Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nakagin Capsule: Between utopia and tragedy

We regard human society as a vital process - a continuous development from atom to nebula.*

Alfredo Triff

The news:
Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower is in real danger. New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff puts it dramatically:

When I visited several weeks ago, it was pouring rain. Corridors smelled of mildew. Some tenants had taped plastic bags to their door frames to catch leaks, and many of them were bulging with gray water. At one point a tenant took me up to a bridge that connected the two towers, where I could see chunks of concrete breaking off from the corner of one of the capsules. Nothing short of a full-scale restoration would save it.

En passant:
In the first story of Tokyo (2008), the movie, directed by Michel Gondry, we see a young artsy couple, fresh from the provinces, struggling to find a cheap apartment in the capital. They go through dozens of rentals, one of them at the Nagakin Capsule.2 Though desperate, they decline the offer. Gondry's choice of location is telling: A masterpiece of architecture that nobody wants to live in. Why the fuss? Living in the Shinbashi District is not cheap, and Tokyo apartments -by US standards- are minuscule. 

Utopia for the masses:
Of course, nowadays Nakagin dwellers would not see themselves as "metabolic occupants," living a sort of bio-rhythmic "inter-polarity." Kurokawa's project suggested flexibility (possibility of continual re-composition), adaptability (reinterpreting the Japan post-war dwelling) and reversibility (short duration). But was the project successful?3 Metabolism evolved in response to the devastation left by the War, propagating the idea that in a world of continual change and growth, structures should be created to help advance social development.

(Above, Arata Isozaki's Electric Labyrinth, Milan Triennale, 1968, with images of ruined futuristic cities being projected on a screen printed with an image of Hiroshima flattened by the atomic bomb). Kurokawa had an intuition about the connection between architecture, cybernetics and molecular biology. Given the remarkable self-organization at the biological and neurological levels, could architecture become an emergent model and module connecting human activities and territories? Could the Nakagin tower become an architectural symbol of the evolution of human society?4

The metabolic city was meant to act as replicator, a self-design of regenerating modules on to which spare parts, extensions and replacements could be plugged or unplugged -as in Kiyonori Kikutake's ambitious Marine City (1961):

or Arata Isozaki's Clusters in the Air (1960-1963):

Suspicious assessments:
Metabolism is a response to the geologic ephemeral, i.e., the power of destruction caused by nature and man. But even out of chaos, the umwelt should not become overpowering. Kenneth Frampton, in his Critical History of Modern Architecture cites Gunther Nitschke's perspicacious assessment of the Metabolist movement as early as 1966:

"As long as the actual buildings got heavier, harder and more monstrous in scale, as long as architecture is taken as a means to power, the talk of greater flexibility is just fuss."

Jonathan Barnett shares Nitschke's views:

"By 1972 the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa was completed in Tokyo. Extremely compact prefabricated living units, looking like elongated clothes dryers, were attached to concrete towers. Here was a plug-in structure actually completed. But the Nakagin tower was not a precursor of plug-in cities; it was an isolated and idiosyncratic building. By 1972 the whole idea of the city as a megastructure was in decline almost everywhere."5

In spite of its problems, I admire Metabolism's disparate mix of Buddhism, nuclear physics, biological emergence and its corageous disdain of nostalgia.

Does Kurakawa's tower deserve a comeback? I hope for an affirmative reply.
*Taken from Metabolism: 1960: A Proposal for New Urbanism, by Kinoyori Kikutake, Masato Ohtaka, Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Noboru Kawazoe.  2Kurokawa's tower consists of 144 units attached to two fixed nuclei. Its main principle of packing and repetition of industrially fabricated units has influenced more recent developments in architecture, such as deconstructionism, which tries to overcome traditional concepts of order and gravity.  3According to the architect, "each unit was to represent the personality of its occupant."  Its principles of packing and repetition of industrially pre-fabricated units inspired new technologies in the transport industry and spaceflight. More recent developments include the movement of Deconstructionism in architecture, seeking the redefinition traditional hierarchies such as order and gravity. 4 Coincidentally, in 1970, Michael Polanyi wrote his known essay, "Life's Irreducible Structure" for the Journal of American Scientific Affiliation: Higher level of complexity could not be explained in terms of the lower levels. Just as a wave can't be described in terms of water molecules, a human, with all of its intricate, integrated physical structures, thoughts and emotions cannot possibly be explained in terms of mere molecules, not even DNA. Life manifests emergent properties far beyond the sum of its molecules. Around the same time, linguist Noam Chomsky made similar observations in terms of human language capability. He wondered how biologists could explain the stunning complexity of language competence, a unique characteristic shared among all humans (and to a lesser extent shared with our primate relatives, and apparently some other vertebrates). 

5Jonathan Barnett's The Elusive City (Harper & Row, 1986).


Dissey said...

triff: myman, excelent post. love ur attitude.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this capsule has yet to travel across to the 22nd Century. It's way too pretty. American Airlines should post a bid, and use it as a lay over hotel for crew members.

Johnny said...

It's a beautiful building. Are this people crazy?

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Dissey.

Anonymous: That's a great idea.

Johnny: It happens everywhere.

Anonymous said...


mdcc t = em 21