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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Modernism in Limbo

Nov. 16, 2016

To scrap or restore, that's the question as people work to save aging examples of Japan's unique Modernist buildings.

Architectural styles are an expression of the times, and Japan in the mid-20th century enjoyed extraordinary economic growth. In cultural life, people's optimism and energy emerged in Modernist buildings.

Examples include a church that's laid out like a cross, a capsule apartment complex, and a gymnasium from the 1964 Olympics that's shaped like a giant snail. Around 2,000 such buildings once dotted Japan.

However, their preservation today presents a challenge. So does their earthquake resistance, to meet new safety standards. Many owners must decide whether to pay for preservation or tear a building down.

Ginza is Tokyo’s premiere shopping district, and one structure there attracts a constant stream of tourists from around the world. The Nakagin Capsule Tower looks like a stack of children's building blocks. Built in 1972 as a housing complex, the capsules were originally intended as second homes for businessmen.

By 1970s standards, it offered an advanced lifestyle. There is a 10-square-meter living space, a color TV, a stereo tape deck, and the latest home appliances. The Nakagin marketing slogan was, “An elite dream retreat.”

When the resident in this unit saw a picture of the tower, it was love at first sight. He jumped at the chance to move in.

"They don’t make spaces with this kind of aesthetic anymore. But here, you can still feel what an energetic time it was," he says.

But many of the capsules have fallen into disrepair. Ceilings have collapsed as leaky roofs let in rainwater. Some connection points of the capsules are at risk of failing. If nothing is done, units might fall.

On top of that, inspectors 2 years ago concluded that Nakagin fails current standards for earthquake resistance. The owner of the building, Yasuhiko Endo, is torn between calls to tear it down and pressure to preserve it.

"Rather than continue paying maintenance fees, I have another idea. I think we should just rebuild," Endo says. "But we hear so many different opinions about this question."

Slowly but surely, the wrecking ball is claiming Japan's modernist structures. One place this destruction is being felt is the city of Takamatsu, in southwestern Japan.

One gymnasium there was designed by Kenzo Tange, one of Japan’s trailblazing architects, and it evokes a ship floating in the air. In a survey of 20th century buildings, the influential architectural group Docomomo declared the design masterpiece.

"Very expressive modern structure but very Japanese at the same time," says Ana Tostoes, chair of Docomomo International. "You should preserve this as it expresses the character of Japan. It expresses both a Japanese aesthetic and modern architecture."

But 4 years ago, prefectural officials conducted a structural survey. They discovered the innovative roof construction method makes restoration very difficult. Estimated repair costs soared above expectations -- nearly 15 million dollars

"The cable-suspension roof is a unique feature," says Atushi Kitora, Kagawa Prefecture official. "But it makes repairs very expensive and difficult."

In the end, the prefecture abandoned its plans to fix the facility. The building is in limbo, with no one able to decide whether to restore or demolish it.

Other buildings are facing a similar plight, so locals are trying to find new purposes for the structures.

One building in Tottori Prefecture was originally an elementary school. It is Japan's oldest surviving “round school building” but it has stood unused for 11 years. Local authorities said they would pull it down.

Its signature feature is the classrooms that come off a spiral staircase. The segment-shaped spaces can handle large numbers of people without the need for hallways.

Public authorities erected similar schools all around the country after World War II. They accommodated a surge in the number of students from the baby boom.

"When recess was called, many kids would go out and run around on the veranda," says Masahiko Inashima, who has fond memories of going to the school.

He hopes to save the building and add earthquake reinforcements. He plans to raise the money needed by putting a business in the building.

"Even today, this school is an icon of our town. I can’t imagine losing it," Inashima says.

He consulted with Takami Akai, the president of a local animation company, and Akai's enthusiasm gives him an idea.

Inashima heads in the direction of Tokyo, where a neighboring prefecture hosts Japan’s largest festival for collectible figures.

The animation and game-figure market in Japan is worth nearly 300 million dollars a year. Inashima hopes that by turning the building into a figure museum, he can raise the funds to save it.

But he needed local approval, so he organized a community meeting to explain the ambitious project.

"I plan to reach out to animation fans from abroad, too ― particularly those from Asia," Inashima said.

Some local residents raised doubts about the plan, but Inashima promised the new business would be financially transparent. He assured local residents they will not be inconvenienced.

"I hope you see my plan could save the school and make it a local attraction we can all be proud of," Inashima told them.

In June, the authorities canceled their demolition plans and agreed to donate the school building to Inashima’s project, free of charge. But the museum's success remains to be seen.

At Modernist buildings across the country, a cultural heritage hangs in the balance.