Book Review 1972 By Noritaka Minami Reviewed by Blake Andrews As buildings go, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo has an impressive pedigree. Designed in 1972 by renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, and constructed quickly in a matter of weeks, Nagakin is the icon of Metabolism, the post-war Japanese Utopian architecture movement based on modular form, flexible use, and organic growth.
Reviewed by Blake Andrews
Photographs by Noritaka Minami. Texts by Noritaka Minami, Julian Rose, Ken Yoshida.
Kehrer Verlag, 2015. In English. 92 pp., 52 color illustrations, 9½x11".
As buildings go, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo has an impressive pedigree. Designed in 1972 by renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, and constructed quickly in a matter of weeks, Nagakin is the icon of Metabolism, the post-war Japanese Utopian architecture movement based on modular form, flexible use, and organic growth. When it was built, the Tower was conceived as the vanguard of similar futuristic buildings that would soon spread across Japan, ushering in a space age of clean, capsule living.
But history had other plans. For a variety of reasons Metabolism never caught on. Like so many other Utopian false starts, it became a dead end, not the mainstream. Today Nakagin Capsule Tower remains one of its few extant buildings. The Tower stands in disrepair in the shadow of sleek buildings that have sprouted nearby. It is more respected by architects than its few residents, who voted a few years ago in favor of its demolition. If you're not an architect it's tough to blame them. Each Nakagin unit is crammed into roughly 100 square feet, complete with 1970s built-in furnishings, and few upgrades performed over the past 43 years. They may have once been futuristic, but today they're marginally livable. "One has to wonder," as Ken Yoshida does, "whether the rectangular rooms with a lens-like circular window were meant to be inhabited or to be photographed."
1972, the recent book by photographer Noritaka Minami, puts that question to the test. Minami — Japanese born but living now in Chicago — began photographing the Tower in 2011 and devoted portions of the next four years to the project. The resulting photo series takes a typological approach. Minami depicts the living quarters inside several capsules with two adjoining photographs. One shows an interior wall, the other an exterior wall with its distinctive circular window framed dead-center. These windows are perhaps Nakagin's defining architectural motif, the central fact of each room around which the room's other material arranges itself in a myriad of ways. The view out is like the view out of a washing machine, or perhaps the large porthole of an urban ship, providing a surprising quantity of available light for the photographs.
Minami sprinkles photographs of the windows evenly over the course of the book, leveraging their uniform appearance to tie the series together nicely. Like any typology, these photos have a double-edged fascination. The viewer is entranced by the similarities from room to room, but also by the differences. Some rooms are bright, tidy, and inviting. Some are uninhabited and decrepit. Most fall somewhere in between.
In Mike Mandel's words, "Minami has shown us a metaphor of how we live in our own little cocoons, with our own little circular apertures trying to find meaning, freedom, and escape." Minami photographs these "cocoons" dispassionately, leaving the burden of judgment up to the viewer. It's in the handful of non-room shots where Minami's tips his editorial hand. The first comes early in the book, a double-paged exterior vista of the tower's water stained façade. The capsules appear cramped, grimy, and dehumanizing. A later shot of the building's ventilation shaft is congested and unwelcoming. Several photographs show hallways with dim artificial lighting, sometimes overflowing with personal items. These are not the sort of images you'd find in a Nakagin real estate brochure.
“I am interested in the capsules as containers of people’s worldly possessions and the traces of history that have accumulated,” Minami said recently in a BJP Interview. The decision to exclude people from these photographs was a smart choice. They convey quite a bit of information through personal ephemera, and people would likely complicate the message. In their absence the viewer faces the raw fact of the building and its use patterns. If those patterns prove wanting, one might again ask the question, who was this building intended for? For architects? Or residents? Only the latter use requires people, a view that Minami's photographs seem to affirm.
Minami's dystopian assessment is supported by the title: 1972, a name which cements the tower's status as living anachronism. One could imagine other possible names. "Nakagin Revisited," "The Towers Today" or "Metabolism Reconsidered." But 1972 is better, in one word rooting Nagakin's promise in a bygone era. As Julian Rose describes it, Nagakin "paradoxically evokes both Japans' postwar past and a future that never arrived." The photographs may have been made recently but the focus is retrospective. All these capsules were compartmentalized like space ships on the launch pad back in 1972, ready to blast off into the future. Yet today they're stuck in place with the same four bolts. It's still 1972.
The book 1972 was a while in the making. Minami made several visits to Japan over a few years to meet Nakagin residents and make photographs. He used large and medium format film cameras, a slow process. After circulating the series and developing online buzz, Sean Sullivan was brought on as book designer. The book was funded last April through Kickstarter and published in September. The book received a book award last year, albeit for architecture (a Dutch Architecture Museum award) not photography. That may be the main audience. Architecture and urban planning buffs will love this book. So will photographers.—BLAKE ANDREWS
BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.
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