Ugliness Is All or Nothing

A hideous building in downtown Tokyo is finally coming down

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The Nakagin building in downtown Tokyo is a hideous monstrosity. I have seen it with my own eyes many times. It is one of the most offensive and repulsive structures I have ever known.

When the Nakagin was built in the early 1970s, however, it was hailed as an idea ahead of its time. The Nakagin is a modular structure comprising rectangular concrete capsules stacked up around two central steel-and-concrete pillars. The idea was to allow for freedom in design and reconfiguration. As the need arose, the architect Kurokawa Noriaki (also known as Kurokawa Kisho) envisioned, the capsules could be moved, replaced, or taken out. In this way, the surrounding city and the changing fashions of the decades could “metabolize” the structure. The Nakagin was meant to revolutionize life in our modern world.

So the thinking went. The architectural fad of Marxist-inspired Metabolism, popular in Japan in the ruined cities of the postwar and later influential in many other countries worldwide, was what led Kurokawa to make a building that could be rejiggered at will. In 1972, when the Nakagin towers were finished, they were all the rage. A fluid future arrives, people thought. A time of experimentation and change is at hand. The material world transforms itself. The dialectic rolls in slow, concrete-and-steel waves over the metropolises of the glittering age.

However, the Nakagin never glittered. It squatted and glared. It mocked its creators and brought despair where its makers had promised lightheartedness, freedom, convenience, and ease. Like all ugly things, once the Nakagin was in place it rooted and refused to budge. It was made to evolve, but it just sat there, changeless. Its exposed steel parts rusted into a depressing, ochre-at-evening hue. Its concrete capsules stared out menacingly like a compound fly eye at the Ginza district surrounding it. It aged badly, as ugliness always will. The Nakagin became a blight on the city it was supposed to have crowned with modernist glory. Those who once lauded it as genius began to question how long it would stick around.

There has been talk in recent years of tearing the thing down. This year, 2022, it is finally happening. The decrepit and deathlike Nakagin is being gutted and rubbled. In cascades of crushed concrete and twisted metal, the Nakagin shudders in its death throes. It slowly disappears from sight. Thanks be to God.

Not everyone is glad to be rid of the horror. Some people (mainly architects, naturally enough) wanted to preserve the Nakagin. There were protests and campaigns to convince the owners and city planners to keep the Nakagin in place. There were articles calling for the thing to stay where it is. There was talk of relocating it, of preserving the architectural heritage of the age. All of that was to no avail. Down it comes.

There is a great lesson in this. The Nakagin is a manifestly ugly thing. It grows uglier with time, and it casts a pallor on all around it. It cannot be saved or improved. It is ugly at heart and was ugly from the moment it first appeared. Like many ugly things, the Nakagin was at first said to be beautiful. As it got uglier and uglier, deluded people who could not admit the truth said it was becoming more and more radiant and attractive. As it molded and stained, those same people oohed and aahed. As the Nakagin rotted, people told bigger and bigger lies about how necessary it was, how splendid. When it came time to throw the thing onto the trash heap, where it belonged from the beginning, misguided people called for compromise. Some insisted that Ginza would never be the same without the Nakagin. Some wanted to put up monuments to it, to build model versions so posterity could know where the Nakagin had once stood.

But ugliness is all or nothing. You cannot cut deals with what the heart abhors. There is no compromise with the eyesore, with that which mocks the goodness of being alive in the world. Beauty will save the world, Dostoevsky wrote. Yes, because ugliness kills us. Ugliness, often heralded as the next big thing, as the liberation of mankind, is death to us all in the end. There is no freedom in ugliness. There is only death.

May the wrecking ball show no mercy to the Nakagin. Fifty years of blemish, be gone from this world and do not darken this lovely country any more. When something unsightly is rooted in your capital and demoralizing your land, don’t compromise. Don’t flinch. Blast and demolish the thing. Get rid of it. Ugliness is all or nothing.

Do not row out for the rescue as it sinks. Do not wade in to save what must be cast off.

An ugly thing collapses. Let us rejoice. Let us lift up our voices in thanksgiving. For fifty years we have been dying. We cry out in defiance: we will live in the beauty of Creation, we will die no more.

 

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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