Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nakagin Capsule Tower: Egospheres, One-Room Mansions

The idea of constructing one’s own identity in the age of the liberalized individual supposes that the affects on the way one structures one’s own living environment is no different. In “Cell Block, Egospheres, Self-Containers”, Peter Sloterdijk introduces a concept that the contemporary subject in his or her subjectivity inhabits a condition of “connected isolations”, where the notion of a “public” is no longer a given. The general increase of privatization, coupled with personal accumulation of expendable capital, creates a scenario where the individual can cater to his or her every desire in an exclusive, inoculated space – the one-room apartment or 'egosphere' [1]. The basic one-cell unit becomes the irreducible atom of which a larger modularity comes to construct contemporary built-society. It fosters all the life-needs of an individual; an occupant truly can fall under the illusion of self-sustainability, only until the reminders of the collective “connected isolation” is recalled when noise, both audio and visual, or failures in the life-support system breaks the illusion that one is immunized from all outside problems, influences, and agencies [2].

[Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, photo from last week]

Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower epitomized the emerging precedent of the one-cell unit, a prototype of a new way of living in Japan, an alternate future not taken but still alive in other ways [3]. The 1960’s post-war economic boom transformed the concept and spatialization of the typical Japanese family: the role of the cha no ma, or living room, as the space where the family gathered around the kotatsu, or low heated-table, changed to being centered around an attention to the new warm glow of the television, which dissuaded typical family conversation [4]. The 1970s produced a new set of ideas of urban living, from the Japanese avant-garde movement of the Metabolists, post-war pre-Bubble visionaries that actualized the architectural ideas that their British-counterparts, Archigram, only drew, exhibited, talked about, and would have remained as “theoretical musings of science fiction” [5]. The Metabolists’ idea of the city was that it was a living, evolving organism – an advanced technological infrastructure to plug into, such as with the Nakagin Capsule Tower. The urban nomad, the new homo movens, would have the potential to break entirely from the traditional Japanese set of family values, to connect, or as with the Nakagin apartment units, literally plug-in to a whole new system of actions and engagements, which made the traditional concept of family or local community less desirable or outmoded, if not obsolete [6]. As a virtual-physical programmatically hybrid space, it was the simultaneous symptom and solution to the increasing trend of the Japanese single-male egosphere: the one-room mansions supplemented with conbini, or neighborhood convenient stores for all one’s living-needs, and the development of capsule hotels, love hotels, manga kissa, and karaoke parlors [7].

The traditional idea of the typical Japanese family ceases to exist. The falling marriage- and birthrate, coupled with a rising aged-population and one of the highest suicide rates amongst developed countries substantiates a plethora of contemporary Japanese social phenomena: the white-collar single-male salary man outnumbers the family man father, who would now spend long hours at the office, and who’s patriarchal influence has been supplanted by the T.V and the computer. The dutiful housewife is instead replaced by the single-female 'parasite single', living with her parents an unattached life of capricious consumerism and comfort [8]. Children immerse themselves in the virtual worlds of video games, skipping their after-school entry exam cram classes, and preemptively rejecting the way of life accepted by their parents’ generation [9]. Hikikomori would be an extreme of these social phenomena; shut-ins who essentially enter their room (during the time that they are usually living with their parents as teenagers), and decide not to come out for an indefinite period of time [10].

Though locked into their egospheres, hikikomori have the ability to remain in touch with culture and society through the Internet. Media becomes the mediator to the outside in the single-apartment or any egospherical derivation, creating a situation where in ontic space, the shut-in is alone, but in the virtual, he or she becomes a charismahiki – a celebrity hikikomori with an online following [11]. “(Media) ensures that the cell, dependably fulfilling its defensive functions as an insulator, an immune system, a dispenser of comfort, and a source of distance, remains a worldly space.” [12] The space occupied in-between reality and online, become the extended egosphere. Cyberspace becomes a liminal space of technology and egos, merging the electronic and the biological with other machines and beings, creating a network of virtual communities of individuals.

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[Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, photos: César Cedano]

In the lifestyle of the immersive egosphere, media tends to privatize space: as with cell phones or portable music players, where their deployment in the public brought greater agency and freedom to its user through allowing one to converse in public places on a cell phone to another individual who is physically absent in the same space, simultaneously creates a homogenized void of ubiquitous one-sided monologues, where once potentially the conversation was traditionally always directed to other people who were present. As a result, the public zone becomes privatized into the individualized-catering of what the user wants to hear and say, without having to deal or acknowledge the spatial, atmospheric, and temporal qualities of the site [13]. A “private” media (single-player video game, iPod, etc.) enjoyed alone in the realm of the single-apartment, family room, or subway car, for better or worse, does not have to negotiate with others, in comparison to the “communal” nature of television, where, also for better or worse, an entire family sat together around the set in a shared room to watch the program.

What architects are facing, in Japan or otherwise, is a growing competition in defining and designing what is “contemporary urbanity”, which has been claimed more and more by the advent of instant virtual communication in an increasingly shrinking atomized spatial physicality. Still, the Metabolist understanding of the city serves as a reminder to today; that the city is an ever-changing organism, to which the architecture is part of an infrastructure that adapts to dynamic needs of its occupants. Nakagin Capsule Tower shows of how identity and lifestyle causally shift with the changing economics and technology, which ultimately collapses into meaning “commercialized choice”, leaving the spatial possibilities of ‘now’ to be ‘later’ as always something yet to be desired; architecture will persist as material evidence of lifestyles that are not yet synonymous with manufactured desires for things or objects, but with individuals and households in a politics of identity in search of itself, attempting to reconcile the various conditions of living in a reflexive modernity.

[1] Sloterdijk, Peter. “Cell Block, Egospheres, Self-Containers.” Trans. D. Fabricius. Log 10, Summer/Fall 2007. 89
[2] Ibid., 92
[3] Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Future Vision Banished to the Past”. New York Times. 6 July, 2009. Available:, Retrieved: 6 July, 2009
[4] Suzuki, Akira. Do Android Crows Fly Over the Skies of an Electronic Tokyo?: The Interactive Urban Landscape of Japan. London: AA Publications, 2004. 19
[5] Stewart, David. The Making of a Modern Japanese Architecture. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1987. 177
[6] Suzuki, 19
[7] Almazán, Jorge and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. “Tokyo Public Space Networks at the Intersection of the Commercial and the Domestic Realms Study on Dividual Space”. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, November 2006, Issue 308, 301
[8] Tamamoto, Masaru. “Japan’s Crisis of the Mind”. New York Times. 1 March, 2009. Available:, Retrieved: 2 May, 2009
[9] Suzuki, 26
[10] Daniell, Thomas. After the Crash: Architecture in Post-Bubble Japan. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. 68
[11] “Space Odyssey”, On The Media. 30 May, 2008. Available:, Retrieved: 10 May, 2009
[12] Sloterdijk, 102
[13] Sloterdijk, 103

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