Oh Billiard Parlor Walls Come A Tumblin’ Down

July 25, 2009

japanese tower 2

I was saddened to read in the Times last week that Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower is slated for demolition and is only standing still because the depressed economy has delayed plans to replace it with something more “modern.”  The building is only 37 years old but has apparently not aged well.  Is this due to poor construction or to a lack of care on the part of its residents … and if the latter, is that poor maintenance a symptom of people’s dislike for its unusual form or merely of some general malaise; in other words, do we blame the building for its own state of disrepair?  Laying the issue of blame to one side, there is water dripping in the hallways and the place smells of mildew and the residents want it gone.  In America its easy to understand the argument that if the owners of an object tire of it, they are perfectly within their rights to throw it away and get something new and better.   And even though the building in question is not in America but in the heart of Tokyo there are very few voices calling for the preservation of a modern building, a building made from concrete blocks, a sky scraper that does not, as Sullivan recommended, look like a tree.  One of those voices is that of the architect himself.  Kurokawa is a name to conjure with but apparently even his pleading that they not knock down his buildings in his own life time counts for little with the people in question.  Architectural Record published a notice of the building’s sentence in April 2007 and is chillingly flip about the story:

“Kisho Kurokawa can’t seem to catch a break these days. Just days after the Japanese architect lost his bid for the governorship of Tokyo,  the Nakagin Capsule Tower, his best known building and one of the few built examples of the Metabolist movement, was given a date with the wrecking ball.”

Still, its hard to accuse.  The description provided by the Times article doesn’t appeal to me and who am I to say that others must choose to stay there merely to satisfy my obscure sense of architectural history.

“Inside, each apartment is as compact as a space capsule. A wall of appliances and cabinets is built into one side, including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a television and a tape deck. A bathroom unit, about the size of an airplane lavatory, is set into an opposite corner. A big porthole window dominates the far end of the room, with a bed tucked underneath.

“Part of the design’s appeal is voyeuristic. The portholes evoke gigantic peepholes. Their enormous size, coupled with the small scale of the rooms, exposes the entire apartment to the city outside. Many of the midlevel units look directly onto an elevated freeway, so you are almost face to face with people in passing cars. (On my first visit there, a tenant told me that during rush hour, drivers stuck in traffic often point or wave at residents.)”

japanese tower 1

Still, I want to make the argument that this building is history.  And as worthy (or more) of preservation than the endless mansions-turned-museums of the victorian industrial tycoons.  Why are we so eager to forget that we build our landscape out of concrete?  The real travesty isn’t the post war moderns, its the ticky tacky building going on right now – the strip malls made out of jiffy puff and aluminum two by fours and then veneered in brick.  In away I think this ties into an earlier post of mine about the power of myth and why we don’t set our fairy tales in modern buildings.  But right now I don’t feel like philosophizing about this … I just feel sad.

(If you’re curious to learn more about the Nakagin Towers, I recommend this infomative page on wikipedia.  However, my residual TA instinct forces me to point out that, if you happen to be writing a formal paper on the topic, such a site would not be an appropriate source.)

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One Response to “Oh Billiard Parlor Walls Come A Tumblin’ Down”

  1. mlj Says:

    Are you switching things around? I totally missed your post on dogs and Up, and I check this with regularity. Plus I could have swore this post was earlier than the geography one. . . It does look good, I just might be crazy!


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