Why the Japanese Earthquake Did Not Destroy the Hotel Imperial

Why the Japanese Earthquake Did Not Destroy the Hotel Imperial

Over on the other side of the world—its backbone, maybe—live a remarkable people, more intelligent, ambitious, and industrious than almost any other people. And, although going on about the bare earth and dwelling, eating, and sleeping on matted floors, they are more clean.

Constantly threatened and punished by hardship and frightful disaster, they patiently cling to their fateful earth-formation as it trembles and quakes beneath them, sinking gradually into the sea.

“Shikata-gai-nai” (It can not be helped), they say when, overwhelmed by fire or tidal wave or swallowed into the gaping ground by thousands, their people are swept to their ancestors.

The sense of Fate is strong in them. They yield to the inevitable. And yet they love and understand their tragic land. In their houses and the things they use, in the way they till their fields, the way they dress, cook, eat, and keep house, they are natural—truly natives. In no other country on earth, perhaps, are natives so simply one with nature.

From infancy they keep their minds and hearts fixed upon the great calm mountain god of their nation—the sacred Fujiyama, brooding in majesty and eternal calm over all.

It is not too much to say that the sacred mountain is the god of old Japan—and that Japan is the modern ancient.

The dreaded force that made the mountain, takes its toll of life from this devoted people, as always. The enormous weight of the deep sea beside their tenuous island—the deepest sea in the world—strains the earth-crust, opens fissures, and allows the waters to rush down to the earth’s inner fires. Steam and gas, expanding or exploding internally, cause earth convulsions that betray the trusting life on the green surface.

Great wave movements go shuddering through the body of the land spasmodically. Whole villages disappear. New islands appear as others, and all on them, are lost. And always flames! The terror of it all is the dreadful conflagration at the end. Trained by these disasters of the centuries to build lightly, close to the ground, their wood-and-paper houses may be kindled by any spark.

The dead not swallowed up are buried; and once more “Shikata-ga-nai!” This stoicism I have seen and lived with four years or more while preparing to meet the country’s menace by building on ground which the seismograph shows is never for a moment still.

The foreigner, with the advent of our Commodore Perry, had come to share Japan’s joys and sorrows. Soon a building was needed to shelter the invasion. In Tokyo, the capital, the Mikado asked the Germans to build one of their characteristic national wood-and-plaster extravaganzas as a social clearing-house.

That wretched marvel grew obsolete, and about 1914 the need of another became imperative. the Imperial Household this time proposed to share the task with the capitalists of the empire, ship-owners, cement manufacturers, bankers, representatives of the tobacco interests, etc., and I, an American, was chosen to do the work.

No foreigner yet invited to Japan had taken off his hat to Japanese traditions. When foreigners came, what they had back home came too, suitable or not. And the politely humble Japanese took the offering and marveled.

And yet Japanese traditions of fine art are among the noblest and purest in the world, giving Chinese origins due credit. In was my instinct not to insult them.

But this terrible natural enemy to all building whatsoever—the temblor!—must be considered.

The terror of it never left me while I planned the building, nor while for more than four years I worked upon it. Nor is any one allowed to forget it—sometimes being awakened at night by strange sensations, weird, rumbling earth—noises, sudden shocks and subsidence, and swinging, upheaval, and jolting back.

A sense of the bottom falling from beneath the building, terror of the coming moments as cracking plaster and groaning timbers indicate the whole structure may come crashing down. There may be more awful threats to human happiness than earthquakes, but I do not know what they can be.

The Japanese turn livid; perspirations starts on them; but there is no other sign unless the violence becomes extreme. And then—panic!

Because of the wave movement, deep foundations, such as long piles, would oscillate and rock the structure. Therefore the foundation should be short or shallow.

There was seventy feet of soft mud below the upper crust of eight feet of surface soil on the site of the Hotel Imperial. That mud seemed a good cushion to relieve the terrible shocks.

Why not float the building upon it? A Battle-ship floats on salt water! And why not extreme lightness combined with tenuity and flexibility, instead of the great weight necessary to the greatest possible rigidity?

Why not, then, a building made as the two hands thrust together, palms inward, fingers interlocking and yielding to movement, but resilient to return to its original position when distortion ceased? Flexing and reflexing in any direction.

Why fight the quake? Why not outwit it?

The most serious problem was how to get the most carrying power out of that eight-foot depth of “cheese” soil that overlay the liquid mud.

During the first year of plan-making I made borings nine inches in diameter and eight feet deep and filled them with concrete. I arranged to test the concrete pins thus made; got car-load of pig iron and loaded the pins until they would drive into the ground; kept the test figures of loads and reactions; and took borings over the site to find soft pockets.

These data in hand, the foundation plan was made: to distribute these concrete pins—two feet on centers each way�over the entire area on which the wall footings were to spread. In this way the strength of the whole depth of eight feet of top—soil was brought to bear at the surface. That was simple.

But here was a soft soil that might be squeezed down considerable under the broad footings. Experiments showed that this meant a settlement of the building of five inches, the building itself driving the piles that much deeper. This complicated matters.

But finally the foundation was completed, and distributed, according to the test data, to float five inches below the grade of the ground surface. And it did. With some few slight variations, it stayed there. This foundation saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over the foundations then in use in Tokyo.

Now, how to make a flexible structure instead of the foolish rigid one? I divided the building into several parts. Where the parts were more than sixty feet long, I joined them together, clear through floors, walls, and footings.

So far, good sense and careful calculation.

But a construction was needed where floors would not be carried by the walls, because subterranean disturbances might move the walls and drop the floors.

Why not, then, carry the floors as a waiter carries his tray—on upraised arm, fingers at the center—balancing the load? Why not have supports centered under the floor slabs, instead of resting the slabs on the walls at their edges, as is usually the case? This was the cantilever, the most romantic of all principles of construction. And so concrete cantilever slabs, continuous across the building, supported in that way, became the structure of the hotel.

Roof tiles of Japanese buildings in upheavals have murdered countless thousands of persons. Hence a light, hand-worked green copper roof was planned.

The outer walls were thick at the base, growing thinner and lighter towards the top, the center of gravity was thus kept low against the swinging movements.

The outside overhangs of the cantilever slabs, where they came through the walls, were all lightened by ornamental perforations, which also enriched the light and shade of the structure.

The stone everywhere underfoot in Tokyo was a workable light lava weighing as much as green oak; but for our aristocratic edifice it was sacrilege to use this plebian material. It was, however, used for ornamental features.

The whole structure was to be set up as a double shell, an exterior one of slim gold-colored bricks, and an interior one of fluted hollow bricks—the shells being poured full of concrete. As these shells were filled, they were bound solidly together.

The great building thus became a jointed monolith with a mosaic surface of lava and brick.

Earthquakes had always torn piping and wiring apart and had flooded or charged buildings. So all piping and wiring was to be laid free of construction in covered concrete trenches in the ground of the basements. Mains and all pipes were of lead with wiped joints, and the risers sweeping from the trenches, to be hung free in vertical pipe-shafts from which the curved branches were taken off to the bathrooms. Thus, any disturbance would not break the pipes or wiring.

Last, but not least, there was to be an immense pool, as an architectural feature of the entrance-court, connected to the water system of the hotel and conserving the roof water.

Thus the plans were made so that all architectural features were practical necessities, and in style a building respectful to the traditions of the people to whom it would belong. The nature of the design allowed free scope to their intensive hand methods, because we didn’t know what machinery could be used.

Finally the plans were ready. No estimates could be had. It was all so unfamiliar, no commercial concern would touch it. Nothing was left but to abandon the whole or organize to build it ourselves.

Language was a barrier. Men and methods were strange. With architectural students from the Japanese universities, several of whom were taken to Wisconsin with me during the plan-making period, and one expert foreign builder, Paul F.P. Mueller of Chicago, we organized.

The hotel manager, Hayashi San, was general manager. He had already bought pottery kilns in Shizuoka, and we had made the long, slim, cunning bricks, of a style and size never made before, for the outside shell. They were now ready to use. We had also made the fluted hollow bricks for the inside shell—the first in the new empire.

We bought a fine lava quarry at Oya, near Nikko, for the feature material, and started a flood of dimension stone moving down to the site in Tokyo, in a stream that kept pouring into the building for four years.

During that period we had a hundred or more clever stone “choppers” beating out the patterns of the building from the greenish, leopard-spotted lava.

On an average, we employed about 600 men continually; and most of them lived round about the building, as we built it, with their numerous families, cooking, washing, and sleeping. And we tried faithfully—sometimes frantically and profanely—to teach them how to build it, half-way between our way and their way.

But they preferred to carry heavy loads and enormous stones up inclined planes on their shoulders. We tried to abolish scaffoldings and teach them to lay brick from the inside. But they lashed their poles in cunning ways, as for centuries they had done, and clung with prehensile toes to the framework.

How skilful they were! What craftsmen! How patient and clever! Instead of wasting their talents, we went with them. Language grew less an obstruction, but curious mistakes were perpetual.

It is true that the Japanese approach to any matter is a spiral. Their natural instinct for attack in any direction is oblique and volute. But they made up for it in gentleness and cleverness and loyalty.

The countenance of the building began to emerge from the seemingly hopeless confusion of the enormous area now covered by the building materials, from the terraces and courts overrun but hundreds of families. And the workmen grew more and more interested in it.

The was a warmth of appreciation and loyalty unknown in the building circles of our country, a fine thing to have experienced.

Publication Date: December 3, 1927

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