Building social change after the earthquake

by

Special To The Japan Times

In 2011, the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami forced Japanese architects to rethink their understanding of architecture at a fundamental level — to consider closely society’s systems and the affect buildings had on not only the life of, but also the psyche of the people.

What role should architects play from now on? From what perspective should they envision the future? These were questions that inevitably brought into scope more focus on energy and environment.

“Architecture since 3.11″ at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, explores Japanese architectural trends that evolved after March 2011, introducing the endeavors of 25 architectural offices who continue to challenge and review the architect’s role. It includes an easy-to-assemble set of refugee-shelter partition curtains by Shigeru Ban; an emergency evacuation map designed by citizens in collaboration with volunteers from architectural design company Nikken Sekkei; and images of the Realtokyoestate, an estate agents that bridges the gap between architectural practice and property. Architectural historian Taro Igarashi and community designer Ryo Yamazaki, the exhibition’s two curators, explain the background to this unconventional architectural show.

Since March 2011, what do you think has been the most significant change in the general approach of architects?

Taro Igarashi: I would say that the focus of the architects shifted from designing forms to connecting to society.

In the past, after earthquakes struck, the architectural community addressed issues such as strengthening construction, enhanced fireproofing and increasing earthquake-resistance standards. But this time, it has started to pay a great deal of attention to social connections.

After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (1995), architects discovered that one of the problematic consequences was the number of people who died solitary deaths in temporary housing. They learned that we should pay attention to community. At an early stage after 3/11, many architects from outside Tohoku Prefecture went the affected areas to become involved with community problems. Those architects recognized the need to seriously consider a “software” approach that involved links between people, or connections between people and cities, rather than simply spending more money on making stronger “hardware” (rebuilding structures and reinforcing them).

Not only this, but the role of the architect is changing from designing forms to designing relationships. “Architecture since 3.11″ is focused on such new activities.

Ryo Yamazaki: I am based in Kansai, and after Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, few architects in Kansai were asked to design or plan the reconstruction projects. I suspect that architects were regarded as the people to approach for special flamboyant buildings, not for emergency structures needed after a disaster.

This (preconception) urged young architects in Kansai to play a more crucial role in society by tackling community problems; (there was a desire) to wipe out an image of architects that dates back to the bubble economy.

Why did the importance of social connections emerge after the Kobe earthquake of 1995?

TI: Following the bursting of the bubble economy — during which garish postmodern architecture had flourished — and amid Japan’s aging society and dwindling birth rate, a more austere mind-set was required regarding brand new buildings. The new generation of architects back then couldn’t achieve the same classic success stories of their elders simply by making avant-garde or monumental buildings. That, and an awareness of social issues, motivated them, and architects became proponents of those issues as they looked for their raison d’etre in society.

How are the ideas of such architects manifested?

RY: Their roles are diverse — from furniture design to working on communities that can help regenerate the depopulated regions. For this exhibition, Igarashi and I discussed and selected notable social architects and we split them into seven sections, according to their activities (which range from rebuilding, relief aid and energy resource concerns, to local collaborations and the architects new role in society).

The diversity demonstrated through those ideas and activities, shows that architects are incredible resources, full of specialist knowledge, ideas and skills.

Do you think iconic architecture, such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa — designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA — is still relevant today?

TI: This museum is still an excellent example of the power of architecture. It transformed the city and linked it with its community. In fact, I used to come here everyday. My junior high school used to be located here. Back then, the school was surrounded by fences, so I couldn’t see outside. I was astonished when I saw how this museum totally opened up the landscape of this site.