Students’ skills help to forge a new Tohoku

Trainee architects from around the country are bringing fresh ideas to the redevelopment of Japan's scarred northeast, as Edan Corkill reports

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

In late July, when the students of Osaka Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture first arrived at the tiny port of Oharahama, an air of negativity hung over the conversation of the locals.

“They were full of questions: Why did this have to happen to them? When were they going to be able to move into temporary housing?” fourth-year student Yuki Imamura recalled the survivors saying in this settlement that was one of about 30 virtually swept off the Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi Prefecture by the March 11 tsunami.

Yet five days later, he continued, when it was time for the students to leave, the mood among the locals had changed. Visiting under the auspices of ArchiAid, a network of architects and university architecture faculties keen to assist in rebuilding the devastated Tohoku region of northeast Honshu, Imamura and his fellow students had spent their time in the village analyzing with the locals how their settlement could be rebuilt.

“We had a 1:1,000-scale relief model of their village’s topography with us, and the moment we showed it to them, their mood changed. They could see how their houses could be moved to higher ground, and that facilities could be rebuilt. It was like they suddenly got a glimpse of their future,” Imamura said.

At the same time that those students were visiting Oharahama, 14 other groups of students were conducting similar studies at the peninsula’s 29 other tsunami-damaged coastal settlements.

Dubbed the Summer Camp, the five-day event was organized by ArchiAid as a way to ease the burden on strained public resources and also to jump start the process of rebuilding in one of the most inaccessible parts of the afflicted coastline.

“We went to Ishinomaki City (which administers the Oshika Peninsula) and said, ‘Look, you are short of manpower. We can bring together people who have expertise in identifying possibilities for rebuilding these villages,’ ” explained Yasuaki Onoda, an architecture professor at Tohoku University, who in April helped set up the ArchiAid network.

Onoda thus convinced Ishinomaki City to enter a comprehensive cooperation agreement with his university, and that became the foundation on which the ArchiAid Summer Camp could take place.

“With the city behind us, we could go to the peninsula and talk to each of the local communities in an official capacity,” he explained.

The idea at the Summer Camp was that groups of students — centered on research labs from architecture schools around the country — would each be assigned two or three of the small port-settlements on the peninsula. They would stay there for five days, doing fieldwork, conducting interviews and developing tailor-made master-plans for rebuilding. On the last day, those plans would be presented to the locals, and afterward all the plans would be collated and submitted to Ishinomaki City for possible incorporation into its official reconstruction plan.

At Oharahama, the Osaka Institute of Technology students found a tiny village that was home to 205 people perched on the western side of the Oshika Peninsula, which juts out about 20 km in a southward direction from the coast.

Residents of working age were generally employed in public-sector jobs or in the fishing industry. Fortunately, only two had died in the village as a result of the tsunami, which was around three meters high there, but 70 of the village’s 92 houses had been destroyed or severely damaged.

The students eventually created a plan that would see the main coastal road, which used to run beside the high-water line, moved 30 to 40 meters inland and up onto an artificial embankment. The area between the coast and the embankment would be used either for fishing industry facilities or public parks and, as a further precaution, the houses and other facilities on the inland side of the road would be moved to high ground on the side of the valley.

“One of the most surprising things was that there were some residents who said they didn’t want to move to higher ground,” Imamura told The Japan Times. “They said, ‘No, we like being by the ocean. March 11 was a 100-year tsunami, so we’ll be alright.’ “

However, as postgraduate student Hiroshi Tamura pointed out, the majority of Oharahama’s residents did want to move, and so the holdouts eventually assented to the relocation proposal.

The Oshika Peninsula is famous for its deeply serrated, saw-tooth coastline, with dozens of oddly shaped bays in which small ports and beaches are to be found. Each bay is unique in terms of its geography and micro-climate. So, while village beaches on the western coast, like those at Oharahama, slope gently down into relatively warm waters, those on the eastern side are windswept and the waters are colder due to prevailing currents moving down the coast from the north.

Tokyo Metropolitan University doctoral student Sho Kadono noted that one of the settlements his team surveyed was called Tomarihama — which literally means “stay-the-night beach.” It was so called, he said, because in the past it was so isolated that by the time fishermen arrived there by boat, it would be better to stay the night than sail back to their home ports in the dark.

Nowadays, Tomarihama is linked to other settlements by a tightly winding inland road, but it still retains its air of seclusion. The village of 169 people who largely rely on fishing for their livelihood, is built in a tight valley opening onto just a narrow strip of flat coastal land that has been extended significantly by the construction of a concrete port.

The town’s seawall was more or less destroyed by the tsunami, meaning that its port facilities are now largely submerged at high tide. Also, 19 of the village’s 60 houses were damaged or destroyed.

“The most impressive thing I found when talking to the locals at Tomarihama was how focused they were on rebuilding their fishing industry,” said Kadono.

“They knew they needed to get their seawall rebuilt and so on, so we focused on what would be the next step in the process: rebuilding the village itself,” he said.

Kadono and his fellow students walked through the village and identified five areas of higher ground on which houses could be relocated.

“The locals were basically in agreement that 14 houses needed to be relocated,” Kadono said. “But, a lot of the residents are elderly, so they worried about climbing up and down every day.”

Some of the land the students suggested as relocation zones was privately owned. To circumvent this problem, Kadono and his fellow students recommended that the government should lease land from its owners, then rent it to the new occupants, who would be moving up from their own low-lying properties. Those new occupants would in turn rent their low-lying land to the national government. A similar arrangement was envisaged for realizing relocation plans in other settlements, too.

“One day we did a presentation to the locals and we’d drawn a diagram identifying some land we thought was good for relocation. Suddenly there was a shout from the floor: ‘Hey, that’s my land!’ Kadono recalled with a laugh. “The landowner was in the room, but he was good-natured about it and ended up saying, ‘If you need it for relocation, then so be it.’ “

While some of the Summer Camp proposals envisage relocation on a large scale, with wide areas of mountainous territory being cleared and leveled for relocation, others were more subtle.

Katsuhiro Miyamoto, a professor at Osaka City University, led a group of students to a village called Yoriisohama on the northeast of the peninsula. There, just over 60 of the 100 houses — all of them in the bottom of a small coastal valley — had been damaged or destroyed.

However, instead of relocating all those houses as a group, Miyamoto and his students managed to find slithers of flat land here and there among the houses that had been set further back in the valley on higher ground.

“We worked out that clearing and leveling land for house construction was going to cost about ¥30 million per plot,” he said. “So we tried to come up with a plan where such work would be kept to a minimum.”

Meanwhile, at a village called Ayukawahama on the peninsula’s south-east coast, students from the Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture took a different approach. Noting that several public facilities — sports grounds and so on — had been built on high land, while the majority of the village’s homes were on low-lying land (where many had suffered tsunami damage), the students created a plan that amounted to a giant land swap. Hence the sports grounds would go to the bottom of the valley, while the residences would go higher up.

For the relocated houses, the students even managed to create an arrangement of land plots so that most of them would have views of the ocean.

“Many of the locals have lived their lives being able to see the sea from their homes,” Onoda said, “so they appreciate relocation plans that allow them to retain ocean views.”

The Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture team went as far as to make plans for revitalizing industry in Ayukawahama, including projected tourism resources. Since the entire peninsula was suffering from depopulation and a lack of new industry long before the tsunami, their plan includes suggested locations for restaurants and accommodation facilities — each taking full advantage of views over the picturesque coastline.

Onoda and Tohoku Institute of Technology lecturer Shoko Fukuya, who is also one of the founding members of ArchiAid, told The Japan Times that architects are skilled at identifying not just the physical attributes of an area, but also its cultural, historic and aesthetic qualities.

“The students were able to take the time to talk to the locals about their needs and about what they wanted — whether it was more public halls, more tsunami evacuation routes, and so on,” said Fukuya. “They could also take into account such cultural considerations as the routes of festival processions as well.”

Onoda explained that the national government has sent teams of private-sector civil engineers to all the local governments of places affected by the tsunami, including Ishinomaki.

“The engineers are also working on redevelopment plans, but their expertise is in appraising the physical shape of the land and the structure of the land — Can you put a bridge here? Will the ground here support a seawall? — things like that,” Onoda said.

“We are adding another dimension to those aspects — one that really takes into consideration the lifestyles and hopes of the locals,” he continued.

Finally, in early August, all the plans produced during the ArchiAid summer camp were submitted to Ishinomaki City officials. Since then, those plans have been used by the national government-sponsored civil engineers along with the Ishinomaki officials who are now preparing the city’s final redevelopment plan. It should be complete by November.

“In theory, it should have been local government officials who went out and made the first contact with locals regarding plans for rebuilding, but with the amount of damage suffered in Ishinomaki it has been really difficult for us to conduct detailed interviews and surveys in all the affected areas,” explained Tomohiro Saito, from the Ishinomaki City redevelopment section. “So it was good that the architects and architecture students from ArchiAid could get that process started.”

Fukuya also reported that the city’s industry development section has expressed interest in talking further with ArchiAid about the area’s potential for tourism development.

Still, there is a long way to go before reconstruction plans are finalized. Just a fortnight ago, in fact, Miyagi Prefecture — in which Ishinomaki City is located — announced new rules dictating the minimum heights for seawalls and coastal levees. In some cases, levees of up to 10 meters are called for — much higher than many of the student teams deemed necessary.

“It’s an ongoing process,” explained Saito. “The prefecture will also be involved in the process of fine-tuning the redevelopment plan and working out which aspects can be done with the available budgets and so on.”

But, he added, “The students’ contribution is the foundation, and we’ll continue to work with them as we go.”

ArchiAid is currently holding a rotating exhibition of redevelopment proposals for the 30 settlements surveyed during July’s Summer Camp. The exhibition, at Shin Minatomura in Yokohama’s portside Shinko district, continues through Nov. 6. For more details, visit shinminatomura.com. Yasuaki Onoda is hosting a discussion titled “How to regenerate the hope of living after disasters” at the Union of International Architects’ World Congress of Architecture, which is being held in Tokyo this week. See www.uia2011tokyo.com for further details. Also, on Oct. 9, an international symposium titled “How Architectural Research and Education can contribute to the recovery from Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami” will be held at Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, with guests from the University of California, Los Angeles. For more details, visit the ArchiAid website at archiaid.org.