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Mobile housing containers and plug-in cities – can we still learn from the urban utopias of the 1960s and 1970s? Do concepts of modular architecture still have an influence on building? And what are the desires behind today’s trend towards “Tiny Houses”?

By Thomas Wagner.

In all advanced civilisations, the city is considered the great laboratory of life, a constantly changing and renewing organism. Congestion-free and climate-neutral mobility, the generation of clean energy, communal living and working – there is currently no shortage of ideas about what the city of the future should achieve: the Green City should improve the urban climate and quality of life, the Smart City should ensure a completely networked and sensor-controlled structure in the name of efficiency and climate protection. The challenges could hardly be greater, especially since even in these visions the relationship between technology and urbanism, if it remains abstract, proves to be ambivalent. 

When the cities learned to walk

Cities, one might think, can be simplistically described as a combination of infrastructure and real estate. This overlooks the fact that global mobilisation not only brought forth ships, railways, aeroplanes and the automobile, but also gradually took hold of the inherently immobile area of housing. Not only the modern working nomads, but also the cities were henceforth to be dynamised in ever new bursts of innovation. It was not so long ago that the architects and designers of the “Superstudio” group were proclaiming new ideal cities. The cheeky and colourful “Living”, “Walking” and “Plug-in” cities of Archigram, inspired by pop art and the moon landing, were created in their heads and on paper, as were the living capsules of “Future Systems” conceived during the Cold War and – last but not least – the “New Babylon” models of the Dutch painter and sculptor Constant, which oscillate between utopia and dystopia. What is striking about all these visions: On a large scale, they are urban areas rising above the ground or moving away; on a smaller scale, they are serial cell structures, moving systems, capsule concepts and plug-in modules. Whether they were meant to be euphoric or cautionary when they were created, in the end only testifies to the ambivalences that inevitably attach to any look ahead. 

The prototype of a plug-in city

A prototype on the way to a plug-in city as envisioned by the friendly revolucers of Archigram and Co. was the “Nakagin Capsule Tower” in Tokyo, which has just been demolished after a long period of infirmity. When the British pop band “Living in a box” released the song of the same name in the mid-1980s and asked, “Am I living in a box, Am I living in a cardboard box?”, the nomadic transformation of urban living as a pop phenomenon had basically already gone out of fashion again. It was different in Japan, where at the end of the 1950s the term “shinchintaisha” (which means “metabolism” in Japanese) gave rise to a direction of building and urban planning that is called “metabolism” in English and describes the exchange of material and energy between the organism and the outside world, a regular replacement of the old with the new. Technoid visions of the future and Buddhist ideas of cycles were to complement each other, and the life cycle of birth and growth was to be transferred to urban planning and architecture. Flexible and expandable large structures (comparable to the trunk and branches of a tree) should make this possible by adding or replacing modules (comparable to leaves) as needed. Like lifelines, railways, roads, paths and lifts were to be interwoven with the built structures to form urban organisms in which future mass societies would live and work. The capsule functioned as the basic unit of metabolic systems. In addition to the vertical units, techno-organic concepts for “Floating Cities”, “Clusters in the Air”, a “Helix City” and many more visions emerged. 

© Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project

The Nakagin Capsule Tower

With the “Nakagin Capsule Tower” built in 1972, architect Kisho Kurokawa responded to one of the central demands of metabolism. The building consisted of 140 residential and office units in container size, which were anchored in two core towers made of steel with eleven and 13 storeys respectively. The modules were to be able to be added to, combined and rearranged as needed. Originally, each individual module included fixtures such as wardrobes, bathroom, bed and a complete technical unit with telephone and tape recorder. Kurokawa had also imagined that such core towers would be built in many places in the country, allowing residents to move from town to town with their furnished capsules. As we know, nothing came of this part of the vision. The nine-square-metre units with their characteristic circular windows in the space-age style of the seventies remained where they were. Nevertheless, the Capsule Tower is regarded by many as a built utopia of a vertically condensed city as one of the most important post-war buildings in Japan.

Interior view and detail of the Nakagin Capsule Tower © Nakagin Capsule Tower Preservation and Restoration Project

Fascinating as the concept may seem on the one hand, and alien to practice on the other, the economic prerequisites of metabolism should not be overlooked. It was not only spiritual tradition and technical progress that had to be reconciled. It was also necessary to react to the housing shortage and the economic conditions: In Tokyo, where housing became extremely scarce and expensive, small mobile housing capsules promised relief. Having to live in tiny boxes in an overcrowded metropolis also revealed the problems that arose. To this day, the Nakagin Capsule Tower embodies the constant vacillation between the unbreakable belief in technology and progress and the horror of the consequences of realised visions. 

Nuclear city and personalised containers

A series of sketches Joe Colombo made in 1952 shows how intensively people were already thinking about transforming cities in the 1950s. In his architectural vision of a “Nuclear City”, he imagines spherical residential buildings that face the sun but can also disappear into the ground, where infrastructure and industrial production have been relocated. In retrospect, here too the optimism of being able to plan and realise almost anything is combined with a faith in technology that shows little consideration for alternative social and ecological ideas. 

Living with and in the Personal Container

In the field of interior design, Colombo focused on compact mini-kitchens and so-called “Personal Containers”, movable and transportable multifunctional furniture that was constructed according to the principle of a wardrobe trunk and, when opened, created a screened-off area like a screen. The “Study Container” version, for example, contained a fold-out desk, a bookcase and a chest of drawers (it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that some current design solutions for the home office were inspired by Colombo’s containers). There were “women’s containers” as well as “man’s containers”, tailored to the respective needs down to the last detail. The trend towards multifunctional container solutions and system furniture is also evident among other designers in the sixties and seventies. Compact, low-cost and modular solutions for small living units with little space, such as Colombo’s “T14 Programmable Living System” (1968), which consisted of a series of containers made of moulded and laminated plastic panels that could be connected by means of magnets and from which a complete furnishing could be created, give an idea of how much the zeitgeist was already obsessed with multifunctional space capsules, containers, boxes and bubbles back then. Verner Panton was not the only one to furnish the compact living cells of the pop age in psychedelic colours as a protective cave for modern nomads; Joe Colombo also celebrated living in functionally styled and media-networked cells and feel-good bubbles with his “Visiona I” at the 1969 Cologne Furniture Fair in collaboration with Bayer. 

In an exhibition in Leverkusen in 1969, the Italian designer Joe Colombo presented his trend-setting micro-worlds, such as the “Central Living Block” or the “Kitchen-Box”. Antenne 4.11.1970, a Swiss television programme, © SRF Archiv

Container and space capsule

Friedrich Kiesler: Model of the Endless House (1950), Photo: mumok, © Österreichische Friedrich and Lillian Kiesler-Privatstiftung, Wien

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s, there was still great belief that the mountains of the future could be moved by means of architectural visions and easy-to-process materials such as plastic. The discovery of the “spaceship Earth” was accompanied not only by Richard Buckminster Fuller’s insight that there was no instruction manual for it. Those who are fascinated by space travel and understand the earth as a self-contained spaceship with humanity as its crew see living capsules as a natural part of a popular culture that encompasses and changes all areas of life. It is no coincidence that Friedrich Kiesler’s leitmotif, shortened to the formula: “Function follows vision, vision follows reality”. His “Endless House” is still one of the icons of visionary architecture today – although or precisely because it was never realised. And in his “Correalism” he also propagated “the image of an immediate swirling of environments” that abolishes any separation between objects, habits and desires. 

To what current need do today’s visions respond?

The question that needs to be answered today is: What current need do smart, green and mobile city models respond to? What problems can they solve and what interests are they pursuing? As can be seen in projects such as the “Regenerative High-Rise” skyscraper designed for Oslo, mobile spatial units for working and living have long been in vogue again, albeit in a modified form. In times when energy is becoming scarce and the climate is threatening to tip over, the demand that cities and buildings should be easily and quickly adaptable to the needs and requirements of their inhabitants is becoming increasingly important. Is the obvious trend towards modest “Tiny Houses” in the countryside solely due to economic pressure or is it a less urban and more natural variant of the living capsule? It is as if the techno-spiritual imagination of Japanese metabolists had merged with American escapist fantasies, and urban living capsules with Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond lake to form a desire for peace, quiet and self-sufficiency beyond the city, fuelled by the climate crisis. 

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