When Richard Bliah visited Ishinomaki last August after the coastal city in Miyagi Prefecture was devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the veteran French architect was quite sure many residents lost not only family and friends but also the “network of people living in the same area” — and wanted those ties restored.
Bliah, who has lived in Tokyo for 37 years, said the survivors needed a place where they could gather again to rebuild their ties through communal activities and where they could think about their futures.
“The stress that you can accumulate when (members of a community) are spread out is massive,” he said, adding that everyone he met in Ishinomaki seemed willing to start a new life, and needed something to kick-start that dream.
Bliah’s answer to this need was to build a community house.
Since the disaster, he had a vague willingness to do something to support the people in Tohoku but was not sure what he could specifically do. His visit to Ishinomaki was triggered by a chance meeting in Tokyo with Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama. Immediately after his return he visited the mayor — who was still in Tokyo — to talk to him about his plan to build a community house for the affected residents.
The mayor was happy with his idea, saying people had been looking for that kind of place.
After nearly a year of planning and collecting donations, the community house, named Kokoro no Ie (Heart House) was constructed. It was donated to Ishinomaki, and the house opened to the public on July 2. An opening ceremony was held in June with 250 attendees, including local residents, French Ambassador Christian Masset, municipal officials and managers from local companies that contributed to the project.
“It was quite a joyful atmosphere. Many people there had lost their families and relatives, and friendships they had before. We believe that this house will be like a condenser to attract people again to meet together,” Bliah said.
The community house was built by Fondation Sakura du Chateau de Fere — a nonprofit organization that Bliah, together with Sen Genshitsu, the 15th grand master of the Ura Senke School of Tea, founded last October with the aim of promoting cultural exchanges between France and Japan. The Ishinomaki house was the first project by the group.
During the planning and building phases, the foundation held charity events and parties in France to collect donations for the project, and managed to receive donations from individuals and businesses from both France and Japan, including donations of building materials and solar panels from local firms in Ishinomaki.
“We have designed the house in such a way that it’s not just a house, but a place that could be used for different purposes. The building can accommodate many people — from children to adults — with different aims at the same time,” Bliah said.
The one-storied wooden building, built on a plot measuring 290 sq. meters, has six rooms — of which three can be opened up to make one big room — and can be used for various purposes, including cultural gatherings for adults and the elderly, and sports activities for children.
The foundation also hopes to organize cultural exchange activities between France and Japan at the community house. “We would also like to hold French cooking as well as speaking lessons at the community house,” Bliah said with a smile.
Bliah is president of its sister foundation in France that was established two years ago to promote cultural exchanges between the two nations. In France, the foundation has created an Asian garden, with a row of cherry trees, a tea house, noh theater and an open-air gallery at a chateau he owns that has been converted into a hotel.
Based on his experiences of living and working in Japan, Bliah said he found out that in general, most Japanese know many things about European or American culture, but on the contrary, French people tend to know less about Japanese culture.
“Of course they might know about manga or movies, but it’s a more limited understanding of the Japanese culture. I wanted to present a more universal language for the culture, so that’s why I decided to create this Asian garden. Nature is very universal,” he said.
Bliah also stressed that the Ishinomaki community house is eco-friendly, with an in-house power generation system using solar panels. Different energy-saving measures have been incorporated, including good insulation and air conditioning that operates by using thermal energy in the air.
“My idea was to create something that is not only ‘zero energy,’ but also ‘positive’ energy, meaning that it creates more energy than it consumes,” he said.
Bliah, 63, was born in Algeria and grew up in Paris and its suburbs. He came to Japan in 1975 with a scholarship for postgraduate studies in architecture and city planning at Waseda University.
“I’ve been here 35 years — maybe more. When you love (something), you lose count,” he said.
He said he originally planned on staying here for three years — allocating the first year to studying Japanese, including speaking, reading and writing skills. “I studied Japanese six hours every day. I spent the rest of the day with friends and girlfriends,” he said.
However, he got a job by chance at a leading construction company, and worked there for 18 months, after which he started his own architectural company in Tokyo.
“When you’re young, you think everything is possible. At that time, I thought if I succeed, OK. If not, I’ll just go back home,” he said.
Thanks to his optimism and positive attitude, the business picked up quite quickly, and during the bubble boom of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, they had offices in Australia, and projects in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong. The company built hotels in Japan and abroad, and a shopping center, institutions and boutiques in Tokyo.
At present, Bliah lives in Shibuya Ward with his French wife, who is a gynecologist practicing in Tokyo. Their three daughters live in different parts of the world.
“Japan is a country of rich culture and arts,” he said. “When we saw the images of destruction by the tsunami, we really wanted to make sure that this beauty (of the culture) will not disappear. I believe every foreigner here in Japan had compassion, and wanted to do something to help, be it small or big,” he said.
“I wanted to find a way to give back to the Japanese people who have so graciously accepted me throughout the years.”