Fate of iconic, deteriorating Ginza Capsule Tower up in air

An aging high-rise condominium in Tokyo's Ginza district is at the heart of a storm among residents over whether the building should be demolished and replaced or preserved.

Completed in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower has two interconnected buildings, one 13 stories high and the other 11 stories, comprising a total of 140 capsule units, each about 10 square meters and containing a desk, bath and toilet.

At a meeting on Dec. 6, the condominium owners' association decided to carry out an evaluation of the buildings' earthquake resistance next year, and based on the result will discuss again whether to pull the condominium down and replace it.

However, the condominium, which was designed by late architect Kisho Kurokawa, has attracted international attention as the embodiment of Metabolism, an architectural movement that started in the 1960s.

During the economic bubble years in the late 1980s, the units sold for around ¥30 million (S$347,983) each. Today, they would fetch only a few million yen.

About 10 years ago, the building started to fall into significant disrepair with frequent roof and water leaks. About five years ago, the hot water supply stopped when pipes burst. Only about half of the units are still in use.

Alarmed over the condominium's deteriorating condition, the residents did consider replacing it in the past. In 2007, the association got more than 80 per cent of the residents to agree to demolish the structure and passed a resolution to replace it. But the general contractor that was to construct a new condominium went bankrupt and the association's resolution to replace the building expired in 2009.

Nakagin Building, a rental building agent that owns 17 capsules and has an office on the second floor, stopped renting out its units in 2007 because of asbestos in the walls and ceilings. "Besides the asbestos, earthquake resistance is also questionable. Such problems cannot be resolved by repairs alone," the agent said.

One of the main proponents of preserving the condominium is Tatsuyuki Maeda, a 48-year-old company worker who owns 10 capsules. He launched the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project in November 2014, and has the support of a number of residents. At the end of October, he published a book about the Capsule Tower, in which he introduced the people who want to preserve it.

The structure has also attracted attention overseas with visits in recent years by film director Francis Ford Coppola and actor Keanu Reeves.

Expressing his desire to save the condominium, Maeda said: "It has such an unusual and wondrous design that it relaxes you. There will never be another building like it."

At the association meeting in December, those who wanted to preserve the condominium suggested that the capsule ceilings and walls be painted with waterproof paint to fix roof leaks. The plan was rejected.

Tokyo University of Science Prof. Masato Kawamukai, an architectural historian and expert in modern architecture, said: "If the owners' association had set the number of years for use of the building, they could have pursued a renovation plan. However, they neglected the building despite its historic significance. As condominiums age across the nation, residents need to reach an agreement on such matters before problems become apparent."

■ Metabolism

An architectural movement advocated by Kisho Kurokawa and others in 1960. Metabolism is originally a biological term meaning to replace the old with the new. Similar to life being sustained through regeneration and circulation, they believed that buildings could develop through expansion and replacement.