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Imperial Hotel

Bits & Pieces, January 7, 1993, pp.11-14

Frank Lloyd Wright is among the most innovative architects this county ever produced. But his fame wasn't limited to the United States. About 70 years ago, Japan asked Wright to design a hotel for Tokyo that would be capable of surviving an earthquake.

When the architect visited Japan to see where the Imperial Hotel was to be built, he was appalled to find only about eight feet of earth on the site. Beneath that was 60 feet of soft mud that slipped and shook like jelly. Every test hole he dug filled up immediately with water. A lesser man probably would have given up right there. But not Frank Lloyd Wright. Since the hotel was going to rest on fluid ground, Wright decided to build it like a ship. Instead of trying to keep the structure from moving during a quake, he incorporated features that would allow the hotel to ride out the shock without damage.

Supports were sunk into the soft mud, and sections of the foundation were cantilevered from the supports. The rooms were built in sections like a train and hinged together. Water pipes and electric lines, usually the first to shear off in an earthquake, were hung in vertical shafts where they could sway freely if necessary.

Wright knew that the major cause of destruction after an earthquake was fire, because water lines are apt to be broken in the ground and there is no way to put the fire out. So he insisted on a large outdoor pool in the courtyard of his hotel, "just in case."

On September 1, 1923, Tokyo had the greatest earthquake in its history. There were fires all over the city, and 140,000 people died. Back in the U.S., news reports were slow coming in. One newspaper wanted to print the story that the Imperial Hotel had been destroyed, as rumor had it. But when a reporter called Frank Lloyd Wright, he said that they could print the story if they wished, but they would only have to retract it later. He knew the hotel would not collapse.

Shortly afterward, Wright got a telegram from Japan. The Imperial Hotel was completely undamaged. Not only that&md;it had provided a home for hundreds of people. And when fires that raged all around the hotel threatened to spread, bucket brigades kept the structure wetted down with water from the hotel's pool.

The Imperial Hotel isn't there anymore. It was finally torn down in the 1960s to be replaced by a more modern structure.