The Nakagin Capsule Hotel has become synonymous with pragmatic Japanese architecture. (Getty Images)
The Nakagin Capsule Hotel in Tokyo opened in 1972, combining notions of futuristic existence with Japanese economic efficiency.
The idea of sleeping in a pod originally captured people’s imagination in the 1960s. It brought to mind space travel and settling on distant planets.
(Blueprint for Living)
Arguably, there’s no better example of podmania than the Nakagin Capsule Hotel, which rises up on a city street like a bizarre stack of boxes.
It hinted at a future where buildings would all be made of plug-in components, and yet there’s a distinct hint of the past.
Tokyo is famous for its lack of space and the Japanese are well-known for their ability to create simple but inventive living areas filled with clever storage.
To some, the capsule hotel seemed quite sensible. Each 4-by-2.5-metre capsule held a mattress, with a wall kitted out with various nooks and even a sound system.
Many in the West found the prospect of a capsule hotel room dehumanising. (Flickr.com: Yohmi CC-BY-NC-2.0)
A large round window gave the room a particular space-age quality. A bathroom module moulded in one piece completed the capsule, which was then bolted to one of two central cores.
It was an attempt to provide cheap crash pads for the city workers, or salarymen, of the financial district — who would otherwise have to trek home to the outer suburbs after a late night.
It was also a fabulous exercise in prefabrication.
The idea of prefabrication had been a dream of many architects since the early 1900s, who wanted to reduce everything to its basics. They thought that buildings could be created like cars on a production line.
Capsule hotels were attractive for businessmen wanting to stay out late after work. (Flickr.com: chrisada CC-0)
This machine-made aesthetic came to a head in the 1960s, with furniture designers creating injection moulded chairs.
Verner Panton designed an upholstered lounging module called the Living Tower, which looks rather like one of those carpeted play towers people buy for cats.
Film makers adored the Nakagin Capsule Hotel for its futuristic look, but while it caught the world’s attention when it opened in 1972, it didn’t exactly catch on.
Many were appalled by the idea of reducing humanity to faceless items to be stored in pods.
Its architect, Kisho Kurokawa, went on to design streamlined but more conventional-looking buildings, including two in Australia, with the Central Plaza One in Brisbane and the Melbourne Central building both displaying a sharp style with no hint of the capsule in evidence.
As for the Nakagin Capsule Hotel, ageing structural issues and its valuable location have placed the building under threat of demolition several times.
It is a wonder simply because it made such a virtue of its prefabrication, although it’s quite normal today for hotels and office buildings to be constructed from prefabricated modules.
Yet it remains an important icon of Japanese modernity and invention. And it shows, as the best architecture always will, that there are many different ways of thinking outside the box. Even with boxes.