Words by Tony Whitehead
It is hard for even the most adaptable building to remain relevant indefinitely, particularly when the populations around them move and grow, and their locations take on new identities. Designers have always had a paradox to resolve: buildings tend to remain static in cities and societies that change constantly.
Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower was an attempt to solve this puzzle by creating the ultimate flexible building. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, its extraordinary design was born out of Japanese Metabolism, an architectural movement which, ahead of its time perhaps, viewed cities as organic, growing entities that required similarly dynamic buildings. The Capsule Tower was conceived with its concrete core acting like the trunk of a tree, and interchangeable modules sprouting like branches to provide a variety of functions: bedroom capsule, office capsule and so on.
It proved a heroic failure. No capsules were ever exchanged because it was simply too difficult to remove and replace them. Ironically, the tower’s continuing existence owes more to fondness for its distinctively dated appearance than its ability to change with the times.
The ultimate flexible building
Half a century later, modular building is now much refined and almost commonplace, each factory-finished unit usually forming a complete room that can simply be craned into place. It is a rapid, quality-assured type of construction that has proven ideal for creating hotels, student accommodation and more — but adaptability would still not appear to be its strong suit. As Kristian Ahlmark at Schmidt Hammer Lassen and WSP’s Audrey McIver point out, modules lack the long spans and open spaces that most designers agree are vital for future reconfigurations. Services, too, tend to be module-specific and tightly integrated into each unit, making them difficult to modify or replace.