The Nagakin Capsule Tower is too old for this city addicted to newness
One of Tokyo’s most iconic buildings, the Nagakin Capsule Tower, is currently being dismantled. The 50-year-old structure, with its 144 cube-shaped capsules and porthole windows, is one of the world’s few surviving examples of Metabolism. This 50s era architectural movement conceived of ‘natural buildings’, made up of cell-like components that could be replaced, or added to, giving the structures an organic quality and theoretically almost unlimited lifespan.
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The tower is hideously carbuncle ugly — it resembes a precarious stack of rusting washing machines — but, as an almost unique example of a particular form of retro-futurism, is of undeniable historical and architectural significance. Yet, despite howls of international condemnation, its demise has received barely a peep of protest in Japan. A feeble attempt by the tower’s few remaining residents to save it got nowhere, and most Tokyoites, it appears, couldn’t care less.
But then that is the way of things in Tokyo, a city renowned for being the world’s most transitory megalopolis. Old buildings are not so much cherished here as seen as an embarrassment. The average lifespan of a Tokyo building is just 26 years (the UK is 77). Even the much vaunted temples and shrines are rarely very old — like Disney attractions they are quietly knocked down every couple of decades and rebuilt, hence their suspiciously pristine condition.
The traditional reason given for this ultra short shelf life is earthquakes and fires: why build for posterity when a tremor or conflagration could reduce your investment to dust and ashes? But this is a canard; modern building methods can make even the tallest urban structures virtually quake and fire proof. Indeed, Tokyo was named the world’s safest city in 2017 by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index, which gives a high priority to infrastructure.
In truth, there is a simpler explanation for Tokyo’s continual rebuilding loop — it’s good business. The enormous potential of a construction site city was established by the 1964 Olympics, which saw the grotty, but undeniably characterful, buildings obliterated and remade in a frenzied transformation. Whole neighbourhoods were flattened, and new structures were thrown up in haphazard fashion. This caused immense disruption and serious environmental damage, but reaped gigantic profits for those lucky enough to be in receipt of the almost blank cheque government contracts.
Writer Charles Whiting, who witnessed the almighty upheaval, recalls Tokyo at that time was a cacophonous dusty hell, which tested the legendary Japanese quality of ‘gaman’ (endurance) to the full. In one famous story, a man was arrested for making love to his wife in the grounds of the royal palace but was let off when he explained it was the only place where they could find peace from the relentless noise.
Tokyo endured and people grew to accept living in a state of permanent impermanence, and even perhaps to revel in the sense of dynamism. It chimed with the Japanese love of newness — evidenced by the high status given to ‘shinhatsubai’ (new products). New shopping centres attracted huge crowds on opening. Even unremarkable ventures, like Krispy Kreme Donuts, could attract two- or three-hour queues months after they opened their first store (now closed) in central Tokyo in 2006.
But so homogenous has much of Tokyo’s street scene become, with the same chain stores, restaurants and sterile airport terminal atmosphere, that the first emotion that often hits you when exiting any of its 881 stations is to wonder if you hadn’t ended up back where you started. Even as a long-term resident I am constantly reminded of the line from MI5’s man in Japan in the Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice:’ “I have been in Tokyo 20 years and I’m only beginning to find my way around,” which rings almost as true today as when Roald Dahl scripted it in 1967.
It is no wonder the Metabolists failed to reorganise Tokyo. The adherents of the movement looked to nature for inspiration, but overlooked two things: that cities have their own DNA that no revolutionary philosophy can ever quite remove, and that human nature’s most powerful forces is the desire to make a quick buck.