Architects of the future build a better understanding of 3/11

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

With the new year in sight and 2011 about to slip into the annals of history, the defining event of this year, the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, is now starting to recede into the distance. Though for those directly touched by the tragedy, it will of course always be present in the absence of homes or loved ones.

However, there is another group setting out to remember that terrible day — Japan’s architects.

These include the master-course students from several architectural firms who made the models featured in the latest exhibition at Toto Gallery Ma in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, where 14 of the many towns devastated by the earthquake and tsunami are being depicted.

Titled “311: LOST HOMES,” the exhibition is part of a drive to formulate a sustained response to the problems caused by the devastation. Its opening was marked by a major symposium on Nov. 2, “311: Starting Over From Point Zero,” which included many of Japan’s top architects and writers on architecture, among them Hiroshi Hara, Yasuaki Onoda, Jun Aoki, Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito; as well as the designer behind the Muji brand, Kenya Hara.

The exhibition has two aspects. The walls are adorned with various maps and graphics giving a concise, informational macro-picture of the tragedy. A large-scale map of Japan’s northeastern coastline is colored to show how far inland the tsunami reached, while the damage inflicted on each town along the littoral is presented using bare statistics.

I felt compelled to check Takahagi in northern Ibaraki, a coastal town where I once lived for about half a year. Less badly affected than places further north, this small town, relatively close to Tokyo (about two hours by train), had nevertheless seen 135 houses totally destroyed, 932 partially destroyed, and 3,838 partially damaged — figures that must include most of the houses there.

But while such data is arresting, as with other great tragedies of the past, statistics fail to fully engage the mind. More successful in this sense are the model recreations of parts of 14 of the worst-affected towns before they were destroyed. These models are accompanied by aerial photographs of before and after the disaster. Presenting a micro-picture, the models show how the towns used to look before tragedy struck.

“We want you to feel as if you are walking in the street,” the museum’s chief curator, Kumiko Ikada, says, gesturing at a model of Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture. “We would like to remind you that this was the real life of the residents, that they lived here and earned their incomes and brought up their children here.”

Faced by such models, you feel driven to think about the various issues raised by the disaster, and to consider ways in which such tragedy can be avoided in the future. In the case of Kesennuma, the fact that the city was not built on high ground suggests an obvious solution, but while elevation would provide greater safety, it also has its costs. Building on steep hills and mountains is expensive and, being a fishing city, it would also distance many of the residents from their livelihoods.

“They know how dangerous it is, but they have to earn their money from the sea, so to live on the coast is their priority,” Ikada comments. “They think about the danger in these terms: ‘It might happen or it might not happen during my lifetime.’ ”

Among the ideas that architects are considering to counter a future tsunami are the creation of wooded regions along the shore and excavating large pits or troughs to absorb some of the flood water, using the excavated soil to create strategically placed earthworks. Interestingly, one of the models is Arahama, part of Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture. Despite having a relatively thick swath of woodland along the shore, this town was badly devastated — implying that the best we can hope for in the case of extreme disaster is to make things marginally less terrible.

But there were also buildings in other areas that survived direct hits from the tsunami, and in these cases there are lessons to be learned.

The model of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture offers some interesting insights. Because of the threat of earthquakes, construction in Japan favors the use of wood and lighter materials. One of the reasons the tsunami proved so destructive was because these lighter buildings were easily swept away. However, while all the other buildings in Ishinomaki were destroyed, two buildings, which can be seen on the model at the exhibition, survived.

Though exposed to the full destructive force of the tsunami, the Ishinomori Manga Museum and the local Orthodox church remained standing. The museum’s round, streamlined shape seems to have played a role in deflecting the tsunami, while the church benefitted from its compact octagonal shape and sturdy stone construction. Ikada points out that both buildings have now become icons of the town’s reconstruction.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition that will challenge any visitor to think about the problems involved. But perhaps its most lasting effect will be on the architectural students who actually made the models, those who will be the architects of tomorrow.

“At first many of them thought they had no relation with this disaster because they had no relation with the area,” Ikada says. “But through the process of making the models they learned about it and studied it. Step by step, little by little, they started to think about what they can do to help the recovery and make future plans. They think it is our generation’s problem.”

“311: LOST HOMES” at Toto Gallery Ma runs till Dec. 24; admission free: open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.), closed Sun. and Mon. For more information, visit