Wright’s Imperial Hotel and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

Naoko and I took Kaika to Hibiya Koen yesterday, where this weekend are events related to the 400th anniversay of the start of the Edo period. On the way home we stopped by the Imperial Hotel, which neither of Naoko nor I had been in before. I of course knew that there had been a version of the hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and was curious if anything of that incarnation remained in what now looks like a relatively drab modern hotel.

There’s nothing left, sadly (the hotel’s main entrance hall and lobby are preserved at the Museum Meiji-Mura), but there was a small exhibit down in the basement documenting the construction and life of Wright’s Imperial (1923-1967), and one tidbit struck me (in addition to a nice photo of Gregory Peck holding court in the hotel bar): the grand opening of Wright’s hotel was the same day as The Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and killed 140,000. Wright’s structure withstood the quake and was hailed as a great achievement in “aseismic” architectural planning.

I figured there was a bit more to this story that meets the eye, so I did some searching and came across this interesting (and accessibly written) analysis of Wright’s design and and why it might have been able to withstand such a huge quake, from the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering at UC Berkeley:

If one were to choose the building whose performance in the 1923 earthquake had the greatest influence on architectural historians and journalists and therefore the mass audience, it would no doubt be the Imperial Hotel. But if one were to look at the structural performance which was most noted and discussed among engineers, or to single out the examples which had the greatest effect on both the development of the state-of-the-art of seismic design and on the evolution of the modern aseismic building code, then the Tokyo buildings designed by Dr. Tachu Naito would be the obvious choice.

3 Replies to “Wright’s Imperial Hotel and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923”

  1. Kurt, my friend was staying at the Imperial last weekend and I visited her there and saw all the FLW exhibits in the basement. Cool photos! She’ll be staying at the Park Hyatt next time, so no more roaming around the Teikoku next time she visits. Oh well.

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