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Grateful architect has grand designs in store for disaster-prone Japan

Albert Abut says tsunami-proof rebuilding of Tohoku is 'not impossible or too expensive'

by Michael Kleindl

Special To The Japan Times

The first thought that tumbled through architect Albert Abut’s head as he sat in his car watching an intersection in Shibuya undulate last year during the Great East Japan Earthquake was “Is my family safe?” A quick call to his wife confirmed she and their 6-year-old daughter were fine.

His second concern as he watched the light poles sway was about the schools he had designed. But he knew their construction surpassed Japan’s strictest safety standards.

His third thought was about the roiling intersection’s asphalt.

“I was amazed that it didn’t buckle and burst,” he admits with a smile. “Superb technology was used in that stuff.”

Such attention to detail, he adds, is one of the things he admires about Japan.

Born, raised and educated in Paris, Abut first worked as an architect in France, Sweden and then Holland, where he developed his focus on energy-efficient buildings. In 1983, he was introduced to Mitsuru Senda, an architect specializing in cultural and children’s environments. Senda hired Abut to work in his Environment Design Studio in Tokyo, where he designed schools and museums for several years.

“But the first thing I realized when I came to Japan,” he explains, sitting behind the work table he designed, “was the problem of the tsunami.”

In 1988, he proposed an inland residential project to the Chiba Prefectural Government in which all the flatland in the Omigawa and Tonosho areas along the Kurobe River would remain agricultural but all the people would live on the hills.

“Look at this,” says Abut, spreading old blueprints out on his work desk. “There are residences, event spaces, amphitheaters. I even organized schools here on the hills,” he says, pointing them out. “All the schools must be above 30 meters. It’s a must for the children, of course.”

His plan included some very experimental apartment buildings constructed atop steel barges chained to the bedrock. “They were like houseboats,” says Abut. “If the water in the river rose from a tsunami, the barges would float up safely.” Ultimately, though, the project was never realized.

In 1990, Abut started his own architectural firm. By making use of specific attention to detail, the minimalism from Japanese minka-style buildings and his own French heritage, he’s had many successes: the Saint-Gobain Japan headquarters in Hanzomon, the L’Osier restaurant and Shiseido head office in Ginza, the Yves Saint-Laurent fashion offices in Kojimachi, the Hakujo Concert Hall in Shibuya, and the MK Seed Center in Chiba.

However, his path has not been easy. General contractors, he explains, get the vast majority of all design projects. The 3,000 independent architectural firms get only 10 to 15 percent of the contracts.

“When I learned this from Senda, I was shocked,” Abut said passionately. “From those contracts, the top 100 firms take 80 percent of the projects. Then the final 20 percent are shared among the remaining 2,900 firms.”

Abut is a youthful-looking 60. Playing squash every weekend, practicing yoga and eating organic food keep him fit. He leans forward to make a point. “The number of foreign architects established in Japan, and doing business in Japan, are just a handful,” he said.

“It’s a miracle that I, being a foreign architect, got my projects — and not just small things. I did schools, factories and concert halls. I was lucky,” he shrugs. “And I am very grateful that in Japan I was recognized as an architect that could be trusted. I feel I’m blessed in this context.”

Despite the competition, Abut enjoys working closely with Japanese general contractors during the execution phase of his projects, which have included 25 buildings and planning and design for a section of Kohoku New Town in Yokohama. “Each time it’s a pleasure. Every day I’m running to the construction sites to see how everything is put together, the organization, the cleanliness, the attention to detail — the bolting of the steel beams or how the concrete is done.”

With his background in urban planning and naval architecture, Abut has a special affinity for anything to do with water. He’d love to work on all water-related projects in Tokyo — the rivers, the canals, the waterfront.

Tokyo, he says, largely ignores the element of water, pointing out that many expressways and other elevated structures have been built over rivers that run through downtown Tokyo.

In 2004, he presented a visionary plan, the Edo 21 project, to a conference of Japanese engineers. This long-term endeavor would place the Shuto Expressway, the JR railway lines and all subway lines that cover waterways underground. The city would then open up, blooming with more free-flowing water, greenery and small parks.

“Water brings freshness and new energy to a city,” he explains. “When (Junichiro) Koizumi was prime minister, he once mentioned my plan. But nothing’s happened since then,” he adds with a smile.

Abut has another visionary plan — rebuilding Tohoku and the entire Pacific coast of Japan.

“I am personally involved,” he says as he clicks on a Google Earth map on his computer. “Look at this photo. Can you believe it?” he asks incredulously. “My wife’s mother is from Iwate, from Taro in Miyako. It’s all gone. Flattened completely.”

He points to the map again. “Do you see what they did? They put a golf course on the top of the hill and the poor people are down below.”

“That’s the problem here,” he says clicking through more views of Miyako, shaking his head. “All devastated. Gone, gone, gone, gone. Here, these buildings not gone, because they’re on a hill . . .”

Abut’s plan is simple. “All towns and villages must be above 30 meters on the entire Pacific coast,” he states. “There is no other solution.”

It will take 10 or 20 years to rebuild, he explains. “When I design a city, I’m not designing for me or for our generation. It’s for our children and the children of our children. That’s the future.”

The fishermen are part of his plan too. All the harbors should be floating platforms, he explains, based on current oil rig technology. The fishermen would tie up their boats to these floating wharves. The harbors are connected to the sea bottom with heavy chains, and in a tsunami, the fishermen could take refuge in these harbors, which would float safely up while remaining anchored to the seabed.

“I am completely against building residences at sea level,” Abut stresses.

So far, though, no one has taken his advice. In 2004, for example, Abut was the master planner for a hotel resort in Fiji. “I put all the collective areas, the common areas, the club house, the restaurants, etc. . . . at the lower levels and all the villas above 30 meters,” he says pointing to a set of drawings.

“When I made the presentation, they said, ‘Are you crazy? We want all the expensive villas near the water!’ So I was eliminated from the project.” Six months later, the Indonesian earthquake struck and the ensuing tsunami swept away many seaside executive villas in Phuket, Thailand. Some of his acquaintances were killed in those villas.

In 2009, he made a similar hilltop proposal for a resort on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, but that plan was called off for financial reasons. “We must use what the Earth gave us — the hills,” Abut said. “With Tohoku, we must really think innovatively.”

But it would be a massive effort. The new towns would have to be grouped in central areas, he says. They could become technological communities with artisans, shops and residences based on the model of Sophia Antipolis, a technological park in southwest France. All should be built as “green” cities with minimum energy consumption.

The people in Tohoku are very creative, he says. “In areas like electronics for the automotive industry, for example, these guys come up with solutions for little parts of this and that,” he said. “They should be given that chance again. The government should subsidize the ateliers or small factories of those people who lost their factories along the coastline.”

Abut doesn’t believe that such an immense rebuilding project is impossible or too expensive.

“Of course it’s possible to do,” he says. “There’s a lot of money in this country.”

Rebuilding Tohoku, he says, would revive the construction industry and the steel industry. “Such a plan would give work to all engineers, architects, factories and workers. The whole country will go back to work.”

“So much could be done. Should be done,” he stresses. “Look at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi,” he says, referring to Abu Dhabi’s new, two-decade-long project to build a global clean-technology city for 40,000 residents. “If Abu Dhabi can embark on such an ambitious project, why can’t Japan?

“At least let’s rebuild the city of my wife’s mother. At least start with that. Make an example out of it.”

He leans forward again. “I want to give back to Japan what Japan has given me. I am proposing my services for these projects, but, so far, nobody is taking it,” he says. “But it’s time now to do it.”