Inside the Nakagin Capsule Tower

Tokyo isn’t the most attractive of cities — not by any stretch of the imagination. The likes of nondescript apartment buildings and gaudy entertainment centres, along with a distinct sense of impermanence in many of the designs, create a confused, considerably less than beautiful vista. An unwelcome cityscape that in some ways the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which is under threat of demolition, arguably now adds to.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Yet that’s not how it was meant to be.

Built in 1972, and a prime example of Metabolism architecture, the tower was designed to embrace that aforementioned impermanence, and create a structure for a constantly shifting, dynamic city.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Consisting of 140 individual capsule apartments that were intended for people who worked in Tokyo during the week, they were all connected to the central beam by just 4, high-tension bolts. An element that was a key component of its Metabolist design, meaning the capsules could be replaced over time, allowing the building to adapt and meet changing demands.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

At least that was the idea, but in reality the capsules have stayed where they are, and a lack of maintenance has left the tower looking extremely worse for wear. Both the actual structure.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

And the capsules themselves.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Living spaces that for many residents clearly aren’t big enough, resulting in the narrow passages containing appliances.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

And personal belongings.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

The latter of which allow for a strange insight of sorts into the lives of the people who inhabit each capsule.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Nakagin Capsule Tower

No doubt due to the tower’s increasingly desperate state, a good number of the rooms are now unoccupied — something that the continued speculation about its demolition will presumably increase. International backing for it actually remains strong, with architects all over the world expressing their desire to keep the building as it is, or better still finally replace the capsules. But within Japan, and more importantly amongst residents, support appears to have wained, and although it is still standing despite numerous threats in the past, the Nakagin Capsule Tower seems unlikely to survive for much longer.

A building that, despite the rather forlorn appearance, is still a fascinatingly unique structure, and one that will be missed by many when it’s gone.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Additional images from here and here.


  1. says

    Nice narrative piece, Lee. I live near the Nakagin and pass by it often, but, oddly, have never photographed it. The still life shots outside each door are fascinating and, as you say, suggest the lives of the people inside – a book in themselves, I think.

    I think the building should definitely be saved even if only as a testament to Kurokawa’s vision, but think it’ll likely come down because, as always in Japan, land has more value than buildings (and I mean this in the sense that, historically and culturally, buildings don’t seem to garner emotional attachment here – if Ise Shrine can be knocked down and rebuilt every 20 years as a matter of course, it’s hard to imagine many fighting for the survival of a physical structure; after all, impermanence is expected and accepted here).

    • says

      Thanks Laura.

      Yes, I wasn’t expecting to see personal belongings in the corridors. Really interesting to see, although it did make me feel like I was invading their privacy somewhat.

      I’d like to see it saved too. Seeing how it once looked shows what’s possible, and it’s such a unique structure, it will be a very sad day if and when it’s demolished. But like you say, the chances of it surviving seem pretty remote to say the least. It’d have to unique in another sense to do that.

      Get your photographs taken while you can…

  2. Marc says

    I love the concept and the execution of the building. What lacks is follow-through on part of the building maintenance plan and policing of standards. Too bad. Good concept good bad. Love the last photo especially – great work!

    • says

      Cheers Marc. I’m really happy the way that one came out as I’m not very good with heights, and taking it left my legs feeling like jelly. Didn’t think I’d managed to keep my hands steady enough and it’d be a blurred mess, but thankfully I had.

      Yes, all the ideas and good intentions appear to have disappeared the minute the building was completed. Drainage and wiring are apparently huge problems, which can’t make for an especially pleasant living experience. By all accounts it was designed in such a short space of time that plans were still changing when building started. Even more reason for continued work and maintenance. The complete lack of which will presumably be its downfall.

  3. winnie says

    This building might be one of the remarkable Architecture in Japan.
    I wondered the residents who live around this building , do they worry about this building can withstand numbers of earthquake going on? Although the capsules can be replaced, it might not be done in near future. Need large sum of money to have all the necessary works to be done. Sooner or later, it might be lead to destruction which could be a regrettable fact. It is a matter of time.

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful features and writing of this amazing architecture.

    • says

      Glad you enjoyed it Winnie.

      Yes, I think the enormous costs involved suggest that there’s no chance the tower will survive. It’s a real shame. And even worse is it will no doubt be replaced by a nondescript office building. But the lack of maintenance over the years has unfortunately cost it dearly.

  4. Jeffrey says

    Modernism was always a fraud. I think it’s the result of “architects” and “designers” whose mothers didn’t love them enough when they were growing up.

    It may seem stick-in-the-muddish, but design for public architecture, large buildings, concert halls, museums, etc. pretty much died in the 1930s. Art Deco was the last gasp and visually and spiritually engaging work has since only fought off the assault of “International Style” (think 6th Avenue in NYC) and boring cold rectilinearism here and there across the globe. Think of I.M. Pei’s silly glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. I thought the French knew better than that.

    Contrarily, I love the International Forum in Marunouchi, but I’m pretty sure Frank Gehry ought to be in prison for everything he’s done over the last 20 years or so.

    Here and there in the major cities of Japan you’ll see some great buildings from the Taisho and Meiji eras that escaped either the Great Kanto Earthquake and/or WWII.

    This is prehaps the most famous example that sort of escaped complete ruin and obscurity.

    • says

      Yes, the International Forum is definitely an exception. A truly fascinating structure. Was there one time during graduation time. The mix of the building and colorful kimonos was a heady one to say the least.

      This Frank Lloyd Wright structure has survived too. The Jiyu Gakuen Girls’ School. Visited it once but unfortunately there was a wedding on, so we couldn’t go inside. A lovely little oasis though.

  5. says

    Oh no! That has to be one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen! I would love to see the capsules replaced, as intended. Honestly, I’d love to stay there for a while and feel like a space person if I weren’t so afraid of it toppling from neglect. :(

    • says

      Yeah, it’s pretty unique Lizzy. There’s no doubt that it’s looking worse for wear — especially so when one sees how it looked when it was built. ButI agree, it’d be a real shame to see it go.

      It seems to drainage, wiring and general neglect that seem to the main problems. Structurally I’m sure it’s sound. But despite those problems, I’d like to do the same, albeit for only a short time. Just enough to experience it.

  6. says

    Four tensioned bolts? Bloody hell, I’d be crapping myself walking round in there, never mind going in one of the capsules themselves.

  7. says

    Hahaha, so you were not stopped this time? Did they stop monitoring the building as well? I really thought that it would be in a better state inside. Now I don’t think they will do here what they did with the New Sky Building, renovation doesn’t seem to be an option anymore :(

    • says

      I’ve never actually tried before, as I’ve heard of so many people getting stopped. My plan was to just go in and ask, even though I knew security would say no. But as I entered, he had his back turned, so I dashed up the stairs.

      To be honest, I expected worse — I’ve heard some real horror stories. But yeah, I think the cost of renovation would be way too much. Really can’t see it happening.

  8. says

    Wow what unique piece of architecture and such an interesting concept. It’s a shame that buildings like these don’t always work out to the architects vision. It’s sad to see something that was once seen as so out there and modernist to start to fall into decay. Initially I thought this was going to be a Haikyo post so I was surprised to see all those shoes outside the doors! I love the fact that you can see the resident’s belongings, makes you realise that despite how identical each capsule is, the residents themselves are very individual. I can’t believe how small those capusles are, it’s fine if they were hotel rooms but to me, it seems crazy that the few people that still live in this building call these capsules home.

    • says

      Yes, it’s an interesting place for sure Winnie. And like you say, made all the more intriguing by the glimpses into the lives of its residents.

      From what I’ve read, the capsules weren’t necessarily designed as homes, more as a second home if you will for people who lived outside the city and didn’t want to commute during the week. Whether that was or is the case I don’t know, but while I’d like to try one out for a week, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do it every week.

  9. says

    This really blew my mind. People actually seem to be settled and living in there permanently, not using it like temporary living quarters during the work week and returning to their real homes on weekends. The building looked creepy in your photos. It looked more haunted than inhabited.

    • says

      Yes, it certainly seems that way. I’d definitely like to know what it’s like to live there. Couldn’t imagine doing it full-time though.

      That’s interesting. I felt a little uneasy there, but only because I shouldn’t have been on the premises. It’s a little odd inside, yes, but I didn’t really find it creepy.

  10. says

    Oh, wow, great photos! This building has always fascinated me, really interesting to see the interior.

    • says

      Cheers! I’ve always been fascinated by it too, so it was a real treat to actually get inside. Even better would have been to go in an actual capsule though…

  11. R says

    The building needs to go. I agree its an architectural masterpiece, but people are getting too obsessed with material objects that really have no value. Keeping this building will be like architecture hoarding.

    • says

      It’s good to hear a different opinion. And that’s a very good point. In may ways it’s arguably becoming a bit of an eyesore too, as it becomes increasingly more neglected looking.

      Personally though I have a real soft spot for it. But it will go, there’s no doubt about that.

  12. says

    Hi Lee, I am flying to tokyo soon and would like to pay a visit here. Could you access the building freely ?

    • says

      No, there is security in the reception/entrance area. I was lucky in that just as I walked in, the guard momentarily had his back turned.

  13. frederick a lee says

    The possible loss of the Nakagin Capsule Tower would be as mournful to Tokyo as was the demolition of the FLW Imperial Hotel.
    Here is what could be done to save it:
    The structure must be declared a national landmark. The landmark designation would allow transfer air-right development FAR to adjacent properties.
    The owners of the individual capsules would be encouraged to sell them or enlist them collectively as a vacation hoomes by owner rental operation (e.g. that would attract an international tourist base.

  14. Joshua Hrouda says

    Reel-to-reel tape player?! Wow’ that’s really old school! Even when this building was being made, Compact Cassettes were already in use and popular. It’s quite kitsch to put a reel2reel player in each capsule.
    How were you meant to watch TV at a good viewing angle ? Standing up?
    I’d like to see some photos of the bathroom. Is there a laundry which tennants can share the use of?
    Can anyone get access to the high tensile bolts that hold the capsules to the tower? I’d like to see the size of them. Is that a cover for a bolt/nut in the right of the photo featuring the black & white suitcase and a few umbrellas ?

    I’d like to see the building heritage listed and renovated (partially) to modern standards. I’d like the
    charm of (some of) the original capsules
    to be preserved even down to the rain & dirt stains on the outsides.

    Thanks for your article and photos. When I can save up enough money to fly to Japan, I’ll have this building first on my list of things to do. If it still stands!!

    • says

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      Afraid I can’t answer any of your questions. My visit was a brief was as I’d dodged security so had to be careful. So any thorough exploration wasn’t possible. I also don’t know anything about it’s construction/design either, so can’t help there either.

      But likewise I’d like to see it preserved. Sadly can’t see it happening though. It has just deteriorated too much. The cost would be absolutely astronomical. A real shame…

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