Boxes blackened by the passage of time, piled one on top of the other: the "Nagakin Capsule Tower" sticks out in Tokyo's Shimabshi business district, but a handful of ardent supporters have mobilized themselves in order to prevent the possible demolition of this example of Japanese Metabolist architecture.
One of its owners, Masato Abe, is fighting to save this building of 140 rooms with large portholes, futurist in its time, designed in 1972 by the architect Kisho Kurokawa.
And so, he has launched a participatory financing campaign - "crowdfunding" - and hopes to "receive donations from the entire world." "We are trying to buy the capsules one by one," explains this computer engineer, who has been impassioned with architecture for 41 years. Each capsule gives the right to one voice to decide the future of this building that served on the set of the film "Wolverine" in 2013.
A demolition is being considered due to a lack of being able to "preserve the building at a reasonable cost," according to the developer, but must be voted on by at least 80 percent of the voices in order to become a reality, reminds us Tatsuyuki Maeda, owner of seven units, which he is renovating in his spare time. If he means to rent them out, he wants above all to give a second life to the tower.
In contrast to the numerous "capsule hotels" in the capital city, which are a kind of sleeping chamber accommodating "salarymen" who have missed the last train, today these capsules embody a section of architectural history that we must preserve at all costs, pleads its defenders.
In each room of barely ten square meters, in the guise of a space shuttle, are snugly fitted a bed, a folding desk and a tiny bathroom, everything having been cleverly arranged. There is also a TV, radio and clock from another era.
Outdated charm and architectural audacity attract full-time residents to around twenty of the units, and around fifty others serve as office space, art studios or "secondary residences."
But with the passage of time, a number of these housing units became run down due to a lack of maintenance on the part of their owners who would see the tower demolished for one simple reason: a spacious apartment in a brand new building would bring in a lot more than 60,000 yens of monthly rent for one capsule.
The Spirit of Metabolism
As a result, life there is not so easy. "Asbestos insulation is not really efficient anymore, when in winter it is very cold and inversely very hot in the summer," recalls the Portugese architects Ana Luisa Soares and Filipe Magalhaes, who shared a capsule for a year: a "great" living experience right in the centre of Tokyo.
At the request of the owners and despite a petition and the intervention of Kisho Kurokawa himself to the developer of Nakagin, the complex already failed to be razed in 2007.
But the international financial crisis miraculously saved the tower and, despite the death of the architect at the end of 2007, the mobilization campaign was relaunched under the impetus of new arrivals. Through various projects, the "guardians" of the tower became hopeful again.
And so, Mr. Abe, who no longer lives there since 2010 when the hot water was cut off, offers his "capsule" for 9,000 yens per night on the website Airbnb.
For her part, the artist Takami Sugawara has transformed hers into a kind of photography apparatus: the daylight does not enter the capsule other than through a tiny hole and the outside world appears on the walls, but inversed.
Originally, these modules, organized around a central pillar of more than ten stories, were conceived as being architectually independently from one another and replaceable after twenty-five years, something that was never done.
"The Spirit of Metabolism," an architectural movement of the 1960s which imagined the "future city," is "frozen here, literally encapsulated," reveals Christian Dimmer, an urbanism professor at the University of Tokyo.
Alas, it is difficult to raise awareness in the public opinion about the preservation of historical buildings in Japan, where buildings are regularly destroyed in order to be rebuilt in conformity with the evolutions of paraseismic standards.
And if the Nagakin tower were ultimately condemned to disappear in Tokyo, Mr. Dimmer suggests a compromise: send the capsules to the four corners of the world in order to honor the ideals of Kurokawa, and serve as a model for "a more compact life," of "living happily with less."
In what ways could this building be reconfigured (perhaps horizontally in the outskirts) to preserve its rich history?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.