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The first news received in the United States after the Great Tokyo Earthquake was a congratulatory telegram sent to architect Frank Lloyd Wright from Okura, a financier of the majestic Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.

Hotel stands undamaged as monument of your genius. Hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service. Congratulations. Okura.

Wright had the missive published in the papers as proof of his greatness, and he needed this good press, for he was beleagured by public censure over his private life (living with his mistress after having abandoned his wife) and his professional conduct (arrogant and perennially over-budget). Never one to miss an opportunity for self-promotion, Wright planted the myth that his building was a testament to his superior design and engineering vision because it was the only one to survive the devastation.

Okura's message and Wright's claims were exaggerations: the building did sustain light damage. According to the Tokyo Building Inspection Department about 20% of Tokyo's steel and reinforced concrete buildings received similar levels of damage, and about 19% of brick edifices were considered undamaged. So Wright's hotel's showing was good, but not stellar.

Wright had been elated to gain this prestigious commission in a country whose artistic sensibility he had long admired. (He collected Japanese prints.) He spent the bulk of his time between 1916 and 1923 working on it; the earthquake hit in 1923, very soon after the hotel was completed.

Wright was cognizant of the danger of earthquakes in Japan and had given much thought to how to make his building "earthquake proof". The foundations were numerous relatively short 8 ft (2.5 m) piles, set in soft soil over alluvium and water; the idea was to provide a soft cushion which would absorb the impact of seismic activity. (It may have done so, but it also made the structure vulnerable to subsidence, and the hotel slowly sank over the years.) The floors were cantilevered out from walls which provided support from the centre, not the edges. The walls were made of two layers of brick with a hollow space in between into which concrete was poured. Larger parts of the structure were made of smaller rectangles which were basically jointed together, making the building flexible rather than rigid. The whole edifice was bottom-heavy, with thinner walls at the top and a copper instead of a heavy tile roof.

Though some of his methods (the "floating" structure on short pylons, for example) are discounted by modern seismological engineers, others (like the double walls and the flexible jointing) turn out to have been remarkable prescient and are still in use today.

To lessen the risk of fire, a major catastrophic consequence of earth tremors, Wright laid the pipes and wiring in curves in the basement instead of burying them underground in rigid right-angles. The reflecting pool in front of the hotel, which was filled by collected rainwater, provided an emergency water supply as fires raged around the hotel. Some people feel that the fact that the hotel escaped fire damage is a greater accomplishment than remaining standing after the earthquake.

Other innovations of the hotel include radiant heating, forced air ventilation, and indirect lighting. And it was greatly admired for its aesthetic character: it was long, low, and ornately decorated, yet still modern. Inside, it was sumptuous and grand, melding eastern and western styles in a serene and beautiful environment.

Sadly, the hotel was demolished in 1968 in spite of international protest; the new owners felt was too low-density for such an expensive piece of downtown real estate. Clearly too the building hadn't survived as unscathed as Wright might have wished, for it was damaged and crumbling. A new highrise hotel of the same name was built in its place. Happily, the original lobby was saved, to be reconstructed at the Meiji Mura architecture museum in Nagoya, where you can view it today. You can virtually view it at www.meijimura.com/english/index-e.html

During his time in Japan Wright received a total of twelve commissions, though only six buildings were actually built, and only two still stand today, the Yamamura House (1924) and the Myonichikan at Jiyu Gakuen School (1921-26). Japan is the only country outside of the US to have original Frank Lloyd wright buildings.

nisee.berkeley.edu/kanto/kanto.html
www.pbs.org/flw/buildings/imperial/imperial.html

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