The future once lived here. It died here.
The future once lived here. It died here. Fotofantastika/gettyimages.com

My most treasured works of science fiction from the 1970s are: "Discrete Music" by Brian Eno, "World on a Wire" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer, "Crash" by J.G. Ballard, "Kindred" by Octavia Butler, "Stalker" by Andrei Tarkovsky, "The Man-Machine" by Kraftwerk, and Nakagin Capsule Tower by Kisho Kurokawa.

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The last is one of the principle works of a movement in Japanese architecture, called Metabolism, that not too long ago briefly enjoyed renewed interest due to an exhibit/book co-curated/co-authored by a Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaus, whose launchpad into the near-airless realm of starchitect is found right in the middle of downtown Seattle, the Seattle Central Library. The Nakagin Capsule Tower, the kind of place you expect to find the fallen characters in a William Gibson novel, is in Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood.

In fact, I can think of no other building from this Japanese moment (1960s to 1970s) that really attempted to impose metabolism, as it's understood in standard biology, on a building. The architect, Kurokawa, saw each unit of his tower as a cell in a body. The living body constantly changes its composition as its appearance remains the same. Not long ago, for example, I ran into someone at the Clock-Out Lounge on Beacon Hill. I had not seen them for seven or so years. Once they removed their mask, I immediately recognized them, but the cells that made up their body were almost entirely different.

This kind of somatic transformation is metabolism according to the concept at the heart of the Nakagin Capsule Tower, whose 140 capsules (each tiny, each with a circular window, each with a bed and bathroom, each with a "kitchen stove and fridge, a telephone and Sony reel-to-deck recorder") were supposed to change every 25 years. The building was completed almost 50 years ago, and so its capsules were up for renewal. But that was not going to happen because the first renewal never happened.

Two days ago, a not too noisy part of social media freaked out because it looked like the long-threatened disassembly of the building began. The space the architectural experiment occupied during the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st would become something that makes more money.


And so it was just a sign that was removed. The tower is still there, still waiting for its futureless future.

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But here we see once again the future becoming a thing of the past. This was the key insight of J. G. Ballard's short story "The Dead Astronaut", and also why there was no futuristic time machine in Octavia Butler's Kindred. The Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed in the twilight of a future that's now destined for the museum.

Dezeen.com:

Tokyo's Nakagin Capsule Tower, the 20th-century metabolist landmark by architect Kisho Kurokawa, is set to be disassembled and donated to museums or turned into rental units.... A module is already on display at Japan's Museum of Modern Art Saitama and the Centre Pompidou in Paris is reportedly keen to acquire one for its collection.

"I'm going to reach out to architecture professor Ken Oshima at the UW," wrote Brenan Chambers in an email to me. "He is the author of the Arata Isozaki book, and [I want to] ask if Seattle is possibly in the running to adopt one [of the capsules]. I wish! Who knows."

Chambers, who is the technical director at the Northwest Film Forum, a fact that links with the fact of Kurokaw's marriage to a Japanese film star, Ayako Wakao (for me, there's a close connection between film and architecture), also made a moody video that perfectly captures the beauty of the future that the Nakagin Capsule Tower once promised.