During my recent visit to Tokyo, and strolling one afternoon through a park in Koto-ku, I glimpsed something through the foliage overhead, something high in the sky, shiny and metallic. The long-distance photo I took that day (which I’ve decided not to publish here) did not do it justice, for it is, in fact, a very tall, very modern and impressive structure indeed. What I had seen, for the first time was the Tokyo Sky Tree.
Very tall structures are not unknown in the Tokyo area, which may seem paradoxical, given the restlessness of the Earth’s crust under this particular region; in fact, or so Wikipedia tells us, Tokyo has no less than 44 buildings and structures taller than 180 metres. I’m familiar with Shinjuku’s garden of skyscrapers, which includes the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No. 1 (or Tocho), and also the orange-and-white Tokyo Tower over in Minato-ku, completed in 1958 and now the second-tallest building in the city. I never got around to visiting Tokyo Tower when living there during the late 1980s, but I did visit Yokohama Marine Tower many years ago, and, more recently, have been to the Sky Garden, an observation deck 273 metres from the ground, at the top of the Yokohama Landmark Tower (highly recommended – the view of the harbour district and the surrounding city is breathtaking.)
The secret to withstanding the sort of kaiju-grade earthquakes that rock Japan from time to time, is of course clever and sophisticated construction techniques, employing devices such as the tuned mass damper, which reduces the amplitude of the a quake’s destructive vibrations. Yokohama Landmark Tower, for example, has two of these dampers, and the Tokyo Sky Tree is built around a central shaft of reinforced concrete, which can move separately to the steel framing and acts both as a damper and as a stairwell. It also has a tuned mass damper right at the top, and pilings which spread out through the soil beneath the structure just like the roots of a mighty tree, and which also help to keep it secure.
What is the Tokyo Sky Tree, anyway? It is a tower, and currently the tallest one in the world (also the second tallest structure in the world, after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), of lattice construction, like its forbears Tokyo Tower and the venerable Eiffel Tower. It will serve as a TV and radio broadcasting tower, being tall enough to beam terrestrial television over the surrounding high-rise cityscape, and will also have an observatory and a restaurant. They hope to finish building it in December this year and open it to the public in spring 2012, and I would very much like to visit the Sky Tree when I next come to Tokyo.
Here are a few more assorted facts about this structure. It is white with a touch of indigo (to symbolise the bluish white – aijiro – of Japanese porcelain) and will be lit up at night by arrays of LED lights, in blue and purple on alternate days. It will be precisely 634 metres tall, and this is a clever example of Japanese wordplay, as the numbers 6, 3 and 4 can be rendered in Japanese as “mu”, “sa” and “shi”, making up the word Musashi, which is the old name for the province of eastern Japan which incorporated Tokyo and its neighbouring prefectures.
My interest in these sorts of massive constructions has grown in recent years, as they represent for me the sort of high-tech, modern and aspirational world I want this to be. Some years ago I read about the plans for something even more ambitious, a 2000-metre tall, 500-floor skyscraper in the Tokyo Bay area called Aeropolis 2001, which would have been a decent first attempt at building an arcology – a vast and self-contained high-density human habitat, the like of which has existed, as yet, only in science fiction. Sadly, the bursting of Japan’s “bubble economy” in the 1990s, and the resulting slow-burning recession, meant that Aeropolis 2001 never became a reality. However, the completion of the Tokyo Sky Tree will mark, for me, the return of something like that confident, soaring and future-oriented spirit.
Sitting high above the human jungle, this is the closest one can be to outer space, without travelling in an aeroplane, rocket or balloon. When I next return to Tokyo, I’m looking forward to going up to the observatory of the Sky Tree, having a cup of coffee perhaps, and simply enjoying the magnificent view.