Table Speech

Building Construction in the 21st Century

April 14, 2010

Mr. Kenichi Kawaguchi
Professor, The University of Tokyo

 I am a specialist on building construction, undertaking research and development to enhance structural strength of building frameworks.

 I was in charge of structural designing for the new building of Faculty of Engineering at the Hongo Campus of the University of Tokyo, which was completed three years ago. This was a challenging task to add a new space for research, while preserving the superb construction of the original building. I made an adventurous design and constructed the new high rise building, supported by pillars put up in the courtyard of the original building.

 Pillars and beams constitute the basic framework for buildings. Beams support the load of roofing horizontally, while pillars support the load on beams vertically. Western stone masonry work requires many thick and short stones as beams, and many long pillars supporting them. Skilled designing makes these obstructive pillars less inconspicuous. Beautiful designs for pillars, as seen today in Greek temples, were created by talented architects in ancient times. During the Roman period, arches were invented by combining small stones with ingenious techniques. This greatly advanced stone masonry construction in Western countries, which are still preserved today after 2,000 years, thanks to the mild climate without earthquakes.

 Designs were originally developed to make building structures less conspicuous, but they gradually came to carry additional functions. For example, the entrance of Buckingham Palace is decorated with a triangle gable and grand pillars to give a dignified taste, which has no structural function. Likewise, the arches at the foot of the Eiffel Tower create a highly sophisticated atmosphere.

 Buildings in European universities with a long history have gothic arches of ecclesiastical architecture, as they started from theological schools. You will find examples at old colleges in Cambridge University. Gothic arches were used for buildings of Tokyo University in order to give them the same academic atmosphere found among the world’s first-rank universities.

 Western architects came to seek lighter and brighter constructions, trying to shake off gloomy and heavy impressions given by stonework. “Iron and glass construction” became fashionable after the Industrial Revolution, as seen in the Chrystal Palace (destroyed by fire) or even in the modern construction of the glass pyramid in the Louvre Museum.

 Western architects admire the light-weight Japanese buildings made of wood, paper and clay. In fact, such light construction designs are essential as Japan frequently suffers from natural disasters. As maximum life span of buildings is only several decades rather than centuries, architects here are always ready to rebuild once they are destroyed.

 After the Industrial Revolution, reinforced concrete was invented in Western countries and replaced stones, as this artificial light-weight material enabled thin and unrestricted shapes. Reinforced concrete was used for lighter construction, including shell structures having thin curved surfaces.

 Japanese architects assumed that reinforced concrete structures were resistant to earthquakes when they inspected the earthquake-stricken area in San Francisco 100 years ago. Reinforced concrete technology was imported for solid structures of fire and earthquake-resistant construction in Japan. What we observed during the Great Hanshin and Awaji Earthquake was, however, that reinforced concrete buildings suffered great damage. Today, many buildings are undergoing anti-seismic reinforcement, which must run parallel to securing the safety inside the building frameworks. I believe “base-isolating technique” is superior to “anti-seismic technique,” as it prevents buildings shaking, thus highly securing safety inside buildings.

 Now, let me make some comments on building construction in the 21st century. EXPO 2010 will open in Shanghai from May to October. When I visited the construction site at the end of last year, Japan’s pavilion was almost completed. I was surprised by this unique shaped lilac-colored building resembling a sea hare. Its striped-pattern roof has solar cells, collects rainwater in its dents, and horn-shaped projections are for ventilation. This building, with many eco-friendly technologies, well exemplifies modern Japan putting excessive emphasis on the ecological aspect.

 Conventional analysis on construction was based on its safety, functionality, and design. Economic efficiency came to be added during the 20th century, followed by environmental considerations in the 21st century. Building construction is categorized under the field of engineering and engineering was subdivided into various fields in the 20th century, each making its own development. I believe that these various fields will be fused and integrated for further development during the 21st century based on diversified values.

 I am not against the slogan set by the Hatoyama administration “From Concrete to People,” yet let me emphasize that “workmanship” gives people mental satisfaction and feeling of happiness, both essential in today’s “unequal society.” Workers engaged in construction feel proud of their works and get mental satisfaction when they look at the buildings they actually constructed. They can lead a happy life with dignity, in spite of their humble wages.

 I would be happy if you could visit the Todai TV website and view the open lecture I made at the University of Tokyo: