The life and death of the original micro-apartment

Earlier this month, the demolition of the iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, began. Nonetheless, Kurokawa’s vibrant vision is in many ways integrated into our current architectural fabric .

The building was clearly in disrepair at the time. Its concrete surface is pocky; many of the round windows are covered in paper. After more than a decade of back-and-forth over the building’s fate last year, the owners’ association agreed to sell the tower to a real estate consortium, and earlier this month it was revealed that demolition of the building had finally begun. Photos recently posted on Facebook by a conservation activist group show its base half empty; 140 abandoned capsules floating above the building, doomed. The future envisioned by Kurokawa and the “Metabolism” movement has not materialized, but in many ways their dynamic vision has been woven into our current architectural fabric.

In 1960, a manifesto officially launched the “metabolism” movement, at a time when Japanese cities had experienced the devastation of World War II and were being reconceptualized. As Kurokawa wrote in his 1977 book “The Metabolism of Architecture”, as architects of the postwar generation, the founders of Metabolism – which included Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake and Maki Fumihiko Maki is driven by the “traumatic vision of events in a child’s formative years”. Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1934, Kurokawa was the son of an architect in what he called an “ultra-nationalist” style. During his studies, he was drawn first to the sociological architectural approach of Kyoto University and then to the University of Tokyo, where he studied with the modernist architect Kenzo Tange, who designed the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park after the war. Kurokawa Kisho was more interested in looking ahead. “I think it’s important to let what was destroyed pass away and create a new Japan,” he wrote.

Nakagin capsules suggest a utopian urban lifestyle. They lack space and facilities, which means that activities normally performed at home, such as eating and socializing, are carried out on the street. The Nakagin capsule is not a purpose-built residence, but a temporary home for a suburban businessman or a micro-studio for artists and designers. The capsules are individually pre-assembled, then transported to the site and inserted into the tower’s central core. Kurokawa notes that each unit (2.5m x 4m x 2.5m) is the same size as a traditional tea house cubicle – including a corner bathroom, a folding desk with integrated lights and a wall that extends from one wall to the bed on the other wall. Buyers can choose from TVs, stereos and tape recorders. In some ways, Kurokawa’s vision of prioritizing mobility and flexibility in domestic buildings proved prescient. These capsules were the original micro-apartments, the ancestors of today’s capsule hotels and the precursor to Airbnb’s shared ephemeral space.

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