MODERN PREFAB: Nakagin Capsule Towers

by , 05/04/07

Capsule Tower, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Kisho Kurokawa, Japanese modern architecture, prefab housing, stackable prefab

Our friend Lloyd Alter at Treehugger has posted an interesting and thoughtful article about Japan’s famed Capsule Tower (and its scheduled demolition!), an iconic structure and unique archetype for contemporary prefab architecture. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972, the Capsule Tower demonstrates the application of scalable and stackable modular architectural strategies.

The tower consists of 140 capsule units attached to a central core. Its concept articulates the ideology behind the Metabolist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which envisioned cities formed of modular components. Two weeks ago, the decision was made to replace the Capsule Tower with a new 14-story tower, despite resistance from Kurokawa, who has been touting the flexibility of the building and even proposed the modernization of the tower by replacing old capsules with more modern units. Read Lloyd’s article here.

+ Via Treehugger

Lead photo by: Kristen Elsby

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  1. rexdale March 26, 2009 at 1:01 am

    “I can understand why they want to demolish this 1972 pile of washing machines. Take a look at some of the attractive new architectures in Dubai for example.”

    I think William misses the point that this building is very forward thinking and contains a lot more thought than most typical Dubai and modern buildings. I personally like the way it looks, but I value it more for the ideas it demonstrates. The fact that he mentions “awe”, “admiration” and “beauty” as prerequisites for “truly inspired” architecture shows he flat out really doesnt know what hes talking about. I honestly think any of my architecture professors would strangle me if i used the word “beauty” in an essay or in a design presentation. Any commercial developer can pump out modern buildings with “natural beauty” by throwing up some glass and making it have a smooth facade.. I think this building should be torn down just as much as i think a Mondrian painting should be chucked into the trash. Its just a bunch of cubes right?

  2. Silvereagle07 March 12, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Iam visiting Japan and would like the address of this building so that I can visit the area. Thank you.

  3. Kwiz July 22, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    If the design is so modular and replaceable… why don’t they just recast a central core in a new location. They could keep some of the boxes for nostalgic purposes, and make new ones more fitting to our time. I should think that a building of capsules would stand the test of time…. pun intended.

    ~Kwiz wins

  4. GASNAULT March 21, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Bonjour , je soutiens cette intéressante architecture de K. Kurokawa qui montrent une inventivité très intéressante … Cela serait dommage de détruire un symbole d’architecture contemporraine .

  5. Elle January 17, 2008 at 4:01 am

    I’m from the camp that destroying this icon would be a shame – not to mention a complete waste of resources. Having looked at the photos of the interior this building is truly a beautiful example of efficiency. The modules could easily be revamped given the shrinking size of new technologies (iPod Nanos, Cell Phones, MacBook Air…even microwaves that you can bake in!) — I know I’d love to be given the chance to try my hand at it. What young, single professional (who isn’t all about the super-size me attitude of soaker tubs and king-size water beds) wouldn’t consider living this way? Less to clean, lots of storage…

    I’d live here. I think the bathroom is particularly charming :). It’s like a fantastic puzzle.

  6. a October 20, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    i think i could safely say, on behalf of all architecture students around the world, that the day the towers are demolished will be a sad day indeed. The capsule towers are an icon of modern, urban architecture that has played a major part in recent ideas such as the M-CH microhouse. The capsule building is architecture at its best and for it to be replaced by irreverent glass monstrocity such as those in Dubai will be a sad day indeed. I only hope that the developers would ‘detach’ the individual capsules (the cores, sadly, DO have to be demolished) and resell them as iconic mementos…better yet, i hope that someone would have the decency to buy all the individual capsules and refurbish them and recreate kurokawa’s brilliance….

  7. Brendan July 29, 2007 at 6:50 am

    d o,
    I resent the photojournalist comment, as I am an aspiring photographer myself who has grown up with art and architecture all of his life (my father is an architect), but I completely agree with your viewpoint.
    Nakagin Tower is something special…looking at it in pictures and viewing the somewhat obvious problems the building has are NOT enough justification to tear down the building. It is one of the most well known symbols of Metabolism, and is a historical property that I’m very surprised the Japanese government wouldn’t try to protect, seeing as they have a strong appreciation for their history (your reference to van der Rohe’s classic Farnsworth house made me appreciate your comment all the more).
    Having grown up among Architectural Record magazines, and in an Architecture office, I am truly saddened to hear that Nakagin Tower is going to be demolished, as I have not even had the chance to visit the building, and shoot endless amounts of photos to remember what it was like in person, from my own point of view. As “ourdreams” said, and d o implied….Nakagin Tower is from a time when the metabolist movement was a dreamy, futuristic thing, that was actually decades ahead of its time….I can only imagine how wild it feels to go into that building, and feel the inspiration Kurokawa had when building this structure. After all…it remains exactly as it was when constructed….what a time capsule!

  8. too rittle too rate June 1, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve lived in Tokyo and always loved this building for its forward-thinking concept, but since I first saw it in 1980 it’s obvious that there has been zero maintenance on the building. Although it’s close to the Ginza, this neighborhood is a bit gritty being next to a freeway, and the dust and grime in the air has taken its toll. It’s clear that there has never been any interest in the building by its owners to preserve it. It reminds of the 50s in San Francisco when the victorian houses were considered urban blight, and block after block were torn down. Now that they’re gone people will pay millions for what inventory is left.

    With people like ‘William’, what can you expect? I wonder what the exampled Dubai lighthouse will look like in 30 years? Will William be there to sing its praises and save it?

  9. matchbox May 18, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Sorry for the rather boring question, but does anybody yet know when precisely the building is going to be wrecked?

  10. seva_nmb May 16, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Surely there is both a preservation and a demolition argument?

    In an age where we have the capcity to record data infinitely what will really be ‘lost’ if this tower is demolished?

    I truly love and admire 60s and 70s architecture, but preservationism is a stance adopted by historians, not one aligned neatly with a ‘modern’ agenda.

    Mike’s comment about the cyclical nature of development in Tokyo is absolutely spot on. Look at the work of Atelier Bow-Wow to see the unique manifestations that a capitally driven environment generates. The redevelopment of land in Tokyo and the state of flux should be embraced by urbanists and architects as delivering new and exciting typological shifts that cannot be ‘designed’. How do we respond to this? Surely the broader context of the nature of the city is of more consequence than the idolisation of a single component?

    I lament the loss of any iconic structure of this age, but I feel one should let it go.

  11. danade May 14, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Apparently,nakagin is seemingly built in modular system.could it be rebuilt in anywhere else?maybe even presented in other form,just like LEGO
    it may be a kide of preservation…..

  12. d o May 14, 2007 at 2:48 am

    Wake up !

    Nakagin was a concept. a prototype and template and the first of it’s kind conceived to acknowledge the demands that would eventually be placed on the planet to shelter and keep our asses safe and warm.
    A recipe for a foreseeable (and now) 21st century dilemma : eventual lack of space, toxic building waste, mechanical combustion (also known as CO2 emission), material harvesting, and on and on and on…

    +75% of N.America lives bunker-style within gated gabled boxes repeat in plan (for centuries) hidden behind corniced and trim applique; also know as Lifestyle camouflage. And there are these comments that Kurokawa’s iconic tower is a questionable ploy ? Imagine if i took a hammer to the Farnsworth house !

    Who has actually seen Nakagin Tower before they made their brilliant comment ?

    I expected that these comments come from amateur (photo) journalists !

    Those writing with the brilliant thoughts need only spend an hour or two to open up a half dozen years devoted to the current shuffle now being made by apprentices and professionals and talkshow hosts alike vying to save the planet. Sadly, and we’ll soon find out, the answer to this question and concieved a mere 47 years ago… is under the wrecking ball.

  13. ourtimes May 12, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Kurokawa made Capsule Tower knowing that humans are easily sold with ideas of “novelty” and “change”, however on top of that, he was also concsious enough to create a building that could be updated according to future needs. Specially nowadays, where environmental concerns are high, re-use of the building in the way the architect intended it should be respected.
    The interior is out-dated, no doubt, because it is higly based on state of the art technology (of the time, so i guess you can imagine) but it would be replaced by new modules with modern technology (and maybe even some fresh new magenta and cyan paint outside for those who think it looks too “dreary” 😛 ). If there would only be one metabolist building to be kept alive, i believe it should be this one.
    I think that the metabolist movement was created in an era in which people could still dream, and this group of architects truly tried to make these dreams a reality. If the motives for the demolition are purely driven by factors concerning money, i think it would expose how sad our global society has become; there are millions of buildings that have brought nothing to humanity, with no purpose and without any philosphical or artistic touch (which this one has en masse) that would be great candidates for demolition, yet we want to elimiate this one maybe because it stands out not in the way we want (maybe it doesn’t conform to our aesthetic style today but would be a shoe-in in a few decades, so who are we to judge?).
    Another contribution the metabolist movement brought to architecture is the following; “Modern Architecture” was considered to be what was the “good” architecture, yet “Modern” architecture had been dictated by western values exclusively, this group of architects stood up and (still agreeing with most priciples of modern architecture) showed the world that it was good to show a bit of local culture into architecture… something Dubai buildings should say a big “thank you” to.
    ok…… sorry it was a long post….

  14. Joe-sef May 11, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    “These modern type cities and their ability to move on is more important than preserving architecture.
    Tokyo has a role to play”

    yeah and we can still preserve the memory of the architecture and keep that as part of our culture while moving on right?

  15. Mike May 11, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    European cities tend to hold to their histories, while cities like New York and Tokyo tend to re-invent themselves.

    These modern type cities and their ability to move on is more important than preserving architecture.

    Tokyo has a role to play

  16. Joe-sef May 11, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    The Nakagin Tower is, wheather it is iconic or not, a thing of beauty in form and in idea. yeah it’s surface is dreary, and it has some technical problems which would be costly to fix, but this building deserves some love.
    On the other hand i do beleive there is an appropriate time to except the imperminance of physical things like buildings. some-day all the iconic buildings will fall to some fate. When an old building goes it gives new architects the chance to redescover the possibilities of the design challenge. theres a fine line right? i mean at some point we have to say, ok, this building has served it’s purpose, made it’s point, lets remember it forever in our history books after we take it down.

  17. Erik May 11, 2007 at 8:52 am

    About the demolishing of the Capsule Towers: As far as I know, the reason they’ve decided to demolish is because of the deterioration of the concrete core. This is caused by rainwater collecting between all the boxes and the core structure. This has brought the tower to a state where repair will have huge costs.

    I personally think they should preserve the building because it’s a one-of-a-kind, and because it’s so clear as an example of an important part of modern architecture history.

    And William, are you kidding? You must be, that building has got the same views on architecture as an accountant…

  18. been there May 11, 2007 at 7:37 am

    looking at william’s dubai lighthouse image, i can assure you he is not being sarcastic. he really thinks dubai’s are the STUFF

  19. William May 11, 2007 at 5:59 am

    Thank you all for your interesting comments – both positive and critical – on my subjective view that it is time for that dated structure to be replaced. Sandagal captures what I think: “not every single modern object from the 60’s and 70’s is an archtectural design treasure”. I quoted Dubai only as an example of many cities that are starting to show off some very nice architectures that I think will stand the test of time – see also other examples in Bahrein, London etc. I would ask Nicolas to go to Google images and look at Dubai Tower, and Dubai Lighthouse for example, or just click on this link:
    Natural beauty takes the breath away, I think that we should look at all architectures in that way. If your first impression and instinct is one of awe and admiration, you are probably looking at an architecture that was truly inspired rather than contrived according to the latest mode of the time.

  20. Boicozine May 11, 2007 at 3:54 am

    I think the main problem with William’s comment was that it didn’t say enough. It’s one of those throw away ‘I’ll just post this cause it’s not like I actually look at this site or think about architecture that much anyway’ type comments. ‘Attractive new architectures in Dubai’ pretty much says I’m a bloke who more impressed by money and scale than anything else.

  21. been there May 11, 2007 at 3:47 am

    it is absolutely dreary when inside but the building should be kept.

  22. voice of reason May 10, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    The last time i checked Architecture was an art form, not everyone is going to have the same opinion about every piece. Personal likes and dislikes however should be left aside when considering the bigger issue of what is an “important” piece of work and what is a disposable fashion statement. We are all free to voice our opinions either way (i’m in the important/let’s keep it column) and william along with others should not be chastised for doing so.
    Just take a look at some of the attractive new architectures in Las Vegas!

  23. Boicozine May 10, 2007 at 4:12 am

    The stark reality is that more should be done to recycle and reuse and update older buidlings. This limits the environmental impact caused by having to demolish and then reconstruct new ones. A lot of the architecture from the mid to late 20th century is being punished for being too conceptual and utilaterian but these are the buidlings new ideas spring from, not your identikit glass and steel edifaces. This sort of thing is happening all over the City of London at the moment too.

  24. sedrik May 9, 2007 at 9:16 pm


    If I assume your statement is sarcastic then I am happy. If its not then I am sad.

    This will be a significant loss.

  25. Darrel May 9, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    “These “washing machines” are so depressingly dreary, I’d kill myself if I was forced to live in them.”

    What makes it dreary to you? The grey? How about some paint? Seems like that would be infinitely greener and more preservationist friendly than tearing down a unique, iconinc (and from what I can tell, sturdy) piece of architecture.

  26. personation May 9, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    is there a recommended online gallery of interior photos?

  27. Moom May 9, 2007 at 9:05 am

    It seems bizarre to me. Places like Container City are rehashing this modular concept with great success – and yet nobody wants to accept a revamping of a building which was specifically designed for such revamping. I guess we’re not yet at a point where people are willing to pay the ‘design classic’ premium to live in it.

    I’d second what charlie brown said, and add: this is one of the archetypes for urban modular housing. Not every building gets immortalized in Transport Tycoon, y’know.

  28. charlie brown May 9, 2007 at 3:31 am

    sandagal – while the terms short sighted and saying do your homework may have been a safe-at-home shot at william the idea is what needs preserving, if you replace this with another AutoCAD template you replace a successful concept. One thing society needs is more novel thinkers and your just innovator for obscene capitolism.

  29. sandagal May 8, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Capsule Brain – while you’re pitying William’s “short sighted, naive viewpoint,” you missed the BIG PICTURE.
    I hate to break the news, but not every single modern object from the 60’s and 70’s is an archtectural design treasure. William was spot on. These “washing machines” are so depressingly dreary, I’d kill myself if I was forced to live in them.

  30. John May 8, 2007 at 12:13 am

    This is a sad time for architecture indeed. With the resurgence of micro housing these days I have a hard time believing that such a masterwork like this can be taken down and replaced and forgotten. I would suspect that the amount of money that was offered to the owners of the building trumped any thought of maintaining and updating the structure. It’s a pity.

  31. Nicolas May 7, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    “…attractive new architectures in Dubai…”
    Ehm, wait – Is there a seond Dubai I didn’t hear of yet?

  32. capsule brains May 6, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    William – i pity your short-sighted & naive view of kurokawa’s capsule hotel.
    please do your homework before you post.

  33. William May 6, 2007 at 11:47 am

    I can understand why they want to demolish this 1972 pile of washing machines. Take a look at some of the attractive new architectures in Dubai for example.

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