Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Save The Nakagin Capsule Tower


Nakagin Capsule Tower
Tokyo, Japan

Hello Everyone:

After grim post about the September 11 National Museum and Memorial, I thought I might lighten the mood a little with a post on the Nakagin Capsule Tower.  I came across this article, by Jessica Baldwin, in the DoCoMoMo monthly newsletter.  It made me smile, not so much because it resembles a pile of washing machines, I wrote about it in the final chapter of my thesis where I discussed contemporary Japanese historic preservation, which I've excerpted for you.  The preservation efforts surrounding this hotel are part of global attention to post-war architecture and the growing cost of real estate, especially in Japan where only fifteen percent of the land is arable, had put much of post-war architecture at risk.  Without a doubt, the Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the most iconic post-war buildings, standing as testament to post-war architecture and development.

Typical interior in the Nakagin Capsule Tower
The Nakagin Capsule Hotel was completed in
1972 by Kishio Kurukawa. The tower was part of Kurokawa’s exploration of capsule architecture developed for Expo’70 with the Takara Beautilion, which was demolished after the event.  The idea of impermanence and moveability, based on the Metabolist movement, influenced the construction of the tower. From its beginning, the two basic components-the megastructure and the capsules were intended to last sixty years and twenty-five years respectively.  Kurokawa explained, “...the lifespan of the capsule was not a mechanical one, but rather a social one, implying that it is the changing human needs and social relationship that required such periodic replacement."

Porthole window in the sleep space
The building was recognized by the Documentation and Conservation of the
In 1998, Kishio Kurokawa Architects and Associates developed a renovation plan, “Nakagin Capsule Tower Renovation Plan,"  which would update the service core and replace the capsules. Kurokawa posited that replacing the individual capsules would be more cost- effective than tearing down the building. When he designed the hotel, Kurakawa expected to replace the capsules every twenty-five years. Ironically, as Tokyo continues to grow and transform itself so much that it outpaces the “metabolism” envisioned by the architects, the dominant real estate paradigm, and requires the entire hotel be renewed not just the individual capsules.  The result is more renovation and rebuilding in Japan, as well as New York City than in most other places complicating preservation efforts.  Kurokawa’s plan was supported by the Japanese Institute of Architecture and architects around the world. Global support for his initiative demonstrates the recognition of the Nakagin Capsule Hotel’s place in the continuum of Japan’s architectural heritage. The ongoing efforts to save the hotel from demolition serves as reminder of its importance in the history of modern Japanese architecture.

Lounge area
The ongoing preservation effort of the Nakagin Capsule Hotel poses the question, what criteria is used to determine buildings and objects worthy candidates for designation? Isozaki Arata writes, “The professional appraisal that originated in selecting and judging [what] would now be called ‘art’ from among everyday utensils was from by Western-style ‘Japanese taste.’”  This concept of “Japan-ness” belonged to the external gaze projected by the West. Kikuchi Yuko argues that this external gaze was a response by the Japanese to the West’s interest the exotic and contributed to the way Japan looked at its own works of architecture and art.  Writer Yanagi Sôetsu’s theories helped call attention to Japan’s indigenous craft tradition, which was subject to protection and preservation beginning with the 1933 Law on The Preservation of Important Art Objects. Whether Yanagi’s theory had any influence on the criteria for determining what is worthy of protection under The 1933 Law is conjectural and the subject for another paper. Therefore, it is possible that this Western construct of Japan-ness informed the way the National Treasures Preservation Committee evaluated what merited preservation. Perhaps the solution to the question of how to evaluate Japanese historic and cultural resources is developing a hybrid criteria of what is worthy of designation.

Composite rendering of the Nakagin Capsule Tower
The Metabolist movement wanted to challenge and appreciate the past while push the Japanese people forward into the future by using avant garde architectural design concepts through physical construction.  Western conceptions of preservations, particularly in the United States, are based in a type of stasis in the preservation of the built environment, usually a piece of architectural history.  Simply put, western preservation practices is about managing change, meaning how to keep old buildings, adapt them for contemporary use or turn them into a museum, while maintaining the historic fabric of the building.  Western preservation practice can be selective about new uses for a building, sometimes heavily restricting them through legislative action.

Axonometric view of Nakagin Capsule Tower
Japan and other Asian nations approach preservation from a different point of view.  Environmental issues, natural disaster, conflict, rising real estate prices, and population demands all factor into Japanese preservation practices.  The Diet does not exactly enforce preservation law, and that lack of regulation often collides with the real world needs of the evolving economy.  Striking a balance  between historical, cultural value and the market economies of Japanese cities creates more prevalent challenges in Japanese preservation practice.  The very limited availability of land for construction, coupled with the demand for reals estate is the main factor in determining preservation practices.  Added into this mix is a sense of national pride (and inferiority left over from World War II) makes preserving the recent past even more challenging.

Capsule close up
The soaring demand for real estate and the ephemeral perspective of Japanese construction (buildings are not meant to last forever), also factors into the role of preservation and have a profound effect in the preservation of the recent past.  The idea that a built environment is in a constant state of transformation, has been ingrained into the Japanese consciousness and is the most critical element in examining Japanese preservation practice, especially the recent past.  This abbreviated life span of Japanese architect is said to be based in the social system that guarantees change.  In this case, Jessica Baldwin concludes, "As preservationists, we must be open to this concept and accept, especially with structures of the recent past and as buildings and cities evolve.

Close up of the capsules

When taking into account the Metabolism and the difference in preservation practices in the United States and Japan, it's not difficult to understand how the Nakagin Capsule Tower is an exemplar of Metabolist movement.  The individual capsule were designed to be the size of a shipping container, thus making it easy to build and move around.  The Tower was finished in 1972, using 144 capsules, inserted at a rate of five to eight modules per day.  The modules are connected to the core structure (megastructure) which serves as a elevator shaft, electrical, plumbing and HVAC conduit.  This modular system was quite innovative for its time, completely new construction.  Ms. Baldwin cites Lin Zhongjie, "The towers rise to different height and the capsules are arranged in a seemingly random...suggesting an ongoing process." (Lin, 2011, 19)  The end result is that the Tower embodies the Metabolist manifesto.  Since the capsules do not completely cover the towers, there is a sense of continuation.  Capsules can be added or subtracted, a sense of ephermera.

Rendering of typical capsule

The Nakagin Capsule Tower is currently on DoCoMoMo Japan's list of cultural significant modern buildings.  However, this means little in terms of government regulation.  Rather, it's only recognition in terms of its cultural and national value. The list of culturally significant modern buildings was created in hopes that the Japanese government would halt the demolition of most of the Modern movement buildings.  Kishio Kurokawa campaigned to save his building and made some progress until his death in 2007.  Despite the architect's campaigning, the planned demolition of the Capsule Tower will continue.  This development has placed the tower in the forefront of global preservation.  The DoCoMoMo list and additional preservation activities have attracted the attention of preservation professionals.

Although the demolition for the Capsule Tower was approved in 2007, for the moment, it has been sparred.  However, the ultimate fate of the tower is still unknown, a common fate for buildings of the Late Modern (1960-1980) era.  The campaign to save the Nakagin Capsule Tower began several years but ended with Kishio Kurakawa's death.  The Japanese government has not stepped in to protect the landmark tower, which has become an monolithic icon amid the chaos and constant sea of transformation in the Ginza District.  The loss of the tower could represent the fundamental downfall of the Metabolist principles.  It could also be the foundation of all Japanese preservation.  The Metabolist architects understood that cities and buildings constantly evolve.  Now as the world turns its gaze toward the Nakagin Capsule Tower and watches it evolve.

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