Remarkable Japan – #01 – Buildings that Sway

Japan is notorious for its earthquakes, with the continued steady return to normality still ongoing after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011. In light of this, the obvious question would be to ask why Japan continues to build skyscrapers on the scale shown in the images below. Indeed, the 2011 quake increased demand for living space in shorter and wider buildings.

Looking up at skyscrapers towering over the business district in Ginza, Tokyo

The problem remains however, that 70% of Japan’s land mass is mountainous, and therefore unsuitable for urban development. If you can’t build out, you build up.

The Tokyo Skytree; all 634 metres of it

What makes these skyscrapers remarkable is not their shear height, or their elevators that travel up to 10 metres per second, but their ability to sway ominously in the midst of earthquakes that would raze most modern cities to the ground. Many of these, including the Tokyo Skytree, owe most of this seismic protection to ‘tuned mass dampers’, that keep the lateral dance of these buildings within safe magnitudes. Having said that, the yet-unfinished Skytree swayed at its topmost point by up to six metres during the 2011 quake.

The Blade-Runner-esque Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

It’s well worth it in the end. In the strongest earthquake to hit Tokyo since the aftershocks of the 2011 quake, a 2014 earthquake left not a single pane of glass out of place in the business district of Ginza.

Deep in the heart of the Ginza business district, Tokyo
Towering residential blocks in Ueno, Tokyo
Even in the lower skylines of the backstreets of Tokyo, it’s well worth taking a moment to look up. Why put all the electrical cables above rather than under ground? The easier the access to a fault caused by a strong earthquake, the sooner it can be fixed.

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A canopy of cables in the backstreets of Tokyo

Despite the great efforts that go into supplying a new building with the necessary flexibility to withstand the next major quake, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are rumours that the ‘Flamme d’Or’ topping the pint glass-shaped Asahi Beer Hall was originally designed to point upwards like the flame of a candle. It was allegedly closer to its construction that it was turned to its side, to prevent injury in the case that it fell off during an earthquake. Having said that, I can’t find any source that validates this rumour!

The Asahi Beer Hall in Sumida, Tokyo (Photo Credit). The flame was unfortunately covered in scaffolding whilst I was visiting.

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