How Minoru Mori’s Vision Made Tokyo Safer

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Looking out the windows of TIME’s 37th-floor office in Tokyo, I often feel a little anxious. Since I moved to Japan at the end of December, the earthquakes have shown no sign of letting up. The windows of my apartment started rattling on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, when a 7.0 earthquake hit off southern Japan, and they have continued to do so with unsettling regularity. Just yesterday, two big quakes — a 6.8 off the northern island of Hokkaido and a 6.1 off the coast of Chiba prefecture — struck within hours of each other.

As it turns out, TIME rents office space in what is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. Mori Tower, a 54-story building in the Roppongi Hills complex, was built by Japanese architect Minoru Mori in 2003. In its construction, Mori Building employed motion-absorbing technology and reinforced steel piping to make the complex “a ‘city to escape into’ rather than a city from which people run away,” according the company website.

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Mori, who passed away March 8 at the age of 77 from heart failure, is often hailed as a visionary who changed the way Tokyo looks today. Traditionally a low-slung metropolis, Mori dreamed of — and ultimately started to build — a new kind of landscape, a “vertical garden city” of high-rise, mixed-use developments to help meet the needs of urbanites living in crowded, confined areas. He saw his developments not just as business but also as an effort to make people happier by reducing their commute time and stress.

Mori started his property empire after inheriting a fortune from his father Taikichiro Mori, the world’s richest man in 1991 and ’92, according to Forbes. Mori the younger didn’t do too badly for himself either; he was still holding on as the 16th richest man in Japan last year. In addition to Roppongi Hills, a shopping, office and residential complex that transformed a neighborhood once known more for red light than the sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Mori built the high-end Omotesando Hills, now an icon of luxury and style in Tokyo’s western Shibuya district. In 2008 he went on to build China’s tallest building, the World Financial Center in Shanghai.

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Mori’s attention to — and willingness to spend extra money on — building earthquake-safe buildings on this geologically active part of the planet, though not as flashy, was just as important. He is not alone, of course; architects working in earthquake-prone places like Japan and California have long been engineering buildings designed to sway, not break, in intense movement. (It doesn’t mean it’s not scary. Here’s a YouTube video taken inside Mori Tower’s top floor when the earthquake hit on March 11, 2011.)

This year has shown more than ever how much those efforts are needed. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, as it is called in Japan, the country’s Meteorological Agency reports that the large area around the March 11 epicenter has experienced more than 7,225 aftershocks in the past year. Over 230 have been major quakes, more than 24 times the regular average for the area of 9.8 per year.

PHOTOS: Japan, One Year Later

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