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TOKYO — How old does a building have to be before we appreciate its value? And when does its cultural importance trump practical considerations?

Those are the questions that instantly come to mind over the likely destruction of Kisho Kurokawa’s historic Nakagin Capsule Tower.

A rare built example of Japanese Metabolism, a movement whose fantastic urban visions became emblems of the country’s postwar cultural resurgence, the 1972 Capsule Tower is in a decrepit state. Its residents, tired of living in squalid, cramped conditions, voted two years ago to demolish it and are now searching for a developer to replace it with a bigger, more modern tower. That the building is still standing has more to do with the current financial malaise than with an understanding of its historical worth.


Nor has any institution, public or private, stepped up with a viable plan for how to save it.

Why is that so? Partly it is because all over the world, postwar architecture is still treated with a measure of suspicion by the cultural mainstream, which often associates it with brutal city housing developments or clinical office blocks. Partly, too, it has to do with the nature of housing blocks in general. They are not sexy investments; they do not feed an investor’s vanity or offer the cultural prestige that owning a landmark house does.

But another concern is that all too often, private developments like the Capsule Tower, no matter how historically important, are regarded in terms of property rights. They are about business first, not culture. Governments don’t like to interfere; the voices of preservationists are shrugged off. “Want to save it?” the prevailing sentiment goes. “Pay for it.”

Until that mentality changes, landmarks like Kurokawa’s will continue to be threatened by the wrecking ball, and the cultural loss will be tremendous. This is not only an architectural tragedy, it is also a distortion of history.

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