Tokyo (1919) I Urban Fabric Before the Calamity

Tokyo (1919) I Urban Fabric Before the Calamity

Being the largest urban area in the world, Tokyo has an unexpectedly plain skyline, unlike other large cities such as New York, Shanghai or Paris, having their own iconic high-rise buildings of at least 30 meters height. The ordinary and plain urban fabric in Tokyo was attributed to the regulations implemented in 1919, while Tokyo has high exposure to natural disasters such as earthquakes. In order to avoid the damage of earthquakes, regulations on building requirements were suggested.

In the early 1900s, the rapid development in urbanization and industrialization in Tokyo caused the rise in population which doubled from 1.12 million to 2.17 million in 1920. There was a high concentration of population among factories and wards where industrial processes took place [figure 1]. The advancement in economic development triggered the government to improve the city safety concerning earthquake precautions.

Figure 1 – Map of Tokyo before the 1923 earthquake (Source from Map Public Domain)

In 1919, there was Urban Building Law regulating the building construction, including the Building Standard Law and City Planning Law (Sorensen, 2005). Building Standard Law (BSL) which is used to prevent loss of human lives, health and properties by using building codes concerning the site, structure, equipment and use of the buildings, limited the residential and non-residential building height to 65 feet and 100 feet respectively at that time. The Urban Building Law regulated 6 major cities, which were Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, was the first building code launched in Japan. These not only raised the awareness concerning earthquake resistant construction, but also created a uniform urban fabric among those areas. There was specification for structural requirements for timber, masonry, brick, reinforced concrete and steel construction, as well as maintaining the quality, loads and stress of the structure, while earthquake and wind forces precautions or requirements were not mentioned in the Building Law Enforcement Regulation issued in 1920 [Otani, 2004]. In short, the new building codes were changed to harmonize the nature and size of buildings by zone.

The risks of natural disasters and implementation of laws formed a hidden order among Tokyo. Due to the restriction on the building height, most of the buildings are relatively short, creating a unique urban fabric and putting efforts into alleviating the damage caused by earthquakes. Also, Tokyo’s architecture is mostly box-shaped, in order to create as much usable space as possible. The city lacked verticalization and packed with regular extrusions [Figure 2]. Different from our normal perception on the permanence of architecture, buildings in Tokyo were not expected to last long on one of the shakiest land in the world. Therefore, in order to avoid great loss in the earthquakes, there is lack of ambition in the building design.

Figure 2 – Akihabara in the 1900s (Source from

Both the building laws and people’s mentality on buildings catalyzed the formation of city skyline in Tokyo. Facing the natural disadvantage and learning from the past earthquakes, Tokyo has undergone a gradual transformation of seismic improvement and reformation in order to adapt to the unexpectedly life-threatening environment. The 1919 Urban Building Law was an essential milestone for the Japanese government to step by step improve the earthquake resistance construction and planning.



[1] Sorensen, A. 2005. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty First Century. Routledge

[2] Otani, S. 2004. Japanese Seismic Design of High-rise Reinforced Concrete Buildings – An Example of Performacne-Based Design Code and State of Practices. 13th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering.

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