Paradox of a Landmark That is Not: the life of the Nakagin Capsule Tower

Aki Ishida



Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) by Kisho Kurokawa has been at the center of a preservation debate for over a decade. The building is in an advanced state of decay and neglect, but a strong voice of opposition from architects worldwide has continued to postpone demolition. A point of contention is that it has not reached a 50-year mark at which a work of architecture could, having proven its significance on its own, qualify for protection as historic landmark in Japan.


How are we to determine when a building should be demolished to make place for new structures, or preserved and restored as a cultural monument when the intended nomadic bachelordom in capsules is no longer deemed desirable 43 years later? Moreover, what does it mean to preserve a building that was built on a principal that it would grow and transform in response to its environment?


What further complicates and fascinates this debate is the writing Kurokawa left on the paradoxical Japanese notion of achieving permanence through impermanence. He spoke of the Ise Shrine as having been ‘preserved unaltered’ by being rebuilt to the identical specification every 20 years. He says, “…the Japanese have never felt that the materials themselves have a sense of eternity. On the contrary, they are and always have been conscious of the spirit and philosophy beyond the materials and regard the form as an intermediary conveying that spirit and philosophy of human beings.” Kurokawa intended the concrete cores of the building to remain while the capsules are removed and replaced every 25 years, but this plan was never realized.


The reason for Nakagin Capsule Tower’s ultimate demolition, ironically, may be its inability to live up to its principals that made it landmark-worthy in the first place – the idea of the metabolic cycle, interchangeability, and adaptability.




Aki Ishida is Assistant Professor of Architecture, Fellow of Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology’s (ICAT), and founder of Aki Ishida Architect PLLC. Ishida’s work is a synthesis of her interests in spatial uses of light and active public engagement of space. Prior to forming her firm, Aki was an associate at James Carpenter Design Associates. Lantern Field, an installation she led at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, was one of a dozen international projects to win a 2013 A|L Architectural Lighting Award. Aki was listed among the 25 Most Admired Educators for 2016 by DesignIntelligence.