Micro-apartments represent a seemingly straightforward antidote to persistent affordable housing shortages in dense growing cities: If the rent-per-square-foot is too damn high, why not lower the number of square feet?

They are having a renaissance lately, but there was another moment when tiny, modular apartments were proposed as the future of housing: post-war Japan.

That’s when a small group of architects came together under the banner of “Metabolism,” whose most notable, lasting work might be the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

“It was a new type of architecture that attempted to overcome the problems that plagued traditional urban planning,” says Noritaka Minami, a photographer who has studied and documented the tower.

Its 140 capsule units are very small--just over 100-square feet each--and very modular. The plan was to replace the “capsules” themselves every 25 years: a new, flexible way to accommodate the rising Japanese economy.

Today, Minami says half the occupied capsules are offices, and those used as apartments house young and old, men and women, functioning as everything from weekend second homes to cheap, primary housing.

Instead of becoming a model for construction (as hoped), it is the only building of its kind.

Despite the capsules’ small size, the unusual floorplan doesn’t actually maximize its use of space, and the experimental construction techniques make conventional maintenance tricky.

Life for capsule-dwellers has other challenges, too, as he discovered when he first visited the building in August of 2010. “There was a historic heatwave that was going through the city, and the particular capsule that I visited, the air conditioning was broken,” he says.

Not only that, the capsules’ striking porthole windows don’t open. “It was like a sauna inside."

2013-09-25

Co.Exist

These Photos Of Tiny, Futuristic Japanese Apartments Show How Micro Micro-Apartments Can Be

Micro-apartments are in vogue today. But in Japan, people have been living in the Nakagin Capsule Tower's 100-square-foot housing for decades.

Micro-apartments have been experiencing a renaissance of late. They represent a seemingly straightforward antidote to persistent affordable housing shortages in dense growing cities: If the rent-per-square-foot is too damn high, why not lower the number of square feet?

In New York City’s headline-grabbing example, apartments from 250 to 370 square feet are being built in the first multi-unit building in Manhattan to use modular construction. New Yorkers were recently allowed to sleep inside a prototype at a museum exhibition, whose director called it “a glimpse into the future of housing in our city.”

But there was another moment when tiny, modular apartments were proposed as the future of housing: post-war Japan. That’s when a small group of architects came together under the banner of “Metabolism,” whose most notable, lasting work might be the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

“It was a new type of architecture that attempted to overcome the problems that plagued traditional urban planning,” says Noritaka Minami, a photographer who has studied and documented the tower. Its 140 capsule units are very small--just over 100-square feet each--and very modular. The plan was to replace the “capsules” themselves every 25 years: a new, flexible way to accommodate the rising Japanese economy. “It had a very specific intent that it was going to serve a certain clientele: businessmen who needed an urban home during the week,” says Minami. “In a way, it didn’t necessarily follow his original intent.”

Today, Minami says half the occupied capsules are offices, and those used as apartments house young and old, men and women, functioning as everything from weekend second homes to cheap, primary housing. Instead of becoming a model for construction (as hoped), it is the only building of its kind. "By the time the building was finished in 1972, in many ways that historical moment had already passed," says Minami. The '60s were over, and Metabolism was no longer avant garde.

There are also good practical reasons for why there aren't more buildings made in the capsule-tower mold. Despite the capsules’ small size, the unusual floorplan doesn’t actually maximize its use of space, and the experimental construction techniques make conventional maintenance tricky. “It’s extremely difficult to repair the plumbing and service lines, because of the design: there’s nothing like it," says Minami.

Life for capsule-dwellers has other challenges, too, as he discovered when he first visited the building in August of 2010. “There was a historic heatwave that was going through the city, and the particular capsule that I visited, the air conditioning was broken,” he says. Not only that, the capsules’ striking porthole windows don’t open. “It was like a sauna inside.”

Check out New York's new, tiny apartments that were just approved by the city.

The spaces struck Minami as compressed, but also visually and historically dense. The first resident he visited had preserved the apartment just as it was in 1972, down to the plastic frame of the wall-embedded television (though the screen itself was new). Other residents didn’t care for the building’s history at all, and a majority has voted in favor of its demolition and replacement with a more conventional building.

Still, after years of demolition forestalled thanks to the financial crisis, it is still inhabited, and in a diversity of ways, as Minami's photos show. As much as it is a symbol of a moment in time, it’s also a working apartment building, and an example to micro-apartment builders everywhere. Or almost everywhere.

“This capsule tower may make sense even if you just transplanted it from Tokyo to New York or Williamsburg,” says Minami. “But can you imagine this being in Orange County?”

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29 Comments

  • I tried visiting a few times, most recently in 2012 (buildingmybento.com/2012/12/18/tokyo-nakagin-capsule/). Clearly, it wasn't meant to be. Metabolism probably inspired the "Arcos" of SimCity 2000 fame.

    However, Hong Kong has some real winners of its own. Chungking Mansions merits a separate article, and those bathrooms are something else.

  • Chiguy

    Where's the bathroom? Kitchen? Closet? Is this really a 10'x10' square with nothing else? Prison cells are about that size. I don't need the palatial estates, but a bedroom separate from my living room is nice. And a place to put a computer so it's not humming right next to my bed is nice, too.

  • nashoa

    The year is 3010. Due to a population explosion, apartments have shrunk to the size of capsules. Interiors have become outlandish and uncomfortable. Your window? Tiny. Your balcony? It’s now part of the window. But that’s ok because evolution has phased out acrophobic and claustrophobic tenants. There are also no more three-toed sloths, but they were never that great anyway

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  • VAL

    Intriguing images and captions. However, where is the rest of the story? There is no mention of the cost of construction of said housing, savings for the city or tenant, actualities from real tenants, nor contrast/comparison of rental rates among similar 'Cozy' dwellings in neither Japan or Manhattan - this article would have been more provocative with further research placed into relevant context.

  • Chris

    So reminds me of The Sixth Element...that little apartment that Bruce Willis lives in. Cool concept!

  • Daniel Kim

    This is, I believe, a key to creating an appropriate context for this kind of housing. We think of an apartment as a dwelling that should encompass the different aspects of human life: storage, food, sleep, entertainment, family, mating, etc. A tiny space like these is totally inappropriate. However, if one considers the city itself, with its myriad public spaces, social outlets and entertainment and dining venues, as one's 'home,' then this is simply the 'bedroom' for a home concept that stretches for miles around. For some people, it is exactly appropriate. One can be a single adult living in an inexpensive capsule, extending one's life into the rest of the city, and save the money not spent on rent in order to afford a larger, more encompassing dwelling when life's circumstances demand it.

  • Vance Decker

    If you are just a worker or other unimportant peasant, you do not need lots of living space. Drugs can be designed so that people can sleep while they are not working. Most of the problems people have with a lack of space, is that they have too much time on their hands.

  • Ayesha Saeed Haq

    This is becoming inhuman, a slum would be better than this i guess (at least it will not be suffocating in a slum)

  • Vance Decker

    Slums will be bulldozed to allow for more micro-apartments. There will be no escape.

  • michele

    for single men social butterflies with no family and as long they live in it I assume no future as well

  • michele

    only for youngsters and lonely single men social butterflies with no life and no family.

  • Rick Marro

    When I lived in Boulder, CO I lived in an 8x10 office, with futon and computer desk. Used the showers at the gym and saved 60% per month on "normal" rental rates doing so :-) If it weren't for Zoning rules I would LOVE to develop efficiency complexes with units under 120sqft. WOW what a Market niche it would fill. There has to be many more people like me, who use their apartment to sleep and store clothes, but spend most of their time OUT. For me it makes a lot of sense to be in the center of it all and have little space, with 40% rent, vs "normal options"...... If you agree ,,, say something or like this comment ..... thanks http://quantum-interest.websta...

  • Vance Decker

    Even more space can be saved by teaching people how to sleep standing up. Showers, bathrooms, and kitchens could be one room which is shared among tenants. I think that you are on to something here!