September 3rd, 2011
like everyone else we wanted to help with efforts to restore japan after the tohoku disaster. The question was how?
Being architects joining Architecture For Humanity seemed an obvious first step, and along with several others we have put together a Tokyo Chapter, and hopefully will have some interesting activities to report in the coming year. One thing that is becoming more and more clear however is that it will not be a short-term thing and we will be involved in the project for some time.
On that score the emergency phase of the disaster is coming to an end. The moratorium on new construction on the coast is expected to be lifted this month, after which Japan will begin its real reconstruction effort. Up until recently the only kind of work architects were officially allowed to do was temporary and even then the entire issue has been problematic.
One way that we have been able to get involved is to use the teaching platform that I have available to me from my position at Keio university. This year I was lucky enough to run a studio with Fumihiko Maki and Yasushi Ikeda aimed at building resiliency in Japan after the disaster. I have started a kind of blog at the archinect website that offers some highlights of the studio, and is probably going to be an ongoing project for the near future. It does not involve building things exactly (although i have hopes some of the projects will be done for real at some point), but has definitely been an education for us all. The issues are incredibly broad and will not be going away anytime soon.
I was also lucky to join professor Ikeda with a related project in kesennuma a few weeks ago. For those who don’t recall, Kesennuma is the city that had massive boats sitting in the streets, carried in on the massive wave that destroyed so many homes and lives.
Within the first month after the disaster Professor Ikeda went up north with a few professors from Keio and began a small project with the community that has a few too many faces and too many parts to outline here (I’ll try to cover it in another post), but involved being invited to contribute something for the O-bon festival this year. Since the university program we belong to is based on student involvement we ended up taking a dozen students up north to do a workshop with elementary school students – the intent being to give them a sense that after so much destruction they could be involved with building something with their own hands. I guess we also hoped the project might be a small symbol of the beginning of reconstruction. To put things in context the O-bon festival is held every year all over Japan to remember family ancestors and to visit the graves of the dead. Although it may sound a bit odd usually it is a holiday akin to christmas, a time for families to gather as children return home from all over the country, share meals, argue with siblings and cousins, play games, etc. Basically doing all the things families usually do when they get together after a long absence. This year though in Tohoko there were too many dead to be remembered so it was a sombre event more than a happy one.
In a way it was also cathartic, and I hope our small project offered some catharsis as well. We were very grateful to be invited to join in something so personal.
For the project the students made use of laser cutters to make a series of fish shapes (for this fishing community) that could be assembled even by children to create a series of arches. In the afternoon a group of elementary school students gathered to build the arches, and in the evening they hung LED candles and the arch became a part of the years festival. Because the community has been wiped out, at least on the coast, many of the people involved in the festival are living in temporary housing built on the school grounds, and the festival itself was also held at the school. It was a bit of an odd feeling for me, since I have been to many events like this and they are generally quite noisy and positive. Here though the organisers purposefully kept the celebration simple and minimal. It was the right choice and the event as a whole felt…significant. Not so much our part in it, but just the fact of gathering together to remember the dead and, in a way, to celebrate life. I can’t help but feel that in the face of disaster the best tool for ensuring resilience of a place and of a community is not the new buildings and the money being thrown at projects but rather the people themselves. Resilience maybe is more about attitude than a master plan.
The fish were signed with messages by supporters in tokyo who joined the students for a summer festival at Keio university earlier this year (you can read a bit more about this here at inhabitat.com). After the festival in Kesennuma was over we broke the fish arch apart and gave the pieces out to the folks who are now living in the temporary shelters. I’ll admit I was not sure how that would be received but in fact the community really embraced the project and they all wanted to have the signed fish to take home. It is a good thing to be reminded that in times of disaster it is not only the practical and the needful but also the symbolic and the heartfelt that make recovery possible.