Architectural history in tiny Tokyo capsules

Architectural history in tiny Tokyo capsules
A resident of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in his room. Around half of the capsules, designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in 1972, are currently in use as offices, art studios and second homes, but 20 of the tiny spaces are full-time homes.

TOKYO - Every night in Tokyo, the few remaining residents of the Nakagin Capsule Tower bed down to sleep in the once-futuristic white pods they call home.

Unlike the tiny, coffin-like cabins of Japan's numerous capsule hotels, where office workers who have missed the last train can catch a few hours' sleep, the 140 units at Nakagin represent a special part of the history of architecture, and one that is worth protecting against plans to tear it down, say campaigners.

"We're going to collect donations from all over the world. We're trying to buy each capsule one by one. Each room counts as one vote, to decide what to do," said Masato Abe, founder of the Save Nakagin Capsule Tower Project.

The funky-looking tower, designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa in 1972, appeared as a Japanese love hotel in 2013 blockbuster "The Wolverine" starring Hugh Jackman.

In real life, around half of the capsules are currently in use as second homes, offices and art studios, but some 20 of the tiny spaces are full-time homes.

A bed, fold-out desk and even a bathroom unit are squeezed into the boxes, which have a floor space of just 10 square metres (108 square feet).

The compact rooms' large round window and in-built '70s features such as retro clocks and sound systems give them the appearance of being suspended in yesteryear's vision of the future.

Portuguese architects Ana Luisa Soares and Filipe Magalhães, who shared a capsule for one year, said it was "amazing" to live in Tokyo's Shimbashi district, a crowded part of town that throbs with late-night noise.

However, the building's deteriorating state did not make for an easy life.

"The capsules' asbestos insulation wasn't really working anymore, so during the winter it was really cold, and during the summer really hot," they said.

Demolish or refurbish? 

Corroding pipes, serious water damage and an uncertain future mean half the capsules have been left to rot by their owners, who would rather see the tower demolished and reap the profits of a brand new apartment building.

Yet the wrecking ball can only come out if at least 80 per cent of owners vote for demolition, said Tatsuyuki Maeda, who owns seven capsules that he is refurbishing at weekends with plans to let them out.

Rent for a capsule is around 60,000 yen (S$697.80) per month, but could be much more for a spacious flat in a shiny new building.

The tower came close to demolition in 2007 when enough owners voted in favour of its destruction, despite a petition and Kurokawa's own negotiations with the Nakagin real estate company to save his building.

But the global financial crisis put paid to plans for redevelopment and although Kurokawa died at the end of 2007, the campaign has been revived.

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