Noritaka Minami; Essays by Julian Rose and Ken Yoshida
Kehrer Verlag, December 2015
Paperback | 9-1/2 x 11 inches | 100 pages | 55 illustrations | English | ISBN: 9783868285482 | $45.00
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.
Noritaka Minami is an artist based in Chicago. He received an M.F.A. in Studio Art from University of California, Irvine and a B.A. in Art Practice from University of California, Berkeley. He is currently an Associate Professor of Photography at Loyola University Chicago. Julian Rose is senior editor of Artforum and a founding principal of the design studio Formlessfinder. Ken Yoshida is assistant professor of visual culture in the Global Arts Studies Program at the University of California, Merced.
If it still stands, Kisho Kurokawa's iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower will turn fifty next year. This "if" arises from the ongoing threats of the Tokyo tower's demolition, which sprang from the sale of the land underneath it in 2018 and came to a head a few weeks ago, when owners of some of the building's 140 capsules (many are empty) "voted in favor to sell off the building and land leasehold rights." This news pretty much seals the fate of the tower, since a developer would have to pay approximately $1 million per capsule to fix them — and there's no sign that one is willing to do that rather than demolish and build something else. Although Kurosawa designed the building as two vertical cores with plug-in, prefabricated capsules that could easily be removed, moved, and repaired as needed and as wished, none of them have ever been detached from the cores, none of them have ever been repaired. The future, as imagined by the Metabolists in the late 1960s, has become a decrepit past, in one of Metabolism's few built iterations.
The recent news of Nakagin Capsule Tower's imminent demolition pushed me to purchase 1972 by Noritaka Minami. The book is a photographic documentation of the tower and around a dozen of the capsule's interiors between 2010 and 2013. For sure the building deserves a book-length case study on its design, construction, history, evolution, and eventual demolition, but in the meantime 1972 will have to suffice — as an excellent snapshot of Nakagin Capsule Tower at the beginning of its fourth decade. If the two gatefolds among the book's 55 photographs are any indication, the building was equal parts empty and in ruins: the first gatefold shows what appears to be a recently gutted unit, its custom casework ripped out and new wood flooring put down; the second shows a capsule with unhealthy amounts of mold, a collapsed ceiling, and an AC unit barely hanging on. Anyone looking at just the latter would no doubt come to the conclusion that this building needs to come down, although in theory the offending capsule could be removed without affecting the rest of the building.
What about the rest of the photographs, the 49 that aren't in those two gatefolds? They reveal a lot of variation between the two poles of emptiness and ruin. Some capsules, such as the one that wraps around the front and back covers, have the original casework, a feature that now looks like a distant past's idea of the future, one that has been superseded in the intervening years. Built-in TVs, radios, and other electronics reinforce the anachronistic nature of the capsule's built-ins. Most of the capsules appear to have had the built-ins removed, with desks, shelves, and other furniture taking their place. What is constant in the capsules are the round windows, always in the center of Minami's photos but never in exactly the same place, a result of the tripod navigating the unique living circumstances of each capsule, something pointed out in Julian Rose's illuminating essay.
Ken Yoshida's essay, a less architectural take than Rose's, is nevertheless informative, revealing, for example, that the outer layer of the windows don't open because they were designed to be removed only by firemen in the event of a fire. That the few remaining residents of Nakagin Capsule Tower cannot open their windows fully for natural ventilation means they crack open their doors to the core to get some air, a fact revealed in a few of Minami's photos. Some of the most interesting images are actually those of the core, where the owner's possession spill over, bags and buckets catch leaks and AC condensation, and curtains provide privacy while the doors are open. Although we never see the residents, we "see" them through their possessions inside and outside the tea room-sized capsules. As such, Minami's photos capture Kurosawa's intent to enable individuality in the midst of mass production and urbanity. The building's demolition will be a loss to an idea that didn't have the influence it arguably should have.