Legacy of the pod-fathers

A modern building site is still a very primitive affair. Most of what goes on, from digging out the footings in the mud to pouring concrete, from bricklaying to putting down copper plumbing pipes, would be pretty familiar to an ancient Roman builder.

Yet for a moment around the end of the 1960s, it looked like things were going to change. While Nasa planned moon landings, architects imagined new ways of building – exploring whether we could live in capsules, like the astronauts orbiting the earth.

The future, it seemed, would be to abandon the archaic constraints of muddy sites and instead to construct home pods in factories and ship them to locations where they would be craned into position to create exotic jumbles of elements, sculptural assemblages that could be added to or dismantled and moved as needed. Construction would benefit from the efficiency and economy of factory production: all the electrics and services could be built in and plugged in on site. Like space stations and the colonisation of Mars, it seemed inevitable.

Architect Moshe Safdie at Habitat 67 in 1967

The twin poles of this optimistic moment occurred a few years apart in Montreal and Tokyo, at Habitat 67 and at the Nakagin Capsule Tower. Habitat 67 was an experiment in housing built at the World’s Fair of 1967 and it was such a striking sight that it became the image of the expo. Built along the Marc-Drouin Quay of the St Lawrence River, it began life as the McGill University master’s thesis of the young Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

It is, without doubt, one of the weirdest, most memorable and most futuristic housing schemes ever built. It was constructed from 354 identical concrete boxes (the original plan called for 1,000) stacked and arranged into a complex wall of dwellings.

The boxes were prefabricated, inspired by the production-line technology of car manufacturing, but what made the design so ingenious was that the boxes were made to intersect to create a variety of different living spaces, from T-shaped family homes and small studios. Stacked around three lift cores, they appeared to be arranged in no particular order.

The tiny apartments in Nakagin Capsule Tower were built for Tokyo's salarymen

Apparently, Safdie used Lego to model the composition and, in the nicest possible way, it shows. There is an almost topographical scale to the project and it has become one of the city’s landmarks in a way that few housing projects ever do. Safdie is still building at a monumental scale, having been responsible for the huge Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore.

Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower derived from the same impulse and the same era that drove Safdie’s idea of a modular architecture. But, being Tokyo, the apartments are much smaller, measuring, in their entirety, about 10 sq metres.

Aimed at the country’s fanatically hard-working salarymen, these were urban pieds-à-terre with absolute minimal living space, but all the facilities needed for a comfortable weekday life.

Kurokawa, who died in 2007, was a leading light of the architectural movement known as metabolism, arguably the only such movement to have originated in Japan and one that was, and still appears, radical, innovative and hugely influential.

Architect Kisho Kurokawa

It was called metabolism because, in the words of its creators’ 1960 manifesto, titled Metabolism: The Proposals for New Urbanising, “We regard human society as a vital process – a continuous development from atom to nebula. The reason why we use such a biological word, metabolism, is that we believe design and technology should be a denotation of human society”. Their aims was to build megastructures; huge, visionary buildings capable of supporting entire societies. It should be remembered that Tokyo had been flattened in the second world war and the metabolist response was to reimagine an entirely new urban landscape.

Their emergence in the 1960s coincided with a number of attempts to radically refashion architecture and urbanism across the world.

The Lloyd's building in London

In London, Archigram were designing Walking Cities – vast, insectoid robot buildings that would simply walk away once their residents decided collectively to move – and Plug-in Cities. These were sci-fi cities that fetishised the future, delighted in technology and were designed to provoke. In Amsterdam the artist-architect Constant Nieuwenhuys was designing “New Babylon”, a post-capitalist city in which workers’ chains had been discarded, leaving them free to explore a constantly changing city of leisure and hedonism.

All of these contemporary currents expressed desires to abandon the confines of the fixed city and instead create plug-in cities of mobile elements with architecture treated more as a consumable or a vehicle than a fixed investment that tied the worker into a system of wage slavery. Ironically, the capsule tower was aimed at exactly such wage slaves but it was nevertheless a pioneering and provocative building that asks many of the questions still so relevant to the problems of the contemporary city.

'New Babylon', 1971. Collection of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

The capsule tower presents a striking image, its pods clearly expressed as a series of elements plugged into a pair of vertical service cores. It bears some resemblance to offshore accommodation structures and, in it, you can also see the germs of some ideas that Richard Rogers would use in his Lloyd’s Building in London. Since its completion in 1972, it has become one of the most distinctive blocks of the whole modernist movement.

The tower’s tiny apartments measured 2.3 metres by 3.8 metres and each culminated on a large openable porthole window, so that they were more like cabins or space capsules than flats. They were technology intensive and space efficient, with control panels built-in and phone, television, furniture, air conditioning, lighting, HiFi and electrics all confined to a wall of flush white cabinets). A bathroom pod featured a nautical-looking oval door.

'Moving New York', one of Archigram's walking cities in 1964

The apartments were, like those at Habitat 67, prefabricated and the intention was that demand would explode and drive the prices down. It never did, and the tower stands as an expensive monument to a brilliant idea. Micro apartments are very much in the news, as property prices push city-centre living beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, and although seemingly insanely small, these capsules still present a real alternative to flat sharing or overpriced hotels. It was hotels, incidentally, where this idea gained most currency and the idea of the capsule hotel is now well established in Japan and beyond.

Both buildings represent an idea to move domestic architecture on from traditional brick boxes – but they also belong to an age when the future was not something to be feared but to be anticipated. The Nakagin Tower has been under threat for some time, its remaining residents having voted to demolish it in favour of a more conventional block. It has been saved so far only by Japan’s economic malaise. But this is a built idea and, even if the public has proved more conservative than its architects anticipated, it will persist and continue to return.

And whether we like it or not, it is almost inevitable that, one day, homes will again be made in factories.

‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.