Tokyo tower may be torn down as pod living palls

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The Independent Online

Inhabitants of the seminal and internationally celebrated Nagakin Capsule Tower in the upmarket Ginza district of Tokyo want it to be torn down and a new building erected. Their campaign pits the reality of life in a capsule measuring 4m by 2.5m against a designer's futuristic idealism.

The renowned architect, Kisho Kurokawa, created apartments with just one circular window, a built-in bed and bathroom unit and even a built-in calculator.

His landmark building went on to inspire hundreds of capsule hotels in Japanese city centres, which are often used by tipsy businessmen as a cheap and convenient alternative to heading home to wives and families after work. But for all its influence, and conveniences that were modern when it was built in 1972, the demolition campaigners complain that Mr Kurokawa's units are too difficult to maintain. Drainage and water pipes are damaged, and plans to unclip the capsules and refurbish them have never come to fruition. Residents are also afraid that asbestos used in construction poses a health risk.

Mr Kurokawa is resisting the pressure, but he believes the towerhas only a 50 per cent chance of survival. Local architects said the problem was that the building retains its striking appearance of stacked up boxes, which makes it a tourist attraction, but with time the capsules have become increasingly unpleasant to live in.

"One option is to destroy it completely, and one of the capsule residents would like to design a new building," Mr Kurokawa told the British architecture newspaperBuilding Design. "Others, including myself, would like to maintain the building to my design theory, and that means replacing the capsules. Every year I have proposed maintenance. In 33 years they didn't do this."

Under Mr Kurokawa's theory of allowing the building its own "metabolism", the units for offices, workshops and homes were designed to be detachable and replaceable during its lifetime. The Nagakin capsules were built in a factory and came with pre-assembled interiors. The capsules were hoisted into place by crane and hung off a concrete core from just four bolts. They have never been detached.

Mr Kurokawa argued that the presence of asbestos would make demolition dangerous, and said it would take only eight months to refurbish the units, as opposed to four years to design and build a replacement.

Its 140 units are so small and functional that they have been disparagingly compared to the interior of a Nasa space shuttle. But it remains a destination for tourists interested in design, particularly from Europe, where the Nagakin tower's principles are being championed. The British Government has argued that a modified version of this modular housing could help to meet housebuilding targets. Such is the demand to see the tower that a mock-up of one of the capsules is open to visitors.

The international heritage protection group Docomomo has pleaded unsuccessfully for the United Nations' heritage arm to protect the structure. The Japanese government, which has a reputation for paying close attention to the protection of buildings from the Edo era (1600-1867) but not its post-war heritage, has also declined to offer protection.