The Future that Never Happened

December 8, 2014

Short essay by fala (Filipe Magalhães and Ana Luisa Soares)


Mas issue tokyo the future that never happened 01

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo. © fala.

1) The Future that Never Happened

In 1972 the Nakagin Capsule Tower was advertised in the media to signal “the dawn of the capsule age.” The building was a sum of individual plug-in capsules promoting exchangeability and modifications to the structure over time, theoretically improving its capacity to adjust to the rapidly changing conditions of the post-industrial society. The tower represented the future of housing. The irony presented by the story of the Nakagin Capsule Tower is the fact that it became the last architecture of its kind to be completed in the world. Today it stands as a poignant reminder of a path ultimately not taken.

2) A New Urban Condition

Forty years ago the fallen hero was the tallest building in the neighborhood. It was visible from far away and with a sci-fi look it seemed to be a strange machine from the future. Today the tower is blocked, hidden in the shadow of other skyscrapers. It looks old and abandoned. Contrary to what the project predicted, the capsules were never replaced. Materials didn’t resist as time passed, because they were not supposed to, and the problems increased: leaks, rust, and corrosion are everywhere. There is no maintenance and the building was recently covered with a safety net because small parts started falling. It is crumbling. The few capsules that light up at night reveal the few people who still live here. Tourists try to visit the building everyday.

3) Common Spaces, Common Problems

It is usual for the habitants to use the common spaces as extensions of their capsules. Down the stairs it’s easy to find clotheslines, shoe lockers, or boxes filled with books and personal objects. The original pipes were never replaced and eventually became unusable. New pipes (only for cold water) were placed in the corridors and the doors of the capsules were sawn to bring them inside. There is no hot water and for some years a common shower on the entrance floor was the only thing mitigating the problem. Cracks and humidity can be seen everywhere.

The atrium serves the two towers and sometimes is used as meeting room by those who use the capsules as offices. The doorman is there during the day although at night the door is left open. The elevators still work.

4) Different Habitants, Different Opinions

Few people inhabit the tower and the vast majority of the units are abandoned. The corridors are quiet. The few residents who still resist have different opinions regarding the future of the building: some believe in rehabilitation, others want the demolition; some even talk of the replacement of the capsules with new ones. The lack of consensus is probably the main reason for the current condition of the building. Several capsules rotted from the inside and are now covered with moss and mildew; the inhabited capsules are still in a good condition. Most of the owners performed all kinds of interventions in their units; maybe that’s something that the metabolists would be proud of. Some residents live in other cities and just use the building for the weekend; others live and work there full-time. Overall, everyone is worried about the future of the former icon, but while talking with the habitants it’s easy to understand the different opinions.

5) A Capsule as a House

Time proved that the perfection of the typology was disturbed by the unrealistic idea of replacing the capsules every twenty years. Although it has led to the futuristic look that distinguishes the building, this mutant condition proved to be fatal. The capsules are small (8 sq. m.) but the space is enough and adjusted to the needs of the day-to-day life. Every detail of the original project contributes to the success of the interior: the versatile and integrated furniture, the ergonomic bathroom, the large window. Living in the capsule alters the perception of scale of the habitant but the typology is the perfect answer for Tokyo. More than forty years after the opening of the building, no doubts remain that the lifestyle of the city and the local culture continue to prove that space to be an ideal solution: today, while living inside one of the capsules, it easy to understand that.

Mas issue tokyo the future that never happened 02

Inside the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo. © fala.

Mas issue tokyo the future that never happened 03

Inside the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo. © fala.

Mas issue tokyo the future that never happened 04

Aerial view of the Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo. © fala.