Interview on IE9 - Mar 2020

[Translated from German Text] 

The Nakagin Capsule Tower: once a residential utopia, today it is a candidate for demolition

In the middle of Tokyo is a building that looks as if it came from another time or dimension. The Nakagin Capsule Tower consists of huge capsules that are docked to two high towers. It was once an example of a new way of building. Today, however, it has come down and threatens to be torn down. However, there are people who are struggling to preserve the futuristic architectural relic.

By Michael Förtsch

Shyue Woon is an architect, photographer and lives in Singapore. With Dark Cities, he has designed a trilogy of photo books that are devoted to the otherwise often unnoticed and unseen parts of a city - and tell a story “from the perspective of cities”. For the first volume Carpark, he documented parking garages in Singapore.

In the second volume Capsule, he explored the Nakagin Capsule Tower and combined the images with a story about its architect, Kisho Kurokawa, who lost himself in his own creation. For the third volume, the architect researches Euljiro, one of the oldest districts of the Korean city of Seoul - and above all its winding side streets, in which one can lose between the modern and the past.

The Japanese capital Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world - and one of the most densely built-up areas. In the megacity, high-rise buildings are crowded. In some places, there are only gaps of a few arm lengths between the dozen-meter high residential and business towers. In many cases, they are uniform buildings made of concrete and glass, which are neither conspicuous nor remembered. But in the middle of the Shinbashi neighborhood in the Ginza district there is a building that is hard to miss. It is just a few hundred meters from the Hama Imperial Garden and right on the busy Tokyo Expressway, which cuts through the center of the metropolis. The Nakagin Capsule Tower is a building like no other. Because it looks as if it had been transported directly from a future cyberpunk world like Blade Runner or Altered Carbon to the present.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower rises 54 meters and consists of 140 individual capsules, which are distributed over a two-storey base structure, partly in parallel, partly offset against each other, on 12 floors. Each of these 2.3 meter high, 3.8 meter wide and 2.1 meter long modules consists of robust iron plates and is equipped with a round window. They give the tower its distinctive washing machine look. The compartments docked onto two central reinforced concrete cores of the tower offer just enough space for a small apartment with a separate bathroom, a permanently installed cupboard with a cooling compartment, a fold-out desk, a bed or a sofa. Nothing more - actually. Because the peculiar tower has never been used as it was intended since its completion in 1978.

Unused opportunities

The architect Kishō Kurokawa had the Capsule Tower for the real estate group Nakagin. Kurokawa was one of the founders of the Japanese architectural movement of metabolism. The core idea of ​​this type of architecture is that buildings and biological beings should go through a life cycle and related developments in order to adapt flexibly to their environment. You should be able to have parts replaced and replaced with new parts when necessary. As a result, buildings should be able to grow, change and change their way of functioning and use.

Kurokawa wanted to implement exactly this vision with the Capsule Tower - and did so without compromise. Already that he had the opportunity to do so borders on a miracle. The project coincided with the phase of the Japanese economy in which construction companies were ready to accept such unconventional ideas. 

"The tower was built in the 1970s and thus in the era of the Japanese bubble," explains Shyue Woon in an interview with 1E9. He works as an architect himself, has worked for architectural firms such as that of Michael Hopkins and Norman Foster and is now involved in the planning of large-scale projects. But he also works as a photographer and shot the Capsule Tower for the second volume of his photo book-set Dark Cities Trilogy.

Other buildings that count towards metabolism were also implemented. But the architects always had to make concessions and sacrifice core ideas of the architectural movement. "The Nakagin Capsule Tower is one of the few projects that are true to the metabolism manifesto," says Woon. Because: The modules that make it up are flexible. They could be lifted from the anchoring on the reinforced concrete cores of the building after loosening screw elements. This idea was to revolutionise housing construction - that was at least one of Kurokawa's hopes.

One of the advantages: “The modular design made it possible to pull up the entire building in just 30 days,” says Woon. The other: The capsules should be exchangeable for new capsules in the event of damage. But they could also have been moved and combined. Kurokawa believed that his tower would initially be used by people who work in Tokyo and can only go home on weekends. Or by employees and students from the nearby university.

If this changes, the plan says, for example, individual capsules could be coupled to large apartments. For example, when two lovers meet in the tower and start a family, which then needs more space. It should also be possible to convert several capsules into a restaurant or café or an office floor.

But that never happened. Because the capsules were sold individually by the client and rose rapidly in price with the increasingly limited living space and the ever-increasing property values in Tokyo. If a capsule was offered for up to € 44,000 from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, it was traded for up to € 235,000 in the early 1990s. Even today, almost all capsules are privately owned - and, if at all, are not sold for less than 16,000 euros. The tower and many of the capsules are in poor condition today.

A relic from the futureThe architect Kishō Kurokawa had the Nakagin Capsule Tower in mind as a building that could be used and inhabited forever thanks to its exchangeable modules. However, there have been hardly any renovation efforts over the decades. Many of the modules have suffered major and minor damage from rain and rust. Above all, there are leaks in the seals that connect the capsules to the towers. Water and electricity connections are often outdated. The exhaust gases from the passing vehicles also left a patina made of soot, which turned the once shimmering capsules gray and drew dirty streaks. Not one of the modules has ever been replaced.

Anyone who, like Shyue Woon, explores the tower inside will see, the doors of which have been blocked with plastic sheeting, buckets that catch water from dripping cracks, moldy rubber seals, provisionally laid pipes and concrete walls on which condensation collects. "The inside of the tower smells musty, the rust is visible almost everywhere," says the architect. Entering the tower is therefore like entering an "alternative universe", "in which everyday life mixes with a [crumbling] future". This is also why he wanted to capture the tower for his book Capsule with the camera.

Despite its numerous damages, the tower is still inhabited. If only by around a dozen people. A majority of the owner's company voted for a demolition in 2007. But the real estate crisis that started the following year stopped plans. Since then, the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preserve and Restoration Project has organized a group that is committed to the maintenance and the actually uneconomical renovation of the tower. These include current residents of the tower, but also architects, conservationists and art and culture lovers.

Demolition or renovation?

Under the banner of the Nakagin Capsule Tower Preserve and Restoration Project and with donations, several capsules have been extensively restored and made habitable again for a few years. Some of them were equipped with an interior that was true to the original, while others were furnished with modern interiors. 

The Nakagin Capsule Tower and Preserve Restoration Project hopes to bring some of the capsules to new and passionate owners and convince existing owners from fighting for preservation of the tower. Because more than half of the owner votes are necessary to vote for a complete renovation of the tower and against its demolition. Efforts to have the Nakagin Capsule Tower recognized as a cultural heritage and architectural monument also exist. Shyue Woon is convinced that this would be justified. In his view, "the fully upgradeable modular design was way ahead of its time" and should therefore be preserved today. So far, however, the fate of the Nakagin Capsule Tower is still uncertain.

Making Personal Projects Ep.1: Shyue Woon

By IPA (Invisible Photographer Asia)

European Photography Issue 104 · EULJIRO

What inspires you?
[SW]  My photography is inspired by Guy Debord’s “psychogeography” – to investigate subtext on emotion and behavior in geographical environments and to create a new awareness of urban landscape.

How would you characterize yourself in one word?
[SW]  Invisible.

Are you a more introverted or extroverted person? 
[SW]  I am a reserved introvert. I prefer to operate at a slower pace and to thinkbefore I speak or act.

Why did you choose Seoul for this project?
[SW]  I spent a few months planning and researching for a potential photo projecton the World Capital of Plastic Surgery in Gangnam, Seoul. When I arrived inSeoul, I discovered that, by pure coincidence, my hotel was located on theperiphery of Euljiro. The place spoke to my soul, and so I immediately started exploring the area. 

How many times and how long did you visit Seoul for this project?
[SW]  During my two-week stay in Euljiro, I photographed twice a day, at dawn andat midnight – before the place wakes up and before it goes back to sleepagain. During the day, I visited libraries and architectural offices to research Euljiro’s history and future. In the evenings, I had discussion and debateswith local friends, conducted workshops, and made proposals on reviving Euljiro. 

What was your most striking discovery or experience in Seoul
[SW]  One (or more) coffee shop at every street corner – and good coffee. As anoutsider, Seoul was a delirium: full of contradictions, restless, and in constant flux. In contrast, Euljiro is an urban refuge, long forgotten by thelocals. Rachel Ng, an art historian and archaeologist of East Asia at theKorea University in Seoul and essayist for my photobook Euljiro, also sharesthe same entiment.

Are you a more perceptual or a more conceptual type?
[SW]  Perceptual in my photographic practice, to balance my more conceptualarchitectural works. 

How do you finance your photographic projects?
[SW]  Self-interest drives me to invest in personal projects – to be intelligible isone’s greatest asset/reward.

Photoworld Issue Feb 2019  · DARK CITIES TRILOGY

How many years did you spent on DARK CITIES? And how many photos did you take for the project?
[SW]  Dark Cities Trilogy started in 2014 and published 2018. Each book has about 40-50 photos, about 150 for entire series. For each project, I will experiment with the photographic language and subject matter, lost count how many photos I took for entire process.

It was like a subjective trip look at the DARK CITIES trilogy, started from the underground through a pipeline and reached the ground surface. I’ve seen many details in this journey, which reflect the relationship between people and the city spaces. Was it accidental for you to choose the spaces to shoot? What is the internal logic among the three spaces? What attracts you most in each of the three spaces?
[SW]  The stories from Dark Cities were told from cities’ perspective, rather than from occupant’s perspective, as in most architectural photography. Where possible, I striped away the physical human presences and focus on the emotion of the spaces created / left by the occupants. The subject matter selection process is very organic, the spaces need to “speak” to me, or I can have a “dialogue” with the space. During the shooting, there may be many possible open treads for the story, I will select a frame that I feel “therapeutic” and heighten my awareness of the surroundings. It’s also a reflection of my reserved introvert personality. I prefer to operate at a slower pace and to think before I speak or act.

Does the architect's background affect the way you observe the city space? How would you define the "city space"? How does it affect the people’s living in it?
[SW]  A city is intricate and complicated like organs in human body - it’s the sum of the buildings and its occupants that make up a city. I studied urban design as part of my architectural degree, it’s ingrained in my architectural projects and how I see the world. A city’s identity is formed by many factors such as function, economic, social, political and culture, and it’s always in fluid. The book title also make reference to a similar titled movie directed by Alex Proyas in 1998, the movie is a retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where the city dwellers are prisoners who do not realize they are in a prison. In the movie, the aliens control the human inhabitants and remakes the city every night based on inhabitants’ memories.

Most of your works were shoot in the night and covered a wide range of subjects. What attracts you to shoot at night?
[SW]  In practical terms, I started shooting only at night - as it’s my only free time after my long office hours. Also, there is less people on the street and cooler temperature. Photographically, one had to heighten his/her sense as everything is less obvious at night. Philosophically, like a moth to a flame, night photography is an exercise in optimistic and pessimistic view of the world.

In your opinion, will the cities bring us different feeling of space in the day and the night? 
[SW]  Human needs sleep, and when we sleep, we dream about being human. Cities are like human, they also need to dream. 

Are you working on new project at present? 
[SW]  I just started a family and it’s been a very fulfilling experiences. I’d like to see how it’ll influence the way I work. Currently I don’t feel ready to embark on any new project.


As an architect, your job is to construct, restore or conserve but for your personal photography work, you are 'motivated by fringe spaces' most of which have seen better days. What draws you to these spaces?
[SW]  Dark Cities was partly inspired by the film “Dark City” 1998 by Alex Proyas, the main theme for the film is what is it that makes us who we are. The film is set in a indeterminate era, placed on an enormous flat-shaped space habitat, the stranger controls the inhabitants of “Dark City” and remake the world based on childhood memories.

Perhaps I see Dark Cities as an extension of the film, a retelling of the world around you might not be real, best descripted by the fringe spaces within modern constructed urban centres and megacities. My job as an Architect maybe relate to the Strangers, which manipulate humans for higher agenda for my clients, hence my curiosity about how built environments and their utility gets subverted over time.

For your series car park, you describe the space as Purgatory, which is a rather interesting description of an innocuous space. Can you elaborate on that and how do you about depicting that in your photographs?
[SW]  Car Park was carried out under the IPA mentorship programme. During the first two months of the mentorship I was instructed to focus on car parks, a subject I briefly touched from my previous studies on fringe spaces. My initial plan was to photograph car park as a transient place; but the deeper I investigated, the more I realised some people have adopt the car park as their private parallel universe. I followed the trace of their existences and asked myself why did they left their markings and kept extending their stay in car park, my photographs tries to re-create an fiction which processes the same characters as it represents, a metaphor for Purgatory.

“We need the excuse of a fiction to stage what we truly are” Slavoj Zizek

You also did a series on the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. Besides the obvious gorgeousness, what drew you to the tower? How did you go about making your photographs? Did you have access to the apartments etc?
[SW]  I’ve always been a close follower of Kisho Kurokawa’s work, naturally, Nakagin Tower has become the architectural pilgrimage during my visit to Tokyo. Many other architects also tries to visit the Nakagin Tower and the building management had put up a strict no visitor policy. 

On my first trip to Tokyo I didn’t manage to get pass the security desk – which made me more curious due to it’s inaccessibility. For next 3 months I planned meticulously and finally through a a friend, I managed to get a rented office unit in the tower for a short week.

As I’ve read Kisho Kurokawa writings and visited his buildings all over the world. I had this fictional idea for the project was to imagine myself as the Kisho Kurokawa himself visiting his early iconic project which has fallen to disrepair throughout the years. Through the photographs, I tried to recreate a mix of nostalgic and disappointments.

You mentioned that you did your architectural thesis on the Situationists. How is that relevant to your photography?
[SW]  I did my architectural thesis on redevelopment of 1950’s highway interchange based on Situationists idea of psychogeography with inventive strategies that “takes pedestrians off their predictable path and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape”. 

J G Ballard was also incorporated situationist in his literature, dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developemtns. 

The photographs are mostly devoid of people, and where they are present are seen through windows or caught in passing. Why is that?
[SW]  Even through my photos are mostly devoid of people, they provide the viewers clue to human presences. A good photograph to me is liken a scene from a movie, there’s are scene before and after, jus need to provide the viewer enough clue to make their own story.

Congratulations on your handmade photobook Dark Cities being awarded the best first draft award by The Book Show in Singapore. As your photographs do not follow a clear narrative, how did you go about editing the photographs for the book? 
[SW]  I find it hard to edit my own photos because I’m too attached to them. Carpark and Capsule are edited by Kevin WY Lee. It’s a non linear edit based on a narrative he/both of us created. I’ve also tried to attend as many photo editing classes and learn from my peers. As Kevin WY Lee said, “There are a million way to edit, but only one gut feeling”

Your photographs capture the mood of places more so than documentation. What are you going for?
[SW]  Like a actor’s job is to bring a scripted character to life, I see my role as bring a depth and emotion to the place in my photographs. Similar to Stanislavski’s acting technique, I asked myself some key questions before and after I press the shutter: who am I? where am I? when is it? Where have I just come from? What do I want? Why do I want it? etc

As this is a long-term project and the number of cities countless, what milestones or goals do you have in place to signal its end?
[SW]  When I continue the project for next chapter, my subject and shooting style may change, I gave myself an open brief and not to set any conclusion. In the end, it’s the viewer who decides.

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