The Transmutation of the Nakagin Capsule Tower

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From Emblematic Futuristic Vision to Digitalized Relic

From Emblematic Futuristic Vision to Digitalized Relic

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, an imposing architectural landmark set in the vibrant pulse of Tokyo, was born in the 1970s as a palpable promise of future architecture. Designed by the avant-garde architect Kisho Kurokawa, this building stood out for its innovative composition of prefabricated modules, the capsules around central vertical cores that outlined a novel vision of what the housing of the future could be: flexible, mutable, ready to adapt to the changing winds of time.

The project featured two 13-story-high central towers that housed infrastructure for 140 small prefabricated housing units attached to the towers’ exteriors. The idea was that the individual units could be replaced or even moved to different locations. Originally touted in real estate documents as «Business Capsules» for businessmen to have a private space during the week, the prefabricated capsules featured a single circular window, a full bathroom, a built-in bed, and a folding desk.

This building stood as a bastion of the Metabolist Movement, an artistic movement that attempted to fuse organic vitality with the functionality of synthetic architecture. In a time of rapid technological advancement and blind faith in a future of limitless possibilities, the building positioned itself as a beacon of architectural utopia.

However, the wheel of time did not work in Kurokawa’s project’s favor.

Despite its revolutionary design and potential for easy remodeling and adaptability, the Nakagin Capsule Tower failed to become the model of future housing it promised to be. Most of its units lack the basic amenities necessary for modern living, so the building mirrors the contrast between utopian dreams and real life. The futuristic utopia of the last century, as seen from the perspective of the 21st century, reveals a profound disconnect between visionary ideals and pragmatic reality.

As the surrounding neighborhood developed, the real estate company Nakagin underinvested in the maintenance of the Capsule Tower. This lack of maintenance, coupled with the intrinsic challenges of the original concept, such as the difficulty of replacing or moving individual units, led to the building’s deterioration over time.

Cornered by the eternal dilemma of Tokyo’s space shortage and the imperative need for modernization, the building was irretrievably doomed for demolition. Even so, its unique architectural and cultural significance prompted many to fight for its preservation. Faced with the inevitable physical demise, a proposal emerged to keep the spirit of the Nakagin Capsule Tower alive, not as a living space but as a museum piece.

In an ironic twist of fate, the modular capsules, which once promised to be the housing skyline of the future, are now being auctioned as valuable museum pieces. Institutions such as the Centre Pompidou or the San Francisco MOMA already have their futuristic capsule in their collections.

Turning the prefabricated capsules into museum pieces highlights the complex relationship between architecture and the temporal dimension: how can a building, once a reflection of a future to come, become a relic of the past? A singular transformation occurs by preserving the prefabricated capsules that gave life to the project: a home becomes a historical artifact, and a living space is reimagined as an exhibition piece.




Towards a Digital Experience: The Value of Technology in Architectural Preservation

But the story of the Nakagin Capsule Tower does not end with its demolition and second life in a museum. Through virtual reality technology, the building continues its existence on a digital plane. The company Gluon has promoted a crowdfunding project to convert real space data into a 3D model using scans of the entire building. The digitization project combines data from a laser scanner, capable of measuring distances to millimeter accuracy, and photographic data from more than 20,000 shots captured by drones and cameras.

The use of modern technology offers us an alternative to preserve the essence of exemplary buildings like this one. Not only do we seek to maintain their architectural value as a sort of historical archive, but we also intend to give them a new life, an existence in digital space.

Advances in virtual reality and 3D modeling allow us to revive these structures in a space where physical and practical limitations do not exist. These buildings, in their new digital form, not only retain their value but are transformed into immersive and interactive experiences for visitors.

Moreover, this digitization allows their utility and meaning to be reinterpreted for a new generation. In this digital sphere, the Nakagin Capsule Tower can continue to play a relevant role, adapting and evolving with us in the digital age. Thus, these buildings can defy the limitations of time and space, keeping their essence alive and allowing their legacy to endure in the contemporary context.


3D Digital Archive – Nakagin Capsule Tower


Should we preserve Kisho Kurokawa’s original vision, full of optimism and futurism, or the final state of the tower, a monument to the unfulfilled vision of a future that never came?

Looking at the 3D model with my glasses in which I can observe in detail every trace of rust on the surface of the prefabricated modules, I am struck by the following question: What is the exact moment we should «record» in the collective and digital memory? Should we capture the idyllic instant that exists only in the designer’s mind and the project plans, or should we document the rusted and decrepit state just before dismantling and demolition?

This dilemma is especially relevant in the case of the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Should we preserve Kisho Kurokawa’s original vision, full of optimism and futurism, or the final state of the tower, a monument to the unfulfilled vision of a future that never came?

The odyssey of Kurokawa’s iconic work is a graphic testimony to the volatility and constant evolution of our conceptions of the future. A building that was designed as the spitting image of a futuristic housing concept has ended up as a museum relic and, ultimately, as a digital experience.

The building remains a monument to the audacity of innovative and visionary thinking. The ideas that materialized in its design still have the power to inspire and provoke new reflections on what architecture can and should be.

As such, we should not see this tour as a failure but as a demonstration of how architecture, like our vision of the future, is in constant flux and adaptation. The Nakagin Capsule Tower, transitioning from futuristic materiality to digitizing its memory, offers us rich reflection and reaffirms the mutable and eternally fascinating nature of architecture and our relationship to time and space.


Nakagin Capsule Tower