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Javier Gracia Rodríguez, Doctor of Architecture and professor at School of Architecture , University of Navarra, Spain.

Earthquake and Japanese Architecture

Sat, 12 Mar 2011 10:20:21 +0000 Published in La Razón (Madrid)

After the earthquakes that devastated Chile and Haiti last year, the inevitable comparison with Japan's current status arises. In the face of a more devastating earthquake, the response of Japanese architecture has been incomparable and commendable. Where does this substantial difference lie? The core topic is in the technological development in subject seismic that Japan has been accumulating since the beginning of the 20th century.
Japan's particular location, in the Pacific Ocean Ring of Fire, makes it one of the most active seismic regions on the planet with hundreds of earthquakes throughout the year. This status has led to the sensitization of Japanese architecture to these phenomena, a fact that has resulted in a deep knowledge of them as well as of the resistant mechanisms involved.

It could be said that the behavior of buildings subjected to seismic action is similar to that of a whip when shaken. When the whip is lashed, we can observe how the shock spreads throughout the body of the whip, from the handle to the end. Translated to architecture, the earthquake is the hand that shakes the base of the building and the building is the whip through which all the energy of the earthquake spreads.

To resist this shaking, Japanese architecture has opted for two clearly differentiated mechanisms. In the architecture of a few floors, where the impact of the earthquake is smaller (it is easier to shake a long whip than a very short one), it has been chosen to make Structures very rigid to resist all the impact without deforming. This architecture is characterized by the use of thick concrete walls. On the other hand, in multi-storey buildings, where this solution is not effective and, above all, uneconomical, Japanese engineers have opted for flexible Structures . These are designed to oscillate laterally (as does the whip) in a controlled manner and without substantial damage. This architecture is marked by the employment of steel, a very resistant and ductile material.

Undoubtedly, Japanese architecture, devastated during the "Great Kanto Earthquake" of 1923, has learned from past mistakes to become today one of the world references in earthquake engineering.