Completed in the year 1972, Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the few visionary proposals realized by an avant-garde architectural movement called Metabolism. An experimental apartment complex designed with 140 removable capsules, this building in Tokyo embodies the future of urban living as envisioned by Kurokawa at that moment in postwar Japan. More importantly, it is a reminder of a future that was never realized in society at large and exists as an architectural anachronism within the city. In recent years, the building has faced the threat of demolition to make way for a more conventional structure. In the book 1972, Noritaka Minami uses photography to document the current state of individual capsules as a response to their potential disappearance. The photographs examine what became of a building that first opened as a radical prototype for a new mode of living in post-industrial society and how this vision of the future appears in retrospect.
Statement of the book
Gianpaolo Arena: Could you tell us something more about how your project '1972. Nakagin Capsule Tower' started?
Noritaka Minami: I first became interested in the Nakagin Capsule Tower through my research on the historical legacy of the 1970 World Exposition that was held in Osaka, Japan. Expo '70 was a major cultural event in postwar Japan, and an avant-garde architectural movement called Metabolism played an important role in creating a city of the future that promoted the official theme for the event: "Progress and Harmony for Mankind." The architect of the Capsule Tower, Kisho Kurokawa, was a founding member of Metabolism and received a tremendous amount of media exposure through his design of pavilions at Expo '70. This city of the future only had a temporary existence, and there are very few traces of the technological wonders that once stood on the site. Because of this disappearance of what once existed, I gravitated towards the Capsule Tower that stands in Tokyo. It is one of the few examples still standing today that embodies the visionary proposals of Metabolism. The building is also indelibly tied to Expo 70 because it was commissioned as result of the publicity Kurokawa gained through his participation in the event.
I visited the Nakagin Capsule Tower for the very first time during the summer of 2010. I immediately became captivated by the building's history and the experience of being inside a capsule that was first plugged into the concrete core in 1972. I was fascinated by the fact that none of the 140 capsules attached to the building had ever been replaced, despite the fact that they were intended to promote exchangeability and modifications to the structure over time. I then visited the Tokyo seven times over the course of 2010 to 2014 in order to photograph both the interior and exterior of the building. The photographs shot during this timespan eventually became the basis of the book 1972 that was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015.
The project began in 2010 with a sense of urgency to document the building. At the time, there was a very real possibility that it would be demolished and replaced with a more "conventional" apartment complex. As of today, the building does not face imminent destruction, but does face an uncertain future in regards to its preservation. In light of this uncertainty that the building has experienced over the past decade, I used this project to examine what became of an architecture that first opened in 1972 as a radical prototype for a new mode of urban living and how this vision of the future appears in retrospect. From my visits, I learned that the building was not necessarily successful in implementing the principles of Metabolism as envisioned by Kurokawa. However, I also realized that the building has taken a new significance today as an important piece of architectural history. It symbolizes a distinctly different vision of the 21st Century than the one that arrived in the city of Tokyo.
GA: How do you approach the urban spaces and the architecture while working on your project?
NM: I'm interested in the building as a form of anachronism in the city of Tokyo as it feels out of place on several levels. It feels out of place from the contemporary moment because it proposes a vision of the future that never arrived. The rest of the city followed a different historical trajectory than the one proposed by the Nakagin Capsule Tower. It feels out of place as an architectural form because it uses an experimental construction technique that never became a standard in society. The ambition imbedded in the design of the Capsule Tower feels displaced among the sea of mid-sized condominiums and office buildings that have been built around it since 1972 and are more "conventional" in their appearances. However, the fact that it has become a powerful example of anachronism in the city of Tokyo has allowed the building to acquire a type of significance that Kurokawa could have not foreseen in 1972. Despite the fact that capsules were intended for mass production, the Capsule Tower ultimately became the only architecture of its kind made in Tokyo. The building has a very important history as one of the few buildings realized through Metabolism. The irony is that this significance would have not been possible if additional capsule towers were made in the subsequent years as originally hoped by the architect.
Inside the Capsule Tower, I used photography to capture the extremely compressed living space of 10 square meters that is present in every room. From very early point in its history, the criticism against the Capsule Tower was that the individual units are too small and not flexible enough for everyday use. Yet, the fact that these small rooms are still being occupied to this day demonstrate the residents' ability to find new and unexpected applications within the limited area of ten square meters that go beyond the original vision of the building as urban homes for businessmen.
The idea of repetition is emphasized through the consistent use of a straight-on shot towards the window. This strategy is used to refer to the history of the capsules as spaces that were originally made with similar specifications on an assembly line. The repetition is also used to highlight the distinct characteristic that exists within each capsule, whether it is through the occupancy of the current resident or the modifications that were performed over the course of four decades. Although all 140 capsules were originally equipped with similar furnishings, they exist today in a diverse range of states. While some capsules retain parts of the original interior, other spaces have experienced extensive renovations. Each capsule contains the history of not only the current resident, but also other individuals who have come through that space since 1972 and the decisions they made in regards to the unit. Maybe it's possible to view the additions, subtractions, modifications, and renovations that were performed inside a capsule as traces of an individual or individuals. The capsule is a container that has accumulated all of the moves and decisions that were performed by individuals over the course of four decades. Although I do not directly depict the resident who occupies that space, I want each photograph to suggest that the capsule holds the history and presence of people who occupy or have occupied that space.
GA: How did your collaboration with Kehrer Verlag and Sean Sullivan start?
NM: During the spring of 2014, I developed a maquette for the book while working in the photography program at Harvard University. I then proceeded to submit proposals to specific publishers that I believed would be a good fit in publishing this body of work. I was familiar with the titles released by Kehrer Verlag from my time as a graduate student at UC Irvine. I feel very fortunate that they showed interest in publishing my series. It was a great experience to work with the staff at Kehrer Verlag and go on press in Hedielberg, Germany. Their production manager, Tom Streicher, did a really amazing job of performing the final color adjustments at the press.
The book was designed by Sean Sullivan, a designer based in Los Angeles who runs an office called Tape&Jelly. We went to the same graduate program at UC Irvine. I asked him to manage the design of the book because he has always been meticulous with details. We had many discussions about the vision I had for the final product. I am very thankful for the energy and dedication he put into completing the design of the book.
GA: Are you involved and interested in contemporary architecture? Who are the architects that most excite you today?
NM: As a visual artist, I am interested in documenting contemporary architecture especially when it represents a distinct vision of the architect, as was the case with the Nakagin Capsule Tower in 1972. Ambitious examples of contemporary architecture could be interpreted as proposals for the future that are grounded at that particular historical moment. I am interested in the interaction of those instances of contemporary architecture with the surroundings that were built at various points in the past and reflect the architectural sensibilities and concerns of those periods. With the medium of photography, I am interested in capturing various layers of architectural history that exist in an urban environment like strata.
I have been fortunate to meet really great architects through my work on the Nakagin Capsule Tower. During the winter of 2010, I had the opportunity to meet the architect Neil Denari while shooting at the building. Neil Denari is a professor at UCLA and is a truly amazing figure, both as an architect and theorist. He has been extremely supportive of my work on the Capsule Tower from an early stage in the project and up to the publication of the book.
I have also met a young Japanese architect named Takashi Fujino who operates an office called Ikimono Architects. He lived at the Nakagin Capsule Tower for several years when he started working as an architect in the early 2000s and created very imaginative proposals to modify both the interior and exterior of his capsule. In 2013, he received an award from the Architectural Institute of Japan for his work Atelier Tenjinyama that ingeniously experiments with the boundary between exterior and interior spaces. I am really looking forward to the work he will produce out of his office in Gunma Prefecture in the coming years.
Noritaka Minami is an artist based in Chicago. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004 where he studied Art Practice and Asian American Studies. In 2011, he completed a M.F.A. in Studio Art at the University of California, Irvine with an emphasis in the Visual Studies Program. Minami is interested in using the medium of photography as a means of investigating history and memory of sites. Minami has taught photography at Harvard University, Wellesley College, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Photography at Loyola University Chicago.