been dismantled, and the enormous infrastructural fantasies of Metabolism’s heyday in the 1960s remain exactly that. The Nakagin Capsule Tower stands—precipitously—as the last of its kind.
Despite the attention, the tower remains on the edge of an uncertain future. Nakagin can now be seen shrouded in a construction net, signaling either impending salvation or imminent demolition; neither is clear. Yamazaki’s documentary puts forth a similarly murky position, one that lays out the positions of the debate without making a truly strong case for either one. Financial dithering aside (as the global economic downturn renders either conclusion infeasible at present), the Nakagin Capsule Tower remains a pressing question, though one slated to produce other works like Yamazaki’s documentary that more fully present, though are unlikely to solve, its potential future.