Skytree reaches for hearts and minds


An incline was built into the upper observation deck of Tokyo Skytree to give visitors a thrill and make the experience more memorable, according to one of the architects who designed the capital’s newest landmark.

Visitors to the tower, which opened Tuesday in Sumida Ward, access the 450-meter-high Tembo Galleria by elevator but have to ascend the final 5 meters through a glass-covered spiral Sky Walk.

“I wanted people to feel a sense of accomplishment by climbing the last section on their own,” said Tetsuo Tsuchiya, one of Nikken Sekkei Ltd.’s designers who helped create the world’s tallest freestanding tower.

Tsuchiya, 42, traversed the Sky Walk numerous times during the tower’s construction, both on foot and in a wheelchair to test out the incline for visitors with various physical conditions.

The 634-meter Skytree, built for digital terrestrial TV broadcasting purposes in and around Tokyo, features various eye-catching design features, including a triangular base that morphs into a circular shape toward its upper reaches.

Both the Tembo Galleria and the lower 100-meter observation deck are conical to provide visitors with a 360-degree vista of the capital. A section of the flooring made of reinforced, fire-resistant glass also gives visitors a glimpse of the streets below.

“In the process of seeking a design that wouldn’t bore visitors, we ended up creating something very simple,” Tsuchiya said.

Nikken Sekkei was also involved in designing the 333-meter Tokyo Tower back in the 1950s, which was eclipsed during Skytree’s construction in March 2010.

Tsuchiya said the company has preserved the hand-drawn blueprints of Tokyo Tower, completed in 1958 and one of the capital’s most enduring symbols over the past half century.

“Today, we draw blueprints on computers, but our passion remains the same as in the old days,” he said.

As work progressed and the tower started to dominate the cityscape, more and more visitors were drawn to the construction site.

Interest was further whipped up by domestic media, which splashed Japan’s newest claim to fame all across front pages.

“I don’t think there are that many sights that have attracted this level of attention before they even open,” said Hirotake Takanashi, a spokesman for tower operator Tobu Tower Skytree Co., a subsidiary of Tobu Railway Co.

Takanashi, who assumed his post in fall 2010, admits he felt overwhelmed by the media frenzy during his first few months on the job. The many presentations he prepared for the press even included a demonstration of Skytree’s safety features to protect the structure from heavy snowfall.

But Takanashi, 41, acknowledges that the current amount of fascination will fade, and also acknowledges that Skytree will probably be eclipsed by even taller towers in the future.

“That is why we are aiming to make this the world’s most loved tower,” he said.

Many already regard the tower as a symbol of Japan’s technological prowess and feel a strong sense of national pride over its construction, including Obayashi Corp.’s Shigeaki Tabuchi, who oversaw the project.

Tabuchi noted that while some are referring to the tower as Sekai Tree (World Tree), he said the term “is appropriate because it represents Japanese technology that we can proudly present to the world.”

The tower incorporates many state-of-the-art technologies, including enhanced earthquake-resistance engineering.

Tabuchi, 58, was put in charge of the project based on his extensive experience in building skyscrapers. But when ground was broken in July 2008, Tabuchi admitted to feeling a degree of skepticism over whether it was actually possible to erect the structure.

“It was more than three times taller than the buildings I’d worked on in the past, and I wondered, ‘Can we really do it?’ ” he said.

The work lasted three years and eight months, and involved a total of 580,000 people. At its peak, some 1,200 were working on-site.

Highly advanced engineering techniques had to be used to hoist completed sections of the tower into place, while only around 60 of the most experienced workers were allowed to carry out highly hazardous welding at its upper levels.

The project was delayed by the March 2011 disasters, which pushed the schedule back by about two months, but Obayashi Corp. completed construction and handed the tower over to its operator Feb. 29.

“It was a load off my shoulders, completing it without any major accidents,” Tabuchi confessed. But despite the extreme pressure and stress involved, “it was an honor to be part of this project.”