The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has acquired a rare and iconic preserved remnant of Japanese Metabolism, a mid-20th-century architectural movement inspired by nature. “Capsule A1302” (1972) is one of 23 preserved “Business Capsules” — prefabricated concrete housing micro-units — still in existence from the world-famous Nakagin Capsule Tower Building that once stood in Tokyo, Japan. Having stood in Tokyo’s Ginza district for 50 years, the structure was recently demolished starting in April of 2022 due to its neglect and state of disrepair.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower Building was considered the premium architectural example of the Metabolism movement, which was heavily rooted in biomimetics — a multidisciplinary field that aims to solve complex human problems through solutions that emulate natural, biological processes. Designed and constructed by Japanese Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa, the Nakagin building’s 13-floor, double-towered structure consisted of 140 self-contained concrete housing capsules that were marketed toward Japanese salarymen (dedicated white-collar workers with notoriously long working hours) as a home away from home. Each unit was outfitted with a kitchenette, sleeping quarters, a small office setup, and an airplane lavatory-sized bathroom.
Kurokawa designed the prefabricated capsules with mass production in mind and intended that they be replaced every 25 years, emulating the life cycle of cells in an organism. This modular theory embraced architectural impermanence and regeneration after the destruction from both World War II and natural disasters like earthquakes.
That concept never came to fruition, unfortunately, as the original capsules that were constructed and installed between 1970 and 1972 were never replaced. Over the passing decades, Nakagin fell into disarray as the concrete began to crumble, the amenities became outdated or defunct, and there was limited to no temperature control. Nakagin’s demise bared many similarities to that of its English counterpart, Alison and Peter Smithson’s concrete Robin Hood Gardens which were also completed in 1972 and eventually demolished.
Despite the capsule tower’s creeping demise, Nakagin tenant Tatsuyuki Maeda began preservation efforts for the iconic development through the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project in 2014 with the hope of replacing some of the pods. Sadly, Maeda’s efforts only prolonged the inevitable until mid-2022, when the remaining tenants voted to have the building demolished as a full restoration was prohibitively expensive and a majority of units had been totally abandoned. Nevertheless, with the help of Kisho Kurokawa Architect and Associates, Maeda was able to preserve 23 capsules for historical conservation with the intention of having them exhibited internationally.
In mid-May, SFMOMA was the first institution to acquire one of the restored capsules alongside nine archival photographs in Noritaka Minami’s 1972 (2010–2022) series that documented Nakagin’s interiors during its final years of existence.
According to the museum, “Capsule A1302” belonged to Kurokawa himself and stood at a premium location on the 13th floor. SFMOMA has not yet indicated what’s in store for “Capsule A1302,” but noted that this acquisition realized “the architect’s wish that the Capsules not remain fixed, but rather move to other locations.”